Believe it or not, one of WWI’s greatest innovations was … a can of paint. To camouflage warships, the British navy painted them with bold, abstract patterns inspired by artistic movements like Cubism and Futurism. The technique was named Dazzle.
One such ship is docked in New York until May 2019—but there’s a twist: It’s a 1930s fire boat done up in a contemporary Dazzle motif by artist Tauba Auerbach.
The John J. Harvey entered service in 1931 and helped the FDNY fight fires until it was decommissioned in the 1990s. After 9/11, the boat was briefly recommissioned to extinguish fires and evacuate victims. To commemorate the fire boat’s history and the centenary of WWI, the Public Art Fund and the British Arts organization 14-18 NOW invited Auerbach to turn it into a 3D painting, which she calls “Flow Separation.” The project pushes the boundaries of painting and how public artwork is experienced.
“I’ve been thinking about the ways something that seems totally wrong can sometimes be so right,” Auerbach said during a media tour of the boat. “Dazzle is an unlikely kind of camouflage. It’s not about hiding; it’s about outwitting and confusing.”
Viewed from a distance, Dazzle’s geometric patterns make it difficult to determine exactly how far away a warship is, how fast it’s traveling, and what direction it’s moving. For “Flow Separation,” Auerbach looked not to artistic movements to inform the pattern she designed; she was inspired by fluid dynamics and decorative arts.
When a boat travels through water, it pushes and moves the liquid around it. Auerbach looked at those naturally occurring patterns, abstracted them, then worked around the clock with a group of scenic painters to coat the entire exterior of the John J. Harvey in a frenetic swirl of red and white, scrambling the boat’s original colors.
“A few things have been on my mind in the making of this work: the way painting can be a technology and the way decorative arts, like paper marbling, often contain wisdom about things like physics and the laws of nature,” Auerbach says. “The skilled marbler understands viscosity, shear, and surface tension intimately, but in a haptic rather than analytical way.”
The artwork’s name riffs on the physics of water.
“Flow separation is the turbulence that can happen in the wake of an object moves through fluid,” Auerbach explains. “Some of that fluid runs backward and eddies form, sometimes in patterns like the eddy shape we diagrammed on the boat.”
The boat will be docked from July 1 to August 12 at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park. From August 13 to September 23, it will be located at Pier 25 in Hudson River Park. Then, it moves north to Pier 66a from September 24 to May 12, 2019. Visitors can board the boat free of charge and there will be occasional 60-minute boat trips around New York Harbor, which are also free, though reservations are required and can be arranged on the Public Art Fund’s website.
After the exhibition is over, the John J. Harvey will return to its original paint job. But Auerbach hopes that its new look will inspire people to get familiar with this historic vessel.
“I was happy to Dazzle this boat specifically because It’s a benevolent vessel—a life-saving machine and you can feel its personality when you spend time with it,” she says. “It’s loved and cared for by a group of volunteers from all walks of life who all have a different story of how they ‘met’ the boat. And all their stories are different. I definitely have a wild one of my own now and I hope this project makes more people acquainted with it.”