A storyteller at heart, Duke Riley challenges the powers that be with complex art projects that involve no small amount of personal risk. His latest show presents two such endeavors: one revisiting a legendary contest that determined the order of the Chinese zodiac; the other probing the history of trade—often illicit—between Havana and Key West.
The former is represented by Rematch, an installation combining video documentation and handmade props left over from Riley’s witty performance-intervention staged in Zhujiajiao, a canal-side Chinese community. Beginning with the myth that the rat became the zodiac’s first symbol by cheating in a river race against the other animals of the calendar, Riley engaged local schoolchildren, artisans, herders, opera singers and boat handlers to reenact the original competition, employing imaginative stratagems to achieve a new end—and thus, upending centuries of time-honored tradition.
Meanwhile, Riley spent eight months breeding homing pigeons for his second piece, Trading with the Enemy. It, too, involves a performance of sorts, in which 50 rock doves (25 carrying contraband and 25 equipped with video cameras) journeyed across the Straits of Florida. Small painted portraits of the pigeons, plus aerial footage, detail their treacherous crossing. A coop cobbled together from materials salvaged around the Keys houses the surviving birds, and stands in the gallery: a technically illegal amenity that Riley uses, once again, to thumb his nose at the Man.—Paul Laster