Madman with a pigeon loft

Pushing the boundaries of art with Duke Riley


It’s a chilly February night, and the man in the suit is waiting. He paces his office, wearing ellipses in the plush carpet. Finally, he gets a call: The shipment has come through. The next day — 1,200 H. Upmann cigars safely squired away in his white house — President John F. Kennedy issues a formal embargo against Cuba, under a sanction known as the Trading with the Enemy Act.

Fast-forward 51 years to Key West, where the man with the camera is also waiting. A fleet of 50 emissaries was dispatched from Havana, a 90-mile flight away, half cradling precious cargo and half armed with cameras to document the journey. He squints into the sun, watching for gray wings and a hot pink strap. Eleven of the pigeons come home.

This is one half of the story told at 21c Museum Hotel’s latest lobby exhibit, “See You At the Finish Line,” featuring the work of American artist Duke Riley. The exhibit encompasses two projects, undertaken by Riley in 2012 and 2013. In the simplest terms, for “Trading with the Enemy,” Riley trained a flock of homing pigeons to fly from Havana to Key West, smuggling contraband Cohiba cigars across the stretch of water that links these two former sister cities. The other work on display, “The Rematch,” spins a decidedly different tale: a reimagining of the myth of the Chinese zodiac, complete with opera singers, sparkling headdresses, embroidered banners and live animals.

Riley is an artist who defies categorization, with works ranging from the aforementioned homing pigeons and water race to an attempted invasion by submarine of a ship in New York harbor, a journey along a prehistoric river below Cleveland, and the creation of a pop-up bar out of maritime salvage. To reduce these projects to blurbs is to deny their complexity and rich layers of historical and cultural resonance, yet in these neat summaries we begin to see the threads that tie the Mandarin arias to the pigeon portraits: a perceived responsibility to give voice to marginalized narratives, a naturalist’s approach to art and artifacts, and a deep abiding love for water. As Riley himself explains, “Throughout my projects, I profile the space where water meets the land, traditionally marking the periphery of urban society, what lies beyond rigid moral constructs, a sense of danger and possibility.”

• • •

I’m curled up next to my coffee table, by the window that gets the good cell reception, as Riley and I chat from two corners of Brooklyn: me from Bushwick, and him from Red Hook, where the Boston native settled after earning his bachelor’s degree in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design; he also holds a master’s degree in sculpture from the Pratt Institute. In his brash Boston accent, he tells me unironically that he has “a long history with pigeons.” It’s statements like this that led the Village Voice to say of him, “He is considered something of a madman,” yet these quirks also make him uniquely qualified to undertake the kind of engaging works that have brought him renown. He is doggedly determined in the pursuit of his art, even when, as in the case of the project that brought him to the Voice’s attention, he finds himself apprehended by authorities more inclined to see his invasion of Belmont Island — complete with the unfurling of a red flag as he proclaimed himself, in full view of the United Nations headquarters, to be a sovereign nation — as plain old trespassing rather than art. Amazingly, the crew of the machine gun-equipped Coast Guard boat did not place Riley under arrest.

It was during this same project, dubbed “Belmont Island (SMEACC),” that the artist/activist found himself grappling with another moniker: patriot. His website, which a friend designed in exchange for some ink (when he’s not staging a coup in New York harbor, Riley doubles as a tattoo artist), proclaims Riley to be an Artist/Patriot, a descriptor Riley attributes to one too many Sam Adams during the design process. He decided to let the joke stay, without giving much thought to its implications. It wasn’t until he was actually arrested (for attempting to board the Queen Mary II ship in New York harbor via a makeshift submarine, a project he dubbed “After the Battle of Brooklyn”), that the media sensation around his unlikely proclamation forced him to confront the issue.

“At the time, I didn’t really know if I was a patriot,” he recalls. “I certainly don’t consider myself a nationalist, and I think the word ‘patriot’ can often be misconstrued. But I started to spend a lot of time thinking about patriotism, and about how it relates to being an artist. Ultimately, I do think that I’m very patriotic. I think that exercising some of the actions that I do and pushing those boundaries is necessary for maintaining a healthy democracy. In a lot of ways, it’s the most patriotic gesture you can make.”

But back to the pigeons.

“It’s the kind of thing that’s usually passed down from generation to generation,” Riley explains. “In my case, I was just an animal lover as a kid. I found a wounded pigeon that I nursed back to health, and then it always returned to me after that. I kind of became obsessed with them; I sought out more information in books at the library, and from other people around Boston. I always thought about a project like (‘Trading with the Enemy’) as being feasible.”

Riley has a long-standing relationship with both Key West and Havana, often visiting the cities for projects, or pleasure. With government surveillance and drone technology becoming a bigger and bigger part of the national conversation about freedom, Riley saw an opportunity to address these issues, and “to subvert the system with very, very ancient means of communication.”

Ultimately the project, like all of Riley’s work, featured many components, each thoughtfully sourced and executed. He spent four years planning and eight months breeding and homing a kit of 50 pigeons in preparation for the mission. He built a loft, now the centerpiece of the 21c exhibit, out of salvaged materials; the back of the bright patchwork shack, which gives meaning to the term “ramshackle,” cheerfully declares “Shrimp Shack: Fresh Seafood Market and Grill, End of the Road on FISHBUSTERZ Docks” through layers of faded paint.

Riley named the pigeons after famous smugglers or film makers who had run-ins with the law and painted portraits of Sloppy Joe Russell, Lars Von Trier, Mel Gibson and others, each in proud profile like a bizarre set of avian trading cards. He constructed harnesses to hold the 25 smuggled cigars, as well as the 25 tiny video cameras, out of lingerie. And he saved every scrap of detritus — the receipts, the to-do lists, the hotel keys — to be archived and displayed as a testament to the journey.

Using bought and recycled shells, he constructed mosaics inspired by traditional sailors’ valentines, bearing wistful messages to loved ones left on shore: The example at 21c reads, “Forget Me Not When Far Away,” surrounded by speckled mandalas of yellow, teal and rose. Finally, after the mission was flown and the 11 survivors flapped their way back to home base, he encased the five triumphant cigars in resin, forever inscribing Pablo Escobar, Dynamite Johnny, Margaret Sanger, Pierre Lafitte and Lindsay Sandiford in the annals of pigeon smuggling history. In the exhibit, the cigars are accompanied by biographies of their infamous namesakes.

Together with video footage shot by Riley as well as by the pigeons themselves (not for the motion sickness-prone), this haphazard smorgasbord of objets d’art, spanning nearly a dozen media, tells the story of illicit trade and crossed boundaries, of strident individualism in the face of geopolitical maneuvering. The coffee-stained coasters and crumpled rental car receipts are laid out like artifacts, scraps of paper pinned down for posterity like butterfly wings. Context really is everything: The framing, both physical and conceptual, of the detritus of the event — an event that, admittedly, is not what comes to mind when most people think about “art” — transforms the flotsam and jetsam of a whacky undertaking into artifacts, pieces of history and of art. The recycling of materials, from the gingham and leopard-print bra straps delicately fashioned into what amounts to an elaborate pigeon fanny pack, to the shutters and video screens that sit atop the wheels of the pigeon hutch, reinforces the narrative that nothing here is simple or one-sided — just like the situation Riley seeks to confront.

• • •

The second half of the exhibit, “The Rematch,” takes us 7,000 miles away to a sleepy suburb of Shanghai, China. In a surprising reversal of his run-ins with federal authorities, in 2012 Riley was offered a grant from smARTpower, an initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, administered by the Bronx Museum of the Arts. The destination — Shanghai — was set, but aside from that and a 45-day window, the possibilities were endless. Knowing he would need to hit the ground running, Riley researched the region in preparation for his trip, and it was then that he stumbled upon the myth of the Chinese zodiac, and the impetus for his project.

According to legend, thousands of years ago the Jade Emperor decided to establish the zodiac in order to organize the measurement of time. He decreed that there would be a race among all the animals; the first 12 creatures to cross the river would each receive a year in the calendar. On the day of the race, the rat and the cat, neither of whom were strong swimmers, persuaded the gullible ox to give them a ride across. As the ox neared the opposite shore, the rat pushed the cat overboard, jumped off the ox and won the race alone. And so, according to the myth, this is why the cheating rat leads the zodiac, with the jilted ox coming second and the poor wet cat left off the list altogether.

Riley was entranced by the story, and by the ancient canals that crisscrossed the village of Zhujiajiao — once a proud offshoot of Shanghai dubbed the “Venice of the East,” now relegated to a sleepy suburb and popular day-trip destination for tourists staying in the city. “In the interest of fairness,” he decided to stage a rematch. And not just any rematch: the most multi-faceted, community-based endeavor he could possibly cram into his month-and-a-half visit.

“There was a lot of doubt on the part of the host organization,” Riley recalls. “I was told that what I was trying to do was way too ambitious considering the time frame, the language barrier, cultural barrier and everything else. But I was stuck on the idea, so I just went without really having an idea of a specific location or how I would go about it.”

A complex, collaborative project was born. Each of the zodiac animals would be represented either by live specimens or, in the case of some of the harder to locate characters (dragons these days are in short supply, even in China), by a human stand-in. Accompanying the animals on their rafts would be a local rower as well as an opera singer, each of whom would sing an original composition stating their case for why they should have won the first time around. The opera singers would wear masks depicting their animal personae. And finally, each boat would be adorned with a banner featuring the contestants; through a series of workshops, Riley had local 12-year-old schoolchildren draw their interpretations of the zodiac animals, which were then translated into silk embroidery by local artisans.

When asked before the race about the project’s intentions, Riley stated, “No calendars will be reset at the finish line, nor will any closer understanding of that mythical day be realized. The only realization will be a brief moment of divine absurdity between two shores.”

The day of the race dawned smoggy, as is typical of Shanghai, but Riley recalls a village buzzing with excitement as the residents, many of whom were collaborators on the project in one capacity or another, lined up on bridges and along the sides of the Caogang River to watch the spectacle. Riley recorded the race, in which the horse emerged victorious, and turned the footage into a film, which forms one component of the exhibition at 21c.

As with “Trading with the Enemy,” “The Rematch” as a work of art really consists of two parts: the event itself, and the subsequent translation of the event into a physical exhibition. In this case, the physical manifestation of that Shanghai afternoon largely consists of the masks worn by the opera singers. Displayed in glass cases, like trophies from some mythical hunting exhibition, the headdresses form a parade of contestants, each sequined face resting on a wooden base inscribed with the lyrics of their corresponding song in a mix of English and Mandarin characters.

In a side room, the film of the race plays on a loop. The room is dark, with a lonely wooden bench perched in the center with just enough room for two, and the floor is strewn with bright, multicolored lottery tickets. The confetti scraps provide a sharp contrast to the darkened room, giving it the air of an abandoned fairground after the carnival has come and gone. It also seems to embody the most interactive part of the exhibit: When I visited, previous patrons had rearranged the technicolor heaps to form hearts, smiley faces and shout-outs to Rob and Amy, apparently beloved by some past 21cer.

Finally, in a corner of the lobby, the pennants are proudly displayed. While the race might not have any effect on the zodiac celebrated on Chinese restaurant placements around the globe, here at least, the order has been updated. And so in one small corner of Kentucky, the horse enjoys its day in the sun.

• • •

As one of the city’s premier art museums, 21c excels at bringing to Louisville what museum director Alice Gray Stites terms “dynamic contemporary art that reflects and distills the human experience in the 21st century. We look for projects that illuminate the range of the human condition and of global society.” In this way, Riley seems like an obvious fit. For all his drunken escapades and seemingly harebrained stunts, he speaks eloquently about the deep responsibility of the artist to give voice to marginalized peoples and narratives, telling stories that otherwise do not get heard. It’s part of what attracts him to the water — the marginal spaces where so much of the history and secrets of a city dwell — and this proclivity in turn is a big part of why Stites thought Louisville, with its ties to the Falls of the Ohio and this here river valley, would be an ideal fit for the artist.

“He’s an artist that 21c has been watching for a number of years,” she explains. “We often curate a solo exhibition for an artist like Duke who’s kind of, what you’d call, mid-career: He’s not old enough to do a retrospective, but he’s certainly reached a stage of prominence and recognition where a solo museum exhibition is called for.”

But what sets Riley apart from what could be termed his peers is the sheer scope of his collaboration: with humans, animals, history, his environment, etc. What begins as a site-specific, large-scale collaborative investigation, as Stites describes it, is then translated into an exhibition that challenges viewers to confront the sociopolitical realities and historical narratives around them, as well as that essential, niggling question: What is art?

As I wrapped up my conversation with Riley, his phone inching toward death and a DMV appointment beckoning, I posed that question to him. When it comes down to it, which one is the art? Is “The Rematch” a community collaboration and maritime animal race on the eastern coast of China, or is it the masks and film and banners on display on the northern shore of Kentucky? Is “Trading with the Enemy” the flight of 50 homing pigeons bearing contraband Cubans from Havana to Key West, or is it the portraits, the mosaics, the glass display tables and the pigeon hutch perched just a few feet away from the splattered seagulls of Proof?

Riley laughed, unfazed by my impassioned queries. “Well,” he replied after a pause, “I think it really is both.”

“See You at the Finish Line” is on view in the lobby of 21c Museum Hotel until Sept. 7. “The Rematch” will remain on display in the video lounge until Jan. 1, while “Trading with the Enemy” will be transferred to the Brooklyn Museum for an exhibition titled “Crossing Brooklyn.” For more information, visit