Tracking a Voyage of 600 Feet
By MATTHEW MIRAPAUL
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
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
"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
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
"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