Queens rides wave of tomatoes to inter-borough museum glory

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Queens gladiators emerged spattered but victorious last Thursday as cultural institutions from across the city converged in Flushing Meadows Corona Park for a fiery battle royale as surreal as anything since perhaps the spectacle of the 1964 World’s Fair.

Teams from the Queens Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Bronx Museum of the Arts and Manhattan’s El Museo del Barrio joined a mystery team representing Staten Island for “Those About to Die Salute You,” an artistic face-off between the boroughs.

The frenzied, hour-long fight in a World’s Fair-leftover reflecting pool involved tomato projectiles, foam bats and more pyrotechnics than were probably allowed.

The event was the brainchild of Queens Museum’s artist in residence, Duke Riley, best known previously for constructing a replica of a wooden Revolutionary War-era submarine and launching it in Brooklyn Harbor before being arrested for drifting too close to the docking cruise ship Queen Mary 2.

A Massachusetts native and current resident of Red Hook, Brooklyn, Riley said nautical themes pervade his artwork. He said the Queens event was inspired by the Naumachia, an ancient Roman event that required flooding the Colosseum for a naval battle between teams of gladiators.

“I think I have a few psychological problems, I guess,” Riley joked. “I don’t know why these people trust me to do anything.”

Riley believes the concept of bread and circuses pacifying the public during hard times has resonated across time and geography from Rome to the American Great Depression of the 1930s to the present-day recession.

“I just kind of hope that everybody has a good time and that it does what the original ones are supposed to do and provides a distraction from all the problems people are facing right now,” he said. “I don’t think the economy has ever been what made this country an awesome country. It’s what people do when they come together.”

Tableaux from the evening were not what one would see at a typical art show: a nude man in his 60s changing out of a tomato-soaked toga between two parked cars; a heavy metal band playing in the museum. Hundreds of people showed up in togas, some with the proper, two-layer Roman look, some with golden laurels, some in bedsheets with garden ivy in their hair.

Riley spent six months building the boats, starting by harvesting the phragmites reeds from Flushing Meadows Lake before recruiting assistants and cannibalizing the deserted hockey rink that will soon be annexed by an interior expansion of the Queens Museum.

Riley built for Queens a bird-like vessel resembling a Viking longboat; for the Bronx, a catamaran with a two-headed figurehead; for Brooklyn, a convincing battleship; for Staten Island, a ferry with a gaping, fanged maw; and for Manhattan, a giant wooden ship shaped like a piggy bank.

The battle got off to a rough start when the audience of several hundred started throwing the tomatoes organizers had provided at one another before the boats even appeared. The fruit flew everywhere. At one point a reporter was hit point-blank in the back by a snickering Roman impersonator.

Half an hour into the battle, two Queens sailors leaped onto the stern of the Brooklyn battleship, half-capsizing the craft. A few minutes of scuffling later, the entire boat was upside-down in the water.

At the end of the melee, Queens stood victorious on its vessel as Queen’s “We Are the Champions” played over the loudspeakers. After they extricated themselves from the pool, Queens Museum spokesman David Strauss was asked how it felt to win the battle of the boroughs.

“We all won,” he said.

The end of the show was punctuated by a reed replica of the Queen Mary 2, which the warriors burned in effigy. The boat was full of ship-distress-flare-quality fireworks that burst high and low, sending embers in all directions. At one point, a reporter shared a concerned glance with a thirtysomething man wearing what appeared to be a Ralph Lauren shirt under his toga as the fireworks faintly illuminated the belly of an airliner climbing out of LaGuardia Airport. Then a pink, phosphorescent spark landed in his hair.

The crowd dispersed around 9:30 p.m., leaving what was undoubtedly a herculean cleanup for the Queens Museum staff the next day.

“It was amazing,” said Bronx resident Jessie Kirkwood as she left the park. “I thought at first things were getting rough, and that wasn’t what it was intended for.”

The event was a fine first visit to the park for residents of other communities, like Felix and Michelle Salmon of Manhattan’s East Village.

“It was totally punk rock,” Michelle Salmon said. “It wasn’t intellectual, that’s for sure.”

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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