Dead Horse Bay: The Glass Graveyard of Brooklyn

February 1st – March 26th, 2017
Events, Exhibitions

Curated by Allison C. Meier

Opening reception: Wednesday, February 1st from 6-9pm.

On view: February 1- March 26, 2017

Exhbiting artists include: Nicole Antebi, Gerard Barbot, Alex Branch, Yael Eban, David Horvitz, Nathan Kensinger, Jackie Mock, Rose Nestler, Rachel Owens, Amanda Patenaude, Anna Riley, Mark Splatter, and Brett Swenson

It is easy to forget Dead Horse Bay exists. Cradled by a slender curve of shore on the southern edge of Brooklyn, between Marine Park and Jamaica Bay, it is sequestered from the rest of New York City. Except every aspect of this place is embedded with the city’s history, from its topography shaped through midcentury eminent domain by Robert Moses, to its name referencing the horse rendering plants that were among many unsavory businesses disrupting its ecology in the 19th century. And then there’s the trash strewn on its beach, where everything not decomposed since the landfill beneath burst open in the 1950s is slowly revealed by the waves.

When walking the shore of Dead Horse Bay, you soon hear the clinking of glass bottles as the Atlantic Ocean laps against the sand. On the beach, there is glass of all varieties, from amber bleach jugs, to delicate and clear perfume containers, to green soda bottles and blue medical jars. Perhaps nowhere else in the city is the connection of glass to our daily lives so evident, as in this litter of lives lived decades ago. 

Dead Horse Bay is essential to explore now, as it is a site of disparate tensions. There are the plants and animals attempting to live alongside the visible pollution, and the consideration of greater planetary concerns with climate change and rising currents, which could submerge this strange place. And there’s the conflict between artists who use this as a resource and inspiration, and those who see it as protected as any federally-controlled park, even if it’s toxic garbage. 

In a city so dense, so developed, there remain overlooked outskirts, unpleasant and ignored, yet with the power to tell so much about history and our individual impacts on the world. Now our trash is mostly whisked away from the city, seemingly vanishing; here is evidence that it does not disappear. As an exhibition theme, Dead Horse Bay offers a chance to examine the reuse of glass, the legacy of glassware in consumer goods, and how the sonic and tactile experience with its glass, in all its ocean-washed colors, can be an unexpected muse. 

In Nicole Antebi’s film The Beach That Speaks, Brian Thill reads from his 2015 book Waste: “There is no human-made object so well-traveled, so ambient, as waste. It fills the oceans and the highest peaks.” Shapes and ghostly words from glass shards found at this city edge assemble and fade in Antebi’s stop-motion animation, collaged relics of a waterfront that, likely, will someday be gone. While in its arrested state, there is a tidal pulse of the past and present. In David Horvitz’s luminous Untitled (Dead Horse Bay) series, pebbles of sea glass are remelted and hand-blown into new vessels, based on his watercolor sketches. Bits of bottles, fishing floats, windows, and other unnamed objects morphed into structures that, due to varying molecular structures, will expand and contract, likely cracking or needing future repairs.

Brett Swenson’s Hydrophile is also transforming during the exhibition. A pair of Dead Horse Bay spark plugs, conjoined by their oxidation, are encased by a scale cube in a slab of plaster. Above, in a fish tank, is a hydrophilic polyurethane cast, a looming doppelgänger of the spark plugs. When in water, these casts enlarge by around 160%. This version is the third cast in Swenson’s process. Throughout this exhibition, it will gradually grow, pressing against the tank, becoming more translucent. This reengineering of composition is present in Anna Riley’s conversion of one of the most common consumer materials at Dead Horse Bay: brown glass. In her practice, Riley delves into the color chemistry of glass by decolorizing “amber” glass into something transparent, giving it the clarity usually associated with the word “glass.” As she works towards this alteration, she undermines the material’s original utility, where the brown color was a protective design to minimize the entry of light into the bottle.

