Sculpture Center's art gallery in Long Island City was the site of an entertainingly chaotic scene Saturday as families and artists converged in large numbers on the converted trolley repair shop for an afternoon of remote-controlled blimp races.
The First Long Island City Blimp Derby featured eight blimp pilots competing in a series of races for a valuable trophy created by a sculptor associated with the center as they navigated their airships around an oval-shaped track with inflatable obstacles at each end.
The races were the central event in a summer-long exhibition by artist and blimp track designer Olav Westphalen, who organized the derby as a means of displaying the public spectacle of a skillful competition within the context of a normally aloof art gallery.
"It's about the difficulty of bringing a real event or social process into the art world," Westphalen said. "A week from now you'll see this space as an image, but this afternoon it's a real thing."
The atmosphere at the derby offered a strange blend of an art-gallery opening and an evening at the county fair. Pilots representing various art, design and non-profit organizations competed alongside children from the neighborhood, sporting names such as "The Helium Hellfires" and "The Team That's Going to Win." Controlling the blimps was a difficult and sometimes awkward task as the miniature dirigibles dragged along the ground in some cases and plodded along 15 to 20 feet above the track in others.
Food and drink vendors drew long lines outside of the building, and the race intermission featured arena rock cover songs played by an avant-garde, independent rock band called the New Humans Collective.
Artists in the race approached the event with a less-competitive and more ironic attitude, Westphalen said, but as the blimps ambled slowly toward the final finish line and the excited crowd cheered, artists and children were equally animated.
"After winning (the first heat), I take it pretty seriously," said grand champion Mora Judd of Woodside, whose Helium Hellfire blimp represented Creative Time and Socrates Sculpture Garden.
"A lot of art isn't as fun as this blimp derby has been," she added. "It's a great opportunity for people from different organizations to get together and just have fun."
Westphalen first attempted to stage a blimp derby four years ago in his homeland of Germany before funding for the event fell through. He said the inspiration for racing remote-controlled blimps in a public space came after he completed a series of drawings featuring blimps and banners as part of an unrelated project.
"There's enough difficulty and excitement to make it interesting, but it's strange or bizarre enough to make people question it," said Westphalen, who also acted as event commentator as the silver and white, 2-foot blimps drifted around the track.
Other organizations sponsoring blimps in the race were Unicef, R/F Landscape Architecture, the Swiss Institute, Sculpture Center, the Wrong Gallery and Maccarone Inc.
The installation will be on display at the Sculpture Center through Aug. 16 and pickup races are planned for each Saturday at 2 p.m. through the duration of the exhibition. Audio recordings of the main event will be repeatedly played in the track space to give visitors an unusual glimpse of what they may have missed. .
"They'll come in and get a sense of what happened, but not the whole picture," Westphalen said.
Reach Reporter Dan Trudeau by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 173.
©2003 Community News Group
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