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‘T’ai Chi Army’ invades Rockaways’ Fort Tilden

“Where in the Sam Hill is Battery Harris West?” I demanded of artist Bill Bierne after I failed to find the World War II gunnery placement at Fort Tilden on Father’s Day weekend.

Bierne, whose installation “T’ai Chi Army” graced the hard-to-find location, laughed. “If you go to the (Rockaway Artist Alliance) place at sTudio 7, and keep walking, there’s a sign that says Government Vehicles Only and there’s this long path that winds through to these huge gun placements.”


In his exhibit, Bierne surgically disarmed more than 1,000 toy soldiers, redressed them to no longer carry ammo but vitamins and macrobiotic foodstuffs, and arranged them on a platform near the place where the military had once placed a huge phallic gun to discourage the original Axis of Evil.

A few times a day on the weekend of June 14-15, Bierne, dressed in military garb, “played the form,” or did T’ai Chi exercises nearby. T’ai chi’s a form of self defense that uses the force of an attack to turn it away from you.

“The position the disarmed soldiers were in looks like they’re doing T’ai chi,” Bierne explained. “It’s an absurdist take on the current climate of self defense, or national defense — which is what the government calls it — of the preemptive aggressive defense that let’s you go into Iraq and wipe people out.”

The performances lasted three minute to a half hour, with no music. There was also video surveillance turned toward the ocean, as had been Battery Harris’ 16-inch gun.

The idea for the installation came while Bierne taught high school. One day, when he was upset about something, a student came up to him with a handful of little green soldiers and said, “Make an army.” Bierne then saw an article on the gunnery placements at Fort Tilden and thought, “That would be a great place to do something. And this place looks fascinating to me.”

“Art doesn’t really change anything, but it makes people aware,” Bierne said. He figures about 70 people saw the show. “There were people who just walk or bicycle through the nature preserve, and a handful of people who were invited.”

His other work has been featured at P.S. 1 Center for Contemporary Art, The Sculpture Center, The International Center of Photography, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Fashion Moda, and The National Center for Contemporary Art in Kaliningrad, Russia. He and the T’ai Chi Army are planning to “deploy” to Art 3 in Valence, France, this fall.

By the way, Battery Harris West, located in back of beyond at Fort Tilden, was named after Spanish American War vet Henry Leavenworth Harris. The gun was installed in 1922, and then casemented — half-buried — in 1941.

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