And every so often, the emperor would put on a piece of prime-time edutainment that rivaled anything the History Channel has ever produced: a nautical bloodbath called a naumachia, which pitted armies of prisoners in boats against each other in reenactments of historic naval battles. “It was kind of the ‘bread and circus,’” explains Duke Riley, an artist-in-residence at the Queens Museum Of Art. “But it always seemed to occur right around a point in time when society was about to fall apart.”
With America beset by two wars overseas and economic recession at home, Riley figured it was time to revive the debauchery of the Roman age. On Thursday, August 13, he will host a modern-day naumachia in a big reflecting pool near the Unisphere (the imposing globe sculpture) in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The spectacle will include lots of model ships and role-playing combatants waging war "with baguette swords and watermelon cannon balls."
Brawny and spread with tattoos, Riley is something of a renegade. He was arrested two years ago for taking on the Queen Mary 2 cruise liner in a single-seater Revolutionary War submarine that he built out of plywood and fiberglass. It was a profound reversal, as he saw it, of the British Siege on Long Island in 1776.
And then there's the fact that the props for his naumachia—the stands, the gladiators’ outfits, the boats themselves—have been built entirely out of refuse.
Using tons of reeds harvested from local beaches, chunks of Styrofoam pulled from the Flushing River, and junk salvaged from an abandoned ice-skating rink attached to the Queens Museum, Riley and a team of volunteers have built an impressive fleet of vessels that will be ceremoniously destroyed. Among them are a Peruvian catamaran, a gun-metal-grey battleship, replicas of the Staten Island Ferry and the Queen Mary 2 (“I had unfinished business,” Riley says), and a 30-foot-long Egyptian vessel with the fearsome head of a pointy-beaked bird affixed to the bow.
Over the past few months, Riley has been using the ice-skating rink as a construction space, all the while tearing the place apart and scouring for materials. A recent visit revealed a haphazard mess of useful materials, including broken palates, plastic bottles, fashion magazines, confetti, and the torn-up bottom half of a plush toy. Ceiling tiles have been painted to resemble the regal archways of the Roman Colosseum. Plastic hard hats have been affixed with colorful broom heads to make combat helmets. Bruised melons are rotting in preparation for their use as cannonballs and smashed heads.
During Roman times, prisoners set to engage in naumachia knew what they were in for, greeting the emperor with a resounding cry that Riley swiped for his spectacle's title: “Those who are about to die salute you!” But a big question hangs over the heads of this week’s combatants, consisting of teams representing different museums in Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. No real blood will be spilled, Riley insists, but he is vague about how exactly things will play out. “I have some idea of what’s going to happen, but not entirely,” he says.
The naumachia is on Thursday at 6 p.m. The event starts at the museum, then goes to live music at the Unisphere, and then proceeds to the reflecting pool for the battle. Dress code: Toga.
You can take a trolley from the Willets Point-Shea Stadium 7-train stop to the museum.
This article was published today on A.V. Club New York. Photos by Kitty Joe Sainte-Marie.