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Fight at the Museum

A radical artist stages a raucous battle in a city park...with togas.

Illustration Graham Roumieu

ON A LATE SUMMER EVENING, the normally subdued scene inside the Queens Museum is interrupted by a shout. “Out of our way,” cries a Roman legionnaire, sword raised, as she cuts the drink line. “We warriors need grog!” One of her brothers in arms shouts encouragement: “Use your shoulder pads!”

It’s no ordinary night at the museum. The drink menu offers spiked lemonade “free with toga,” and a croaking glam-metal band serenades the crowd. It’s all the work of artist-provocateur Duke Riley, a man whose most successful art exhibition to date landed him in jail. And at first, it seemed tonight’s happening, titled Those About to Die Salute You, would end the same way. His idea was to wage a mock naval battle between baguette-wielding representatives of New York City’s fine art institutions in a disused reflecting pool in Corona Park-and somehow he’d persuaded the venerable Queens Museum to go along with the scheme.

Riley was inspired by naumachia, brutal battles to the death that were staged by emperors in flooded arenas to entertain ancient Romans during times of hardship. To pull it off, he and several artist friends worked five months constructing watercraft from dried reeds and material recycled from a shuttered ice rink. Then he flooded the reflecting pool, which had been barren since the 1964 World’s Fair, and convinced art museum employees representing each of the five boroughs to man the battle stations.

Nobody knew what to expect, including Riley. “I was worried that because there was no actual bloodshed and the water was only a couple of feet deep, it would just be really boring,” he says later.

Fortunately, Riley underestimated the crowd and perhaps the pent-up desire among nerdy art types to let loose. Before the ships even sail, rowdy spectators wade into the pool, chucking microwaved tomatoes at each other to the strains of Black Sabbath. The Queens team sails a two-headed catamaran into the center of the pool, drawing a withering barrage from the masses.

Chaos reigns for 40 minutes as ships sink and fake blood spatters everywhere. A model of the Queen Mary 2 is lit on fire, and low-flying bottle rockets are launched from her deck. At the conclusion, Riley grabs a microphone, declares the United States “the best country in the world,” and invites everyone back to the museum for a bacchanal.

At night’s end, two men stand at the perimeter of the wreck-strewn reflecting pool, peering into the darkness. “Just fantastic,” one says in a strong British accent, his hands on his hips. “We’ll never see anything like it again.” PETER KOCH

Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico
The Daily Planner

In a remote white birch grove near Nohoch Mul, the tallest Mayan pyramid in Mexico, 19-year-old Rafael Noh Ehoc rests on the chipped orange frame of his pedicab. It’s a slow morning. A handful of panting, sweating tourists have trekked the mile and a half from the parking lot just outside the tiny Yucatán town of Coba to visit the 14-story pyramid-the only one left in Mexico that visitors can actually climb.

Noh Ehoc and a handful of other pedicabbies-all of Mayan descent-rest in the shade. Soon, the tourists will show up, scale the pyramids and want a ride back to the buses. Until then, Noh Ehoc and his compadres discuss the end of the world.

“I think we will see many hurricanes,” says Noh Ehoc. “And tornadoes, too, many fires.” He pauses, lost in thought, and then lights up as though remembering the last digits of a phone number. “And also epidemicos grandes. Muy grandes.”

Noh Ehoc’s pessimism is not without cause. In 2012, the Mayan calendar, a.k.a. the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, will come to an abrupt end, and a growing chorus of people around the world is convinced that when the calendar runs out, so does the world. Fortunately, not all the Mayan pedicabbies agree.

“The prophecy is a cultural prediction,” says a wiseseeming older man named Juan. “The Egyptians had their predictions, the Huns had theirs. This is ours.”

“But then why does the calendar end?” asks 28-yearold Manuel Tcacaret, who is wearing a Chicago Bulls baseball cap. “It must stop for a reason.”

“It is true that we are of Mayan blood,” says Juan. “But we’re not from the ancient culture. Manuel, you’re a futbol fan, for heaven’s sake.”

They all pause and consider this. Then Juan turns to a quiet man sitting on a rock.

“You went to university, Roberto. What do you think will happen?”

Roberto mops his brow and pauses, seemingly lost in thought. “Destruccion total del todo el universo,” he says, prompting nervous chuckles all around. -MIKE GUY

Albany, Ohio
Come to Pawpaw

“If they were there in the woods and the raccoons didn’t eat ‘em, we got ‘em,” says Barbara Fisher, a wry redhead sitting at a long table beneath a white tent, cutting up slippery chunks of pawpaw (also known as Ozark banana, prairie banana and poor man’s banana) for a panel of judges. A selfproclaimed culinary nerd, blogger and organizer of both a “best pawpaw” contest and a cook-off at this year’s Ohio Pawpaw Festival, Fisher grew up eating the large, pear-shaped fruits in West Virginia, often in her grandmother’s beloved “fried pies.”

