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Delight: Over thiry years after its conception, Robert Smithson's floating island becomes a reality.

Last September, New Yorkers were treated to the surreal spectacle of a re-imagined fragment of the Isle of Manhattan drifting languidly around the Hudson and East Rivers. Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan was conceived in 1970 by American artist Robert Smithson but never realised in his lifetime. Thirty five years later, to coincide with a major retrospective of his oeuvre at the Whitney Museum, Smithson's miniature island finally and dramatically set sail.

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Best known for Spiral Jetty, a monumental curlicue of basalt extending into Utah's Great Salt Lake, Smithson was a radical who enjoyed musing on nature and the cosmos. He revered Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park, and this project for a barge of vegetation towed around Manhattan by tugboat can be seen as a kind of homage to his nineteenth-century land art predecessor. As Central Park is, in effect, an artificial model of nature, so the floating island is an artificial model of Central Park.

More prosaically, realising the project so long after Smithson's death raised various practical and logistical problems (choice of shrubs and trees, what sort of barge, how to construct it, jumping through the hoops of city, federal and port authorities). Smithson left only a rudimentary sketch of the proposed topography and landscape, so had to be creatively second guessed on several issues, though he did specify the presence of a weeping willow and moss just so on a particular boulder. In all there are 10 trees (including maples, ash, beech, burr oak and the obligatory willow) and three rocks of Manhattan schist (borrowed from Central Park). Together with assorted shrubs, grass and earth, the landscape is artfully arranged and anchored on a 90 x 30ft flat decked barge.

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Some critics thought it a little too well manicured, comparing it to a big floating window box, but the effect of a slab of lush greenery gliding past the arid concrete jungle of Manhattan will doubtless endure in the memory of those fortunate enough to witness it. Smithson himself lived near the waterfront so the project was also a speculation about the changing nature of the island city. At the end of its brief tour the various landscape elements were replanted in Central Park, so a small piece of Smithson is now physically and symbolically merged forever with Olmsted.
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Title Annotation:Spiral Jetty
Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
Words:390
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