There are many wonderful events in NYC in the summer. There are outdoor film screenings, concerts, parades… People watching is everyone’s favorite pastime and every park becomes a stage. Of all the events in the city though, there is only one that truly feels like a figment of Salvador Dalí’s imagination, and that is the FIGMENT Arts Festival on Governors Island. This marvelous event brings all sorts of whimsical creations to an island that still feels as though it exists outside of time.

Wandering around Governors Island, past the houses in Nolan Park and Colonel’s Row, there is a sense of being in a sleepy forgotten town. When you round a corner and suddenly see Lower Manhattan rising above you it can be almost shocking. Visiting the island at any time during the summer is worthwhile; it is a fabulous place for a picnic or a little sunbathing in the new ‘Hammock Grove.’ Children can run free without fear of vehicles, although they should watch out for all the Schwinn bicycles. The ferry is now $2 roundtrip (up from the previous $0) and for the first time is running seven days a week. While I have mixed feelings about the hills currently being constructed, I absolutely love the respite from the noise and smell of summertime in NYC. It’s also my favorite view of Manhattan; the one viewpoint from which it truly looks like an island.

The Island of Manhattan as seen from Governors Island

The Island of Manhattan as seen from Governors Island 2008

Governors Island has its own magic but FIGMENT transforms the island into something truly surreal. The artists who create installations for the festival work in many media but the guiding spirit is that the art be participatory. This is not art behind glass, it is art made to be touched, played with, climbed on, drawn on, destroyed and rebuilt. The island becomes an art museum that a child would imagine. Last year a cloud-like dome made of recycled water bottles rose against the backdrop of the city.

Figment 2013

Figment 2013, Studio Klimoski Chang Architects’ Head in the Clouds

Inside the dome a DJ played music and people of all ages and in quite a strange assortment of clothing danced and jumped and spun until the grass was all turned to muck. The space was lit strangely through the bottles and it had such a feeling of unreality that it was astonishing to emerge into the sunshine again.

Inside  Studio Klimoski Chang Architects’ Head in the Clouds

Inside Studio Klimoski Chang Architects’ Head in the Clouds

Children are usually first drawn to the elaborate mini golf course, each hole of which is designed by a different artist. As someone who is not particularly skilled at golf, I am more likely to make a beeline for the treehouse, although it can get too crowded at times. The real fun is the wandering; there are so many small interesting pieces to discover. Just as important are the many performances taking place. There are concerts and dance performances at all times. Last year I followed the sound of drums to find an all-female marching band on the waterfront.

Perhaps my best FIGMENT was the year that I volunteered as an assistant priestess for the Encouraging Priestess. The Encouraging Priestess marries people to themselves. I helped participants write their vows to themselves and find appropriate costume pieces from our supply for the ceremony. Watching people, some with great seriousness and others with great levity, engage in this ceremony, was magical in a wholly different way. At the heart of FIGMENT is a need to engage, to provoke, to truly touch each person who visits the island. That summer I felt that I was really part of the festival. It was only the porch of one of the lovely yellow Nolan houses, but for that weekend it was a magical temple of self-affirmation and glittery ceremony.

Marry Yourself, Encouraging Priestess

Marry Yourself, Encouraging Priestess

This summer CDR Studio’s Governor’s Cup will add a heavy dash of the surreal to the island. It is described on the FIGMENT website:

Inspired by tape-lace crochet, used plastic cups, saved from discard from throughout the city, are bound by zip-ties into a densely-knit serpentine structure. Undulating between the tree branches, the canopy is suspended by strapping and turn-buckled cabling. The trees are unscathed. A lacy infill of cups between the tape structure and branches create an airborne topography and shadow play. The configuration forms an outdoor room, shimmering in the sun and echoing with breeze-driven sound.

The treehouse, with its slightly terrifying slide, will be returning for the summer of 2014. This video (showing some very happy frolicking) gives me quite enough incentive to go out to the island all on its own. I am excited to see what other structures will be part of the sculpture garden. Until it’s all there under the sun (or sometimes in the rain), the art exists mainly in the artist’s imagination; once it’s there it becomes part of our collective imaginings. This is a festival that aims to connect, not merely to entertain. Go forth and be part of the fun!