North America’s largest native edible fruit, the green produce-which for now is found only in the wild-has a custardlike flesh and is often described as tropical, with flavor notes of melon, mango and coconut. It’s known throughout the southeastern U.S. and virtually nowhere else-hence the festival, celebrating its 11th anniversary, which will include a pawpaw art workshop and pawpaw juggling demonstration, in addition to pawpaw jams, baked goods, popsicles and beer.

On a Saturday morning, fans arrive from all over the country. They include students from nearby Ohio University, local families and avid hobbyists intent on discussing soil acidity and genetic hybrids.

And then there are the uninitiated, often quickly transformed into true believers. Adam Jacoby, a young grad student in biochemistry, sits on a hay bale in front of the bluegrass stage clutching his first pawpaw. “I’m a convert,” he says, wiping a spot of juice from his chin. “They taste great. They’re also weird-creamy and weird.” He plans to plant two trees on his mother’s property near the festival grounds.

The pawpaw has come a long way from the woods of Appalachia. Fisher raves about the pawpaw crème brulée at an upscale restaurant in downtown Athens, Ohio, and there’s a rumor that a pawpaw research center at Kentucky State was recently contacted by none other than Wal-Mart. Can a new Ben & Jerry’s flavor be far behind? -KELLY KINGMAN

Berlin
The Ice Man Cometh

In the center of Berlin’s most picturesque square, flanked on one side by a German cathedral and on the other by a French one, Brazilian artist Néle Azevedo arrives on the scene with a collection of freezers containing the bodies of 1,000 men. It’s noon, the temperature is a pleasant 73 degrees Fahrenheit, and Azevedo needs assistance arranging her figures, which are 20 centimeters tall and sculpted from ice. The men, cast in a seated position, need to be set up so their legs are dangling over the stairs of the neoclassical Konzerthaus, where they will patiently wait for the sun to do its work.

“World Wildlife Fund Germany contacted me because they saw a poetic link to global warming,” Azevedo explains. It seems the passersby in the Gendarmenmarkt see the link as well. One person stops by and quizzically regards the scene. Others join him. Soon, a collection of onlookers are getting in on the act, gingerly removing the men from their freezers and arranging them on the steps, actively taking part in what Azevedo calls a “minimum movement intervention.”

“I’ve made this in a lot of places around the world, and when we are setting up the statues it’s always a very powerful moment, because I never know what will happen next and how people will take the statues and build the monument.”

The piece takes seven minutes to set up and 25 to melt. “People created a very uneven pattern on the stairs,” the artist notes afterward. “Some put the statues down and sat by their side on the steps, waiting for them to melt. It was very emotional.”

Meanwhile, a more permanent statue, that of 18th-century poet Friedrich Schiller, looks on sternly. -RACHEL B. DOYLE

Namibia
Stray Cat Strut

It’s a slow day at N/a’ankusê wildlife sanctuary in central Namibia, where cheetah researcher Florian Weise and a team of volunteers are struggling to photograph the paw prints of a female cheetah named Samira, part of a pioneering scheme to change the way conservationists monitor animals in the wild. “Once inside the cheetah’s enclosure, you’ve got to keep your wits about you,” whispers Keith Smith, a British tourist who has twice returned to N/a’ankusê as a short-term volunteer. “Cheetahs will hiss and spit and even swipe a claw if they don’t get what they want.”

Existing techniques to monitor endangered species can be invasive or unreliable: Radio collaring causes stress, and aerial surveys are notoriously fickle, particularly in forested terrain. If cheetahs could be identified individually from their tracks, researchers argue, they could monitor a free-roaming animal’s movements without needing to spot the critter itself. “San bushmen can consistently identify individual cheetahs from their footprints, and we hope computers can do the same,” says Weise, noting that Namibia is home to some 3,000 cheetahs, a quarter of the world population.

“We’re trying to distill ancient techniques and make them accessible to Western science,” says project developer Zoe Jewell, who has already “fingerprinted” the Bengal tiger and the British dormouse. “We’re almost there with the polar bear. We’re actually going to be working closely this year with some Inuit trackers to complete the algorithm.”

Yet the nuances of scientific discovery are lost on Samira. In order to get a sharper imprint of her left hind paw, Weise has soaked the earth around her food, and she’s not pleased. “Gathering prints is a fine art,” sighs volunteer Michelle Duma, as Samira refuses to take the bait, instead turning to lie immobile beneath the spreading boughs of an umbrella-thorn tree. “Cheetahs hate getting their feet wet.” -COLIN BARRACLOUGH

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