Last Thursday evening marked the well anticipated opening of Duke Riley’s exhibition about Petty’s Island. For a long time this exhibition has created a buzz here at Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). This is no doubt due, in part, to the multi-faceted nature of Riley’s work which combines, historical research, creative interpretation, multi-media installations as well as trespassing and defacing of property.
The center of his exhibition at the HSP focused on the life of Ralston Laird. He emigrated from Ireland to the U.S in the 1850’s and ended up being a care-taker of land on Petty’s Island and was often cajoled about being the King of Petty’s Island. While this story set the stage for Riley’s work by bringing attention to this rather lost island, he exposed many other people associated with the Island such as: William Penn, Hugo Chavez, John Petty and Blackbeard, just to name a few.
Much how the popular TV series Lost started with a plane crash on a rather deserted island, Riley’s tresspassings and graphic art installations splashed down upon Petty’s Island and re-opened speculation amongst the public. Questions that come to mind have been: How many people have gotten past security and visited this place as it sits, outworn for all these years? How many people looked out upon the uninhabited landscape and proclaimed themselves King? Why can’t we figure out even today what to do with this place? Why does it seem to be so forgotten? And lastly, is there a reason all of Ralston Laird’s female children were born deaf on the island?
By now you can see how the chance to meet and hear the creator of all this intrigue caused a motivated crowd of people to show up at HSP Thursday night and gladly await the person who could share some answers to our piqued curiosity. When asked about his work specifically and how we, as the public, were meant to take this exhibition Riley calmly responded, his tone earnest, his answer as effortless as “the Dude’s” characeter in the Big Lebowski: “…My work raises more questions than it gives answers…”
So with that I conclude this blog, hoping that you, like I, want to know more and are thus left with the artist’s intention- more questions and only land and a small body of water separating you and the Island.
For more background on this Island and Riley’s work please follow this link to a Philadelphia City Paper article: http://citypaper.net/articles/2010/01/28/duke-riley-pettys-island-philagrafika