Another alchemy is suggested by Jackie Mock’s Love Potion, a handmade cabinet with a door recycled from an antique clock, containing salvaged bottles with ingredients for an ancient romantic recipe. She states that her work “is about collecting with a 19th-century sensibility,” the miniature wunderkammer reclaiming these Dead Horse Bay bottles as reliquaries for an obscure Druid love charm. Similarly, Mark Splatter recalls historic collecting through his tributes to the 18th-century preservation techniques of Dutch physician Frederik Ruysch, remembered for allegorical dioramas of anatomy. Splatter’s Irwin holds a bluntnose stingray, an animal indigenous to Jamaica Bay, found deceased at Dead Horse Bay; Seahorse includes a suspended hippocampus, not native to the area, but threatened by pollution and non-sustainable harvesting. Both pieces, along with Splatter’s Dead Horse Bay Assemblage No. 1, are shrines of debris, mingled with horse bones and mussel shells. He notes that, “Although arranged by hand, this configuration could just as easily have occurred naturally with the action of the wind and tides.”

In Yael Eban’s series Dead Horse Bay Studies, the lens-based artist considers these enigmatic meetings of detritus. Blue and white porcelain fragments unearthed at the bay are rearranged and scanned, the light catching their curves and leaving digital traces. “The new compositions are uncanny hybridizations, harmonious expressions of the Sisyphean task of putting together a broken puzzle that will never fit perfectly,” she says. Much serendipity likewise is in Gerard Barbot’s art, formed from his frequent wanders at Dead Horse Bay to rediscover its histories. A woman’s face emerges from a cracked façade, and he remarks: “Is she eroding away or is she being born? I see her as a siren calling me back to Dead Horse Bay.” There is something of that siren song in Alex Branch’s Concussive Idiophone. The musical instrument is built from glass bottles, utensils, and sea water collected at Dead Horse Bay. The bottles vibrate when hit by bent utensils; the water, held in the bottles at different levels, responds with various pitches and notes. 

In one of Nathan Kensinger’s Dead Horse Bay photographs, seawater and some plant growth is murkily seen in a bottle, an image captured in 2006. For the past decade, Kensinger has documented the evolution of Brooklyn’s post-industrial waterfront. Among his earliest photo essays was a 2008 portrait of this beach. “I became fascinated by how the entire area revealed the layers of human interference in nature in such a unique way,” he states. He points out that although foot traffic has increased, it remains a striking visual of New York City’s environmental destruction. Now, the ecology of these places is often one of invasive plants. Rachel Owens’s recycled glass and resin cast of a tree was made from a labor-intensive mold of such a plant. Known as the “Tree of Heaven” in its native China, here in New York it is the “Brooklyn Weed.” It only lives 40 to 60 years, brief in arboreal years — another tree Owens cast is the 400-year-old “Alley Pond Giant” in Queens. Nevertheless, this “weed” thrives almost anywhere. “They are often seen growing in cement lots, up through chain link fences, and even in the upper stories of abandoned buildings,” she states.

A sense of the invitation and danger of off-the-grid sites appears in Rose Nestler’s Protectorate, where an undulating pattern of found glass on the floor is protected from visitor feet by a blue velvet shell. Overhead, her hanging Net with Blockage/Extrusion involves a lattice of blue borosilicate glass rods, a color reminiscent of sea glass, with the form inspired by a fishing net, but suggesting a vertebrae or unidentified carcass. “While I spent more time with it, I was compelled to stick something inside of it or have something spill out of it,” she explains. “The banana/tube serves as a slightly humorous blockage as well an extrusion.”

Dead Horse Bay is an industrial scar, a landfill, and a surreal trash beach, yet it was once a small community. Amanda Patenaude’s Welcome to Barren Island installation resurrects that memory with sand and remnants, its cartography based on photographs, maps, and written accounts from the last living descendants of the salty marsh dwellers. “I reimagined the island’s geography as a child might remember a far-off land,” she states, her tiny sand castle structures conveying the “narrative wonder surrounding this historic site” and “tidal gentrification of perishable communities.” These inhabitants were evicted in the late 1930s, and Barren Island no longer exists, thanks to 1926 landfilling for the adjacent Floyd Bennett Field. Following this exhibition, Patenaude’s tiny island will return to its shores, where the tides will reclaim and consume the lost landscape.

About the curator: Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focusing on the arts and overlooked history. Currently, she is staff writer at Hyperallergic, and moonlights as a cemetery tour guide at New York burial grounds. She’s also worked as the senior editor at Atlas Obscura and has published stories for the New York Times, Art DeskARTNewsNarrative.lyBrooklyn Based, the Oklahoma Gazette, Oklahoma Today MagazineBust, and others.

Image credit: Triple Canopy and Phoebe d'Heurle

Event Schedule
February 1st – March 26th, 2017
Agnes Varis Art Center
647 Fulton St
Brooklyn, NY 11217