'Artship Olympia' makes a battleship into an artwork

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Crocheted life-size rats by Joan Menapace were a surprise in the exhibition aboard the cruiser.

Art exhibitions happen almost anywhere you please in the 21st century, so why not on a historic ship?

With that in mind, Leslie Kaufman, president of the group Philadelphia Sculptors, approached the Independence Seaport Museum to gauge its interest in jointly sponsoring a sculpture exhibition on the cruiser Olympia, the world's oldest floating steel warship, docked near the museum at Penn's Landing.

The answer, from the museum's chief executive director, John Brady, was yes.

The battleship is a National Historic Landmark, and it needs maintenance and repairs estimated at $15 million to $20 million. So an event that could attract broad public attention couldn't have been more timely. A campaign to raise that money will soon be underway.

Five artists/artist teams were invited to participate in "Artship Olympia." Ten other artists were selected through an open juried process. All were asked to create temporary site-specific works in various areas on the ship that would relate to its history.

There was plenty to go on.

Launched in 1892, Olympia is the sole surviving naval ship of the Spanish-American War, during which it served as Commodore George Dewey's flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898. As its last official mission, it carried the body of the Unknown Soldier from France to Washington in 1921. Since its decommissioning in 1922, the cruiser has also had the distinction of becoming known as one of the most haunted places in America and has been the subject of multiple paranormal investigations.

Walking through "Artship Olympia," I, too, sensed ghostly presences. My arm was not grabbed by an icy hand in the vicinity of the boiler room, nor did I hear voices yelling, "Get out!" I think the presences emanated from the artworks.

Peering into the darkened sick bay, I saw miniature replicas of the Olympia and two other ships present at the Battle of Manila Bay floating in the claw-foot bathtub and sailors at the back of the room. This startling "apparition" is Laid Up in Ordinary by Joanna Platt and Nathan Solomon, who cast their vessels from clear plastic resin and positioned the resulting flotilla on a material embedded in layers in the tub, then projected video imagery onto the "sea" and the ships. The "men" are magic-lantern projections of photographs of sailors - culled from the Independence Seaport Museum archives - who served on the Olympia during the Battle of Manila.

In an officer's stateroom, familiar portraits set in antique silver lockets float through the air. Turns out this is a pre-cinematic special effect called "Pepper's Ghost," deployed by the video art team of Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib for their installation Lost Loves/Love Lost. The faces are those of national and international leaders and revolutionaries who fell in and out of favor with the United States, from the Olympia's early Spanish-American War days to the present (Saddam Hussein is instantly recognizable among them).

Elizabeth Mackie has created the exhibit's most haunting work, She-Sea, an installation that draws on the history of the ocean and seafaring vessels. It also draws on the tradition of creatures such as mermaids being identified as female. On white netting, draped wavelike throughout a former sleeping area for the ship's crew, Mackie projects video footage of women's hair and dresses; the effect resembles tidal activity. An audio track of underwater sounds by Kaitlyn Paston completes this immersive installation. This is one piece in the exhibition that would have greatly benefited from the use of nails, which were forbidden, as was the use of any hardware or tools that would have penetrated any surface of the ship.

There is not much whimsy in the works in "Artship," except for the transformation of rooms into fanciful versions of their former selves - as in Cheryl Harper's Officer's Washroom, in the so-named space, which features Harper's versions of turn-of-the-century hair tonics, shaving soap brushes, and other niceties. In Jacintha Clark's Wrinkled Blue, in the captain's office, we see porcelain iterations of maps, charts, and navigational tools. In Listen to the Whales, artist William Chambers presents a vintage-looking wooden box that emits sonorous whale chirpings through enormous (and also vintage-looking) earphones. Oh, yes: The crocheted life-size rats by Joan Menapace, doing the usual ratlike things, took me by surprise again and again.

The first works you see as you walk the gangplank to the Olympia might not register as artworks, but they're among the cleverest and most perfectly executed here. They constitute Gerard Brown's WZD (Stranger Wishes to Communicate), a series of flags hung along the deck, referring to the signal flags used during the Spanish-American War. But the messages encoded in these banners reflect the personal damage of that war in fragments of letters from sailors and soldiers.

"Artship Olympia" also features works by Sarah Kate Burgess, Kevin Blythe Sampson, Andi Steele, Sarah Kabot, Carrie Mae Smith, Mary Mattingly, and Daniel Clark.

Through Oct. 2 at Cruiser Olympia, Independence Seaport Museum, 211 S. Columbus Blvd. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $16 adults and children over 12; $12 seniors (65 and over), military, and children (3-12). Free for children under 3. Information: 215-413-8655 or phillyseaport.org/artshipolympia.

Well, do you?

Timed to overlap with the Democratic National Convention, "Do You, Mrs. Jones?" at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at UArts features a terrific roundup of overtly political works by Sam Durant, Hans Haacke, Pope L., Liz Magic Laser, Zoe Leonard, Ken Lum, Dave McKenzie, Pepón Osorio, and Hank Willis Thomas.

Laser's video The Thought Leader, of a young boy in a suit giving a mock TED talk adapted from Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, is chillingly well performed. I Want a Dyke for President, Zoe Leonard's photocopy on paper of her typed, scathing indictment of right-wing American politics, is astounding and brave in its unfiltered frankness.

Through July 29 at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, University of the Arts, 333 S. Broad St. Summer hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Information: 215-717-6480 or www.uarts.edu.

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