The Important Message Behind Tauba Auerbach’s “Dazzling” New Artwork

‘Flow Separation’ is not just a contemporary take on WWI-era “dazzle” camouflage — it’s a warning against repeating the mistakes of our past.

Tauba Auerbach, Flow Separation, 2018. Commissioned by Public Art Fund and 14–18 NOW and presented on Fireboat John J. Harvey in New York Harbor July 1, 2018–May 12, 2019. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery. Image by Nicholas Knight, courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

On June 28, the 87-year-old Fireboat John J. Harvey set sail in the New York Harbor, sporting a fresh coat of paint. But this was no ordinary restoration job: the historic vessel had been transformed into a contemporary work of “dazzle” camouflage courtesy of New York City-based visual artist Tauba Auerbach.

“Tauba felt like the perfect artist for us to work with [on this project] because of her long-standing interest in painterly abstraction, mathematics, perception, and dimensionality,” says Emma Enderby, curator for the independent arts nonprofit Public Art Fund, which commissioned the artwork in partnership with the UK-based arts program 14–18 NOW to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. The two organizations are also raising funds on Kickstarter to support free public programming around the work, called Flow Separation.

Auerbach’s contemporary red-and-white design for the John J. Harvey was inspired by fluid dynamics — the study of the flow of liquids and how forces affect them, Enderby explains. “She was specifically interested in the forms found in wake patterns left behind objects as they move through water. However, she was always looking to the historic techniques [of dazzle camouflage] in considering her design.”

On board the “dazzled” Fireboat John J. Harvey. Image by Nicholas Knight, courtesy Public Art Fund

But the work is not merely an artistic undertaking. The year