Patti Smith usually spends her birthday, December 30, playing cathartic rock at the Bowery Ballroom. But to mark her 66th, destruction made her do differently: she day-tripped to Rockaway Beach, the peninsula jutting off Queens she started visiting in the 70s with Robert Mapplethorpe and where she had bought a bungalow/writing retreat three weeks before Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Atlantic shore. There, she had hoped to work on the sequel to Just Kids (one of my top five favorite books). On her birthday, Smith found the house still standing, but with 5 feet of standing saltwater. Still, she felt fortunate: most of her neighbors had lost everything in the flood and fires.
That December day, Smith assessed the damage and began the long process of recovery. As did every resident of the Rockaways. To honor their efforts and to celebrate the reopening of Fort Tilden park, she has organized a public art festival Rockaway! with friend, fellow Rockaway Beach bastion and MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach. The site-specific project starts Sunday and runs through September 1 with a star-studded opener featuring a poetry reading by James Franco and a spoken-word performance by Smith, and a suite of ongoing exhibitions: an immersive sound piece by Janet Cardiff, a seashore sculpture by Argentine artist Adrián Villar Rojas and satellite shows at Rockaway Beach Surf Club. I plan to go and tour the installations, all while staying at the new Playland Motel and making a routine of visiting Rockaway Taco, a trailblazing destination for weekend pilgrims.
Top of my itinerary is visiting Smith’s inspired transformation of a former auto warehouse into a site-specific installation, “The Resilience of the Dreamer.” In the center of the decrepit space stands a gilded four-poster bed, encircled in gossamer white fabric floating down from the ceiling, and a curated ring of rubble. For Smith, the piece channels the emotional significance wrapped up in a bed and ripped off by Sandy as the hurricane laid bare the domestic lives of Rockaway residents. Reclaiming ruin, “The Resilience” bed welcomes its exposure to the elements, its gradual transformation amid structural decay.
“I’ve slept in beds like that in my travels,” Smith says in a New York Times video. “I don’t own such a bed myself. I’ve had beautiful dreams sleeping in subway cars. It’s like a fairy tale that’s a gift to our neighbors. It’s saluting their resilience. It’s not an answer. It’s not going to really help them in any practical way. But at least, I’m hoping, they’ll know that they’ve been thought of.”