The Lilac calmly sits in the Hudson River along Pier 25 in downtown Manhattan as New Yorkers stream by to enjoy a summer afternoon near the water. On board, the white ship is bustling with activity. People wander through open doors and down steep stairwells to explore the vessel’s many rooms. The Lilac is currently serving as an exhibition space for multimedia artist Graciela Cassel’s “River Dreams.” Cassel has utilized the ship’s architecture to create an immersive experience inspired by water.
Cassel works in sculpture, video, and installation with her areas of exploration often overlapping. Her interdisciplinary work has been shown at the Museo del Barrio, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York Hall of Science, and UrbanGlass Gallery, to name a few. Cassel’s work in video has also received international recognition through distinctions like Best Director Short Film at the Barcelona International Film Awards and Best Director Short Film at the Nice International Film Festival among other honors. Cassel graduated with a master’s in Studio Art from New York University and earned an MFA from the School of Visual Arts.
In 2021, Cassel met with Melinda Wang, Contemporary Art Curator of MW Projects, and expressed her interest in showcasing her work. On a suggestion from Wang, captain Mary Habstritt from the Lilac Preservation Project sent Cassel an invite to display her work on the ship.
The Lilac is a Coast Guard cutter and America’s only existing steam-powered lighthouse tender. Operated from 1933 to 1972, the ship carried supplies to lighthouses. The ship has since been repurposed as a museum open for tours, exhibits, and events throughout the year. It has been owned and maintained by the non-profit organization Lilac Preservation Project since it was founded in 2003.
“Our goals are to rehabilitate the ship to operate once again on her original steam engines, promote maritime education, provide a venue for history and art, and offer a community-friendly space for meetings and events,” says the Lilac Preservation Project’s website.
Cassel loves the unconventionality of the historic ship as a space for art installations. She says the historical context as well as the sense of adventure in the ship’s walls, sails, ropes, and cabins, makes the exhibit more interactive. Located on the busy pier, the ship attracts both passersby and art lovers who chance upon the vessel’s open doors. “That sense of discovery and delight is a frame for my installation,” said Cassel.
“River Dreams” combines technology with environmental themes. The juxtaposition between human-made and natural elements allows the artist to create what she calls “a new way of viewing.” On the front of the ship, visitors can look at Cassel’s “radar kaleidoscope” made of angled mirrors that reflect the surrounding natural environment as well as the city. In another room, visitors will also see circular sculptures titled “River Dreams” and “Waves” framed with thick blue bands, giving viewers the sense that they are peering out a porthole into the watery depths beyond.
Below deck, the artist has designed a raft structure where people can sit and row. The space is lit by colored light reflected across the ship’s pipes and metal interior by hanging glass. Aerial videos filmed by a drone project moving images of rivers into the space. “I hope visitors can imagine they are flying over the Hudson,” said Cassel.
While Cassel loves nature, her relationship with water has also revealed an underlying fear of its power, especially in consideration of the increasing severity of natural disasters due to climate change. “Nature shows the possibility and peril of life,” said Cassel. Despite water’s essential role in supporting our communities and ecosystems, Cassel said we aren’t talking about water enough. Through the exhibit, her intention is to increase public awareness about our connection and dependence on water.
River Dreams will be on display through October 23 at Hudson River Park’s Pier 25. The installation will be free and open to the public on Saturdays, 2-6 p.m. and Sundays, 2-6 p.m. Masks are required on board.
“I hope visitors can imagine they are flying over the Hudson.” Artist Graciela Cassel