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Duke Riley tells the history of people and places on society's margins


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(Courtesy Duke Riley)

Artist Duke Riley has made a career out of reimagining and reconstructing obscure episodes in American history. Riley's past work includes organizing a mock Roman naval battle, investigating Great Depression-era serial murders at a hobo camp in Cleveland, and paddling a replica of a Revolutionary War submarine toward the cruise ship Queen Mary 2, getting close enough to be arrested by the Coast Guard. His most archaeological work is Reclaiming the Lost Kingdom of Laird, which reconstructs the history of a 400-acre island in the Delaware River. Riley's research showed that an Irish immigrant named Ralston Laird moved to the island in 1851 to start a farm. Laird was affectionately nicknamed "King," and Riley's work tells the family's story as if they were royalty using mosaics, paintings, and a series of commemorative plates. The project was included in Riley's recent exhibition at the Magnan Metz Gallery in New York. Riley spoke with senior editor Zach Zorich about discovering the culture of waterfronts and transient people.

What draws you to small islands and abandoned beach areas as subjects for your work?

There are several different reasons. When I get invited someplace to do a project it's usually dealing with things that get lost in history and applying them to contemporary sociopolitical issues. Usually when you think about any city, the reason that they appear where they appear is the waterways. From my experience on some of the projects I've done, in New York and elsewhere, there is something about islands. We have so many associations with them in our culture as far as being these romanticized, exotified places. Weird stuff just really always seems to happen on islands.

What was the impetus for creating the Lost Kingdom of Laird project?

I got asked to do a project down in Philadelphia and I ended up just looking at maps, studying the waterfront to see how it had changed, and reading about Petty's Island. That's when I stumbled across Ralston Laird. And, using the Internet and other means, I managed to track down the family members.

What makes Ralston Laird an important historical figure?

That's a good question...

Or, is he important?

The thing with these projects is that I'm heightening the importance of somebody who was obviously not considered important. There was an entire community that existed on Petty's Island and eventually was displaced because what was important was building an oil storage facility. From what I've learned about him, he seemed like an important person in that community and he really helped out a lot of people. He was this guy who came over here as a struggling immigrant and cut out a new life for himself by setting up this farm and helping out a bunch of other people on that island. So, in that sense he is important. It is very much a quintessential story of what we as Americans claim to be all about. The other element is that what we really are about is what destroyed that community.

You mean the oil?

Not necessarily the oil itself. There were people who basically had every right to be on the island, but were forced off of it by some major players, major corporations who wanted it.

Do you view yourself as a documentarian?

Not really. I pretty much just view myself as an artist. When I first started doing these projects I went out exploring New York's East River in a boat and started seeing a lot of people who were carving out these different lives, in a lot of ways similar to Ralston Laird. I became interested in that and I was watching it disappear as fast as I was experiencing it. There were people living this whole other sort of existence within the city that was completely separate. The whole transient culture is being strangled out of existence, but it is important for maintaining the healthy flow of ideas and the tolerance that comes from that. I felt like I wanted to document it, but I didn't want to make a documentary.

What is missing from the way our society constructs history?

People don't always look at things that happen in the immediate past as important. They have a hard time acknowledging the significance of things until they are old. So a lot of things and places get destroyed, and people have no idea what they are destroying. I think it's hard for people to realize the significance of something that existed within their own lifetime or their parents' lifetimes. That's something I wish people considered more.

What role should an artist play in constructing history?

People look at the role of the artist as someone who lives within society and steps outside of it to make observations. In a lot of ways, that is very similar to the process of an archaeologist. I am looking at something in the present and examining it the same way you would interpret artifacts and try to understand how people were thinking in the past.

Your work takes on these serious subjects in a way that isn't serious. How do you use humor as an artistic tool?

When you have an element of humor it makes it easier for people to engage the subject, especially if you're talking about something that is serious. It allows people to feel more comfortable. But partially it is just the nature of my personality. A lot of the work is truthfully based on what I was saying about people's relationship to waterways and the way cities developed. But, a lot of it is as it is just 'cause I want to have fun, and I want to be on the water myself.

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