For some, building sand castles is an act of leisure. For the artists who gathered at the 2nd annual Sand Castle Competition on Far Rockaway Beach in Queens on Friday afternoon, it was anything but.
Teams of contemporary artists and their assistants descended on the beach just after noon with the intensity and dedication of an Olympic team: there were game plans, sketches, elaborate props -- even costumes.
Each of the ten teams was allotted a large plot of sand, and allowed to stockpile sand and water before the competition began. Each artist came equipped with an elaborate concept -- but, as with any creative endeavor, an idea is only half the battle; execution here was the most important part of pulling off a great product.
And, these being artists, no one actually made a traditional sand castle. The artist David Brooks said that he was going to build the Tower of Babel out of sand, and produced drawings (and floor plans) of Pieter Bruegel The Elder's famous Renaissance painting of the mythical structure. Rachel Owens constructed a giant "sperm whale car," with a whale's head and tale and a cavernous seat in between (she brought her own steering wheel). Esperanza Mayobre and her teammates created a life-size raft tied together with rope made out of sand, which she crafted using silicon moles. The Venezuelan artist said that it was a commentary on immigration.
The exception to the "no castles" ethos was Duke Riley and his team, who created a sand replica of the Queens White Castle, complete with a drive-in window, miniature menu, Barbie dolls for customers, and seaweed shrubbery. The team wore White Castle t-shirts and hamburger masks and said they were sponsored by White Castle -- either the ultimate sign of the extent to which the corporate world has affected art, or a really smart way to get all of your supplies paid for.
The only rules were that artists couldn't use power tools. (Last year Tom Sachs brought a generator to "dig a hole to China.") The judges included MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, the actor/designer Waris Ahluwalia (who showed up on the beach in a crisp white suit and matching white Birkenstocks), the curator and collector Dana Farouki, and 2012's artist winners, Jen Catron and Paul Outlaw, who wore matching gold bathing suits and "Champion belts."
"It needs to really blow us away," said Catron of what she was looking for in a winning design. Then, she said, jokingly, "Something that's worthy of MoMA." Added Outlaw: "Just because you're at the beach doesn't mean you can't blow our minds."
Being at the whim of Mother Nature, there were, of course, a few disasters. The artist Marc Andre Robinson began by building a wooden contraption filled with sand that resembled a throne. But when the wood was removed, it collapsed into a pile. (He recovered by smoothing the pile into a shark's head and adding eyes and teeth.)
Some went for designs that were more subtle and thought-provoking, such as that of Chilean artist Sebastian Errazuriz, who chose to reflect on the beach's proximity to John F. Kennedy Airport -- and the fact that beach-goers are constantly in the shadows of departing planes. He crafted an outline of an airplane and filled it with water so it darkened like a shadow. Others opted for more over-the-top creations: Brooks, who had said he was constructing the Tower of Babel, really just hired two mimes who dressed alike and, while he worked at constructing the building's foundation alongside a partner, kept ruining the work. It was an elaborate, pre-planned Sisyphean task.
The artists Lauren Was and Adam Eckstrom of the group Ghost of a Dream created a life-size "trophy," building a box of sand and then dressing up in gold outfits to resemble the figures on an award. "We are in a sand castle building competition, and we decided to BE the trophy," one member of the team said.
The crowd-pleaser of the event, however, was undoubtedly Christopher Robbins, who created a life-size "Pancake-Making Machine," a riff on the childhood pastime of making pancakes out of sand. One person shoveled sand onto a frying pan, transported it to someone who added water, put it into a "magic box" where it was exchanged for real pancakes (which Robbins had brought with him) and then pulled on a giant lever, which Robbins used to lob the pancakes into a crowd of screaming children.
"We are not comparing ourselves to Jesus," he said. "He turned water into wine. We're just turning sand into pancakes."
After much deliberation from the judges, a winner was announced: the artist Jamie Isenstein, who had been a dark horse throughout the competition. She had created three columns of sand a few feet off the ground (by having two assistants stomp on sand and water for hours to compact the sand.) Atop one column she put a clump of ice, on another there were bubbles, and on a third she put a man in a pair of jean shorts playing George Michael on the saxophone. The meaning was unclear.
One eight-year-old child in the crowd asked, "What is that?" Replied the friend, "I don't know, but it sure isn't a sand castle.