Upon viewing Artship Olympia, a reminiscence of a favorite quotes came to mind. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael begins by telling us why he seeks comfort from the sea:
“Whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
Basically, in today’s terms: he “can’t even.” If familiar with the maritime story of a monomaniacal Captain Ahab hell-bent on catching a behemoth whale, and the jaded, cynical, original-hipster who survived to tell it, you may be able to relate to the exhibition: Artship Olympia. Located at Penn’s Landing, inside the historic Battleship Olympia, seventeen artists reinvent the interior of the oldest U.S. steel battleship still afloat. With installations inspiring both the evocative and provocative within, these artists address issues of globalization, military power trips, caste systems, as well as the romantically quixotic notions of life at sea.
Historically known as Battleship Olympia, the ship once reigned the ocean as “Queen of the Pacific.” Also known to be Commodore George Dewey’s flagship, the ship brought American victory during the Spanish-American War of 1898 in the Battle of Manila Bay, where Dewey’s famous 5:40AM quote, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley!” was immortalized. Decommissioned in 1922, the retired aquatic war-horse has since taken a backseat among Philadelphia’s many treasured destinations and went from being Queen to “Dowager of the Delaware”—until recently.
Organized by Philadelphia Sculptors and curated by Leslie Kaufman and Watsuki Harrington, the ship has taken great transformation into an art gallery, giving a whole new platform for artists to exhibit their work, and challenge (hopefully future) curators to create meaningful exhibitions while maintaining the ship’s historic integrity. Leslie Kaufman was the first to see this opportunity. “One of the things I look for is to find new locations where art hasn’t been before…I talked to the people of Independence Seaport Museum, who run the ship, and they [were] on board with the idea right away,” says Kaufman, Director of Artship and President of Philadelphia Sculptors. Envisioning a theme, Watsuki Harrington, Co-director of Artship, says, “[it is] a unique opportunity to appreciate naval history through the eyes of artists who are contemporaries like you and me. So they are working with cutting edge materials and dealing with themes that are truly inspired by the zeitgeist of our times.” With media ranging from installation, video projection, to interactive sculpture, the five invited artists and twelve juried artists of Artship, have paved a new popularity to the historic battleship.
Of the seventeen artists, I met with two of the selected artists on a humid July afternoon as they took me to on a tour of the exhibition: Cheryl Harper (an InLiquid Member), a multimedia artist and curator; along with Gerard Brown, a university professor, semiotics-based artist, and writer. Gerard and Cheryl walked me through all of the seventeen installations on the ship, and briefly spoke of their work. Throughout our walk, I would see Joan Menapace’s crocheted rats hidden in various areas of the ship, demonstrating the role of rodents onboard—in a much friendlier and disease-free form. I listened to the ocean floor’s songs sung by its echoing whales in William Chambers Listen to the Whales, on a vintage inspired listening device. Upon viewing the video installations, Lost Lovers/Lost Love by Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib spoke to me on a gut level as a Pepper’s Ghost projected silver lockets holding photos of military leaders and political dictators in place of sailors’ sweethearts.
Cheryl’s piece takes on a more comedic tone, although still making commentary on the class divide between sailors and captains, in her installation piece titled Officer’s Washroom: Reflections on Hirsute Hegemony. She tells me after having seen a photo of the dapper crisp uniforms worn by Olympia’s officers, she began to observe the rituals involved in dressing the part. Admiral Dewey’s fine white mustache is an ongoing theme in her installation, as 200 tiny moustache sculptures hang from the ceiling and are magnetized to the walls, flourished within a tiny vessel (meant as a parlour for admirals, equipped with fine products and valets to serve them). The room, entirely wrapped in mylar, is centered with a display of her handmade bottles of victorian-esque aftershave, hair tonic, moustache wax, and shaving soap. Another one of Menapace’s rats graces the interior of the installation. As an installation artist, and curator, Cheryl works with a lot of different media, and refers to many genres of art and culture in her work. “I’m at the point where i can pick any choice of media, and work with it…it takes a long time after a traditional education.”
Gerard’s piece, titled W-ZD (Stranger Wishes to Communicate), is a line of flags alongside the starboard exterior, with a textile of nautical codes meant to communicate with those passing the ship. They are encryptions of letters from people who served in the Philippine invasion. “It’s striking to me how their writing mirrored the writing of American soldiers who serve currently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wondering about the motives of the government, wondering what they’re doing, whether they’re serving the interests of democracy or large corporations,” We both grin in concurrence, “these were questions people were asking themselves in 1890s.”
Even the most well-versed in the International Code of Signals have yet to decode the message in Gerard’s piece. “It’s not too big of a secret where to find this stuff,” he says,”it’s just a lot of work—let’s see if anyone’s up for that.” He spoke of how unique of an opportunity it is to be part of the exhibition. “You’re painting nautical flags for two years, and then an historic ship has an exhibition. This only happens once in your lifetime.” When standing on the bow of the ship he points towards the spot where Captain Vernon Gridley historically awaited the order to fire, and tells me “one of the big reasons I did this,” he says, “if you stand right there, that is the place that made my family possible.” It is a touching moment as he tells me his wife is Filipino.
It’s been more than a century since Battleship Olympia has been at sea. With its new context, an entirely new chapter has been set for this rich dowager. So whenever your hypos gets the better half of you, refrain from knocking people’s hats off and take a trip to Artship Olympia for relief.
If you would like to take a tour of Artship Olympia, Leslie Kaufman and Watsuki Harrington will be hosting several tours during the month of September. Find more details here.