By Juliet Wagner (Regular Contributor)
Last month was reader appreciation month at Wonders & Marvels, and today’s piece fits with that theme by connecting to an earlier, popular post about pigeon photography:
The artist Duke Riley, whose work is currently being exhibited at the 21C Hotel in Bentonville, AR, describes himself as an “artist and a patriot.” I have long been intrigued by the use of carrier pigeons for surveillance and aerial photography, and was consequently particularly taken by his project, Trading with the Enemy, for which he trained 50 pigeon collaborators and outfitted them with special handmade harnesses.
The hotel’s Museum Manager Dayton Castleman explained that Riley was struck by the story about President John F. Kennedy ordering 1,200 Cuban cigars before signing the trade embargo in 1962. Riley was also fascinated by the role that smuggling has played in the culture of Key West, FL throughout its history and was inspired to enlist pigeons in an exploration of cigar smuggling, pop culture and political subversion, stitching individual cigar harnesses for 50 pigeons that were trained to return to a purpose-built pink loft in Key West. He also prepared 50 harnesses for filmmaker-pigeons, each embroidered with the name of a politically controversial film director.
The pigeons were released in Havana in 2013, loaded with with cigars and cameras. Not all of them made it back to Key West, but those who did carried some extraordinary footage that Riley includes in the exhibit, alongside replicas of the harnesses, the smuggled cigars encased in resin and the loft itself, currently inhabited by some local AR pigeons.
The experience of wandering through the exhibit with Dayton Castleman as a guide was exhilarating, as the connections between the apparently disparate pieces in the installation came into focus and the story of the smuggling pigeons emerged. Aside from the playfulness of the project, Riley’s respect and affection for his winged collaborators came across strongly. As with any good story-telling installation, one has to visit to fully appreciate how the components come together.
The museum at Bentonville 21C is free and open to the public. I highly recommend the free tour at 5pm.
For more photographs and videos, and more on Duke Riley, see: