NEW YORK — It is not an easy job, towing 150 tons of conceptual art around Manhattan all day. There are tides and wind currents to negotiate. There are ferries and container ships and police boats to avoid. And then there is the precious cargo itself, not exactly your average garbage scow: the late Robert Smithson's "Floating Island," a kind of waterborne jewel-box version of Central Park, built on a barge, with live trees and shrubs.
It's enough to give a tugboat captain angina. So when Bob Henry, captain of the Rachel Marie, who is in charge of towing Smithson's island, looked out across the East River and saw another piece of conceptual art gaining on him, he did not view the development kindly.
"I got my own job to do, you know what I mean?" Henry said.
Approaching the Rachel Marie on its starboard side was a small motorboat, affixed to which was a replica of one of the saffron-colored gates created by Christo and Jeanne-Claude that dotted Central Park last winter. Henry remembered "The Gates" and, putting two and two together, he worried that maybe the man in the motorboat was planning on boarding his little version of Central Park and planting a gate somewhere among the trees.
"He was coming up on me a couple of times," recalled Henry, the owner of Island Towing and Salvage in Staten Island and a plain-spoken 40-year veteran of the harbor. "I was trying to wave him off."
He added, sternly: "When I saw the kind of rig he was running, I didn't want him getting no closer. Joker like that? In a motorboat? I don't need that."
"Floating Park" is a $200,000 project conceived by the late Robert Smithson, best known as the creator of the "Spiral Jetty" in Utah's Great Salt Lake. Smithson, who died in a plane crash in 1973, envisioned building a small park on a barge, featuring trees, grass and shrubs. Thirty-two years after his death, the moving art work is now a reality.
As Henry warily watched the approach of the motorboat, a group of graphic designers in a studio in the DUMBO neighborhood in Brooklyn — who had been monitoring the Smithson project's daily passing from their office window — caught sight of the little floating gate chasing the little floating park.
"We all thought it was kind of hilarious," said Ian Adelman, who took some photographs. A fellow designer, Elizabeth Elsas, went down to the waterfront, where the motorboat driver and a man with a video camera who had been towed behind the motorboat were already getting out of the water. A crowd of supporters was waiting, as if to receive Lindbergh after crossing the Atlantic. But the would-be art pirates, whom she described as being in their 20s and "art studenty," were not forthcoming with their identities or even particularly friendly.
"They said that they do some public art pieces themselves, and they thought the 'Gates' project was stupid and kind of wanted to comment on public art and make a joke about it," Elsas said, adding that, apparently, this joke was not meant to be funny.
"We were laughing about it," she said. "But they weren't laughing."