From The New York Times On-Line
The Arts @ Large
September 24, 1998


Tracking a Voyage of 600 Feet

Ward Shelley's latest work is quite a departure for him. In fact, he left Saturday.
Atop the Voyage Platform, a wooden deck that sits 10 feet off the ground, Shelley, a New York sculptor, and two compatriots have embarked on a week-long journey that will take them across the art-laden terrain of the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens -- a distance of about 600 feet.
The trio will stay on the 120-square-foot platform until their mission is completed. They move the stilt-legged structure by disassembling the back section and rebuilding it in the front. As of Wednesday morning, they had passed the halfway point.
"They're sort of leapfrogging across the park," explained Kathleen Gilrain, the director of the 4.5-acre outdoor museum on the banks of the East River, which boasts an expansive view of the Manhattan skyline.
Like so many modern-day adventurers who document their travels with electronic postings from exotic locales, Shelley is chronicling the voyage online, the small-scale nature of his trip unintentionally mocking the tedious travelogues that clog the Web. His equipment is appropriately low-tech: with a cellular telephone, he calls a friend with brief reports, which are then added to the project's Web site.
"We realized that not that many people are going to see us do this, and that the main thing was to tell the story," Shelley said in a telephone interview Tuesday. When the trip is done, he said, the team intends to expand the Web site with a more complete account.
Shelley and his collaborator, William R. Kaizen, a Web-savvy Brooklyn artist, describe the Voyage Platform project as "an expedition into the unknown, within the familiar." Part sculpture, part performance, the work encourages viewers to reconsider the notion of statuary as static objects.
"It's a beautiful piece," said Simon Lee, the park's education director. "It's actually quite a complicated piece of work. It's about space. It's about crossing space. It's about traversing the park, about navigating through the sculptures to get from one side to the other."


The project also differs considerably from Shelley's recent pieces, which are mostly mechanical sculptures. When the park approached him in January, he was already mulling a new, less literal approach to his art.
Shelley felt he needed "to change some modus operandi in my sculpture, which had always been to have an idea and then try to illustrate the idea.
"Say I wanted to do a sad person; I would try and draw a sad person," he said. "I decided what we needed to do was come up with an action that a sculpture would result from."
Shelley was inspired by Ole Olaussen, a Norwegian expeditionist and writer who took the sculptor on a mountain-climbing trip last year. He recalled: "I decided we should do something that was a bit more like the mountain-climbing adventure, that had this goal you tried to reach. I tried to think what you could do with the park, and this just popped into my mind."
The Socrates selection committee approved the project, and Shelley, Kaizen and Olaussen, who became the team's third member, began conceptualizing in earnest. They developed the platform's architecture with a computer-aided design program and, modeling themselves on the Challengers of the Unknown, a 1950's comic-book quartet, exchanged character profiles via e-mail messages.
Matching the lineup of the vintage comic book's everyday heroes, Shelley is a redhead, Kaizen has brown hair and Olaussen is a blond. "Roy" is the fourth member of the party, a human-sized figure sporting an Elvis Presley wig.
"I couldn't find a black-haired guy to do it with us, so we made a dummy for him," Shelley explained. "You can see we had too much time to plan this."
The Voyage Platform is a contemporary version of Kon-Tiki, the balsa-wood raft that another Norwegian, the explorer Thor Heyerdahl, sailed from Peru to Polynesia in 1947.
But since the team set out on Saturday, its greatest challenge has been not the Pacific but the park's drainage ditch. The structure is designed for relatively flat terrain, and the crew disagreed over the best technique for bridging the shallow valley.
"It got tense," Shelley admitted, but his solution won out. "It's just because I'm older."
The team has also had to alter its southerly route to accommodate the park's new exhibition, which opened on Sunday. "They put a lot of sculpture in this park that we hadn't planned on," Shelley said. "We have to make a lot of turns, and this thing is really designed to go straight."
Unlike the resilient individuals who strive to set new roller-coaster and kissing-contest records, the Voyage Platform crew gets no five-minute breaks, although a catwalk under the deck affords a small measure of privacy.
Shelley is an experienced sailor, so he is accustomed to packing for extended journeys away from land. Dinner on Monday was chili and rice. There are tents for sleeping, and a tripod rigged with motion-sensing devices alerts the crew to nighttime intruders. So far, only a dog and a lightning storm have triggered the warning system.
As the trio learns the ropes, they have stepped up their pace. Kaizen is insisting that they will reach their goal by sundown Friday. Shelley said, "We're working hard to increase our speed. It's become more athletic, more competitive."
When the trip is done, the crew would like to saw off some of the stilts and leave the platform behind, listing at a severe angle, as a sculptural reminder of the journey -- a proposal the park's safety experts have yet to approve since local children are likely to want to clamber on it, as they do the site's 50 other pieces.
Long Island City is an ethnically diverse community and the park, an illegal dump site that the sculptor Mark di Suvero reclaimed for art in 1985, is visited regularly by residents of a nearby low-income housing project.
"There's a high degree of fascination from the local community about what [Shelley's] doing, especially from kids, where it's a little bit magic," Lee said. "Here are these grown-ups who are behaving like kids. They're getting a lot of attention."
Shelley said neighborhood visitors all ask the same thing: "Are you really not coming down?" He gives a straightforward response: "This is like a raft on stilts, and we're building it across the park. We're living here while we do it. We're not coming down."
"Sometimes they have to ask the question twice, but this is New York, so people are used to weird things. Most people seem to be really tickled by the idea," he said.
Shelley continued, "America got to the point in the 70's that they understood this idea of doing something hard to do, and people like this kind of athletic effort. It's not that much different from being Sammy Sosa. We're not breaking any records, but they apply the same sensibilities to us."