Dusk unfolds in several acts. It begins with a golden hour, and slowly progresses through gradations of diminishing light. There is a magic moment, somewhere between civil and nautical twilight, where the air changes and the twinkling lights of the city begin to look up towards the stars. It is in this particular moment, when your ears are tuned to the wind and your eyes begin to shift from day to night, that the artist Duke Riley reveals his largest and most ambitious project to-date, Fly By Night. With the keen timing of a conductor, this winged symphony weaves together the narrative threads of overlapping histories – a forgotten waterfront island, a creature we see daily in our landscape but rarely look at, and an artist who stands on a rooftop linking his past to his present in a swirling crescendo.
An explorer in the oldest sense of the word, Duke Riley fully immerses himself in worlds that have fallen off the map or remain firmly on the edge. Boat captain, draftsman, tattooist, sculptor, performer, instigator and taleteller are some of the many ways one could describe this New England born, Brooklyn-based artist. Whether building and launching a Revolutionary War-era submarine in New York Harbor in After the Battle of Brooklyn, or opening up a bar out of the ruins of a historic homesteader settlement on Plumb Island in The Dead Horse Inn, the nautical landscape and history of New York runs deep in Duke Riley’s veins.
Beyond his home along the East River, Riley’s investigation into nautical communities across the globe has taken him on journeys to Zhujiajiao, China to restage the Zodiac races of the Jade Emperor in The Rematch, and to East Africa to research seafaring communities. It was in his ongoing relationship with Cuba, where Riley has launched several projects, that he began directly working with a global character tied to his own personal history, the pigeon. A long-time pigeon fancier, in Trading with the Enemy Riley flew his birds turned smugglers from Havana to Key West, marking a key moment in his practice where feathered companions became professional collaborators. Now back home in Brooklyn, Fly By Night brings together the many tentacles of Riley’s practice, travels, and identities in an epic shoreline tale. In arguably one of the grandest public works in a long artistic dialog between man and nature, Riley pays tribute to a community and a creature he is intimately tied to.
As the oldest domesticated bird, the rock dove has been part of the human story for thousands of years. More commonly known as the pigeon, these delicate and talented creatures are deeply loved by the humans who raise them and widely misunderstood by their urban neighbors. The subject of poems, paintings, and films, the pigeon calls cities in every corner of the earth home. Letter carrier, spy, camera operator, educator, and soldier are just a few of the professions cited on the long resume of this often underestimated bird.
New York itself has a lengthy and complicated history with our winged partners through time. Neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs were once dotted with rooftop pigeon coops, or lofts. As development has increased, the ability for fanciers to keep their lofts amidst the increasingly common luxury condo has decreased. Less common now is the sight of rooftop flags and the sound of whistles calling flocks back home. Although pigeons are far from endangered, the pigeon fancier is an increasingly rarer breed in the landscape of New York City.
Pigeons also once patrolled the skies of New York as government workers. Avian soldiers have been trusted by military regiments throughout the world, and even awarded medals for exemplary service. Riley’s use of the phrase “fly by night” harkens back to the use of pigeons to transfer messages in the safe cover of nightfall — from biblical battles, to WWII operations, to modern-day acts of resistance. Here in the States, the largest pigeon coop in the U.S. Navy was once housed at Cob Dock, a now extinct island that sat at the center of Wallabout Bay in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Homing pigeons were loaded onto naval vessels and used as the key line of communication over great expanses of sea. With the advent of modern communication, both Cob Dock and the hard working pigeons of the Brooklyn Navy Yard are now a footnote in the archive of the City.
Duke Riley’s Fly By Night brings the rock dove back to the forefront of the New York story once again, assembling an unprecedented fleet of specially trained birds that pay homage to the inhabitants of Cob Dock over 100 years later. Housed on a former naval aircraft carrier once used to train helicopter pilots, this new flight crew made up of Homers, Flights, Rollers, Tumblers, Tipplers, and even the ancient Syrian Damascene (the artist’s favorite), are Riley’s winged collaborators taking to the skies above Wallabout Bay. Twirling, swooping, and gliding – together, apart, and together again – Riley orchestrates an unpredictable flying composition. Like the birds themselves, no two performances are the same. Lacing together old New York and new, Fly By Night asks us to stop, watch, listen, and revere this extraordinary creature that has shared the triumphs and tragedies of the human experience – uniting individuals, cultures, and generations of fanciers in a tale of both the ancient and modern city.
- Meredith Johnson, curator