Portal to the Past: The History of Pier 54

Hudson River Park’s Pier 54, located off 11 th Avenue. Photo by Liz Ligon

A skeletal steel archway adorned with ghostly lettering across its central beam stands at the entrance to the vacant Pier 54 in New York’s harbor. Currently a gateway to an expanse of concrete, the arch once existed as part of a larger piershed built at the turn of the 20th century. The iron relic, built in 1907, greeted survivors from the RMSTitanic in 1912; accommodated the RMS Lusitania before its disastrous torpedoing in 1915, hosted luxury cruise liners throughout the 1930s, docked naval ships during World War II, and housed freight operators through the 1950s. Though its walls have long since crumbled, this bastion of New York’s waterfront history serves as a portal to the past.

Chelsea Piers and the RMS Lusitania around 1910. Photo from Wikicommons

The RMS Carpathia at Pier 54 after it rescued survivors from the RMS Titanic. Photo from Wikicommons

During this past summer, the disused pier served as the inspiration and backdrop for High Line Art’s exhibition  Pier 54. The exhibition was conceived as a tribute to and a reaction against Pier 18, a legendary project organized by artist and curator Willoughby Sharp in 1971. The project was both a reflection of the pier’s history and a contemplation of what it had become in the recent years – an open-air playground for the West Side’s marginalized, underground populations.

Pier 18 was staged as a sequence of projects by 27 artists – including Vito Acconci, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Richard Serra, among others – who responded to the pier in various iterations. Some enacted an action or event, created a sculpture or installation, or sent simple instructions to be realized by someone else. Each project was documented by the photographic duo Shunk-Kender and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in succession, creating the visual aesthetic of a film-strip. Reflecting the largely gender-biased art world at the time, all 27 artists were male.

The steel archway of Pier 54, bearing the name of the former British shipping line Cunard-White Star. Photo byLiz Ligon

Though the steel archway remains, much has changed around Pier 54. It is now part of Hudson River Park, a 550-acre riverside park and estuarine sanctuary. A neighborhood that was once deemed “dangerous” is now a bustling center of renewal and growth. The 27 artists of Pier 54 have all realized projects that respond to the location, as it is now, and engage with its storied history.

The original Pier 18 actions were never meant to be public performances: the various events and interventions were only staged for the camera and exist as a series of black-and-white photographs. The actions were recorded in a sequence of photographs to suggest the durational quality of these projects. Similarly, the events on Pier 54 were not open to the public, aside from unsuspecting passersby. At times invisible, other times raucous and subtly aggressive, the works and actions formingPier 54were captured by photographer Liz Ligon as a series of black-and-white photographic documentations, turning the actions themselves into a mysterious presence hidden in the fabric of the city.

The pier’s original covered structure was torn down in 1991, leaving only the preserved archway. Photo by Liz Ligon

High Line Art will present Pier 54 in its first traditional exhibition, mounted in a gallery located at 120 Eleventh Avenue in Chelsea. The exhibition will be on view November 6 through December 13, 2014, Tuesday through Saturday, 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM. A public opening will be held on November 6, 2014, from 6:00 to 8:00 PM. The photographs will also be visible on High Line Channel 14 – located on the High Line in the 14th Street Passage – from November 6, 2014, through January 14, 2014, beginning at 4:00 PM each day.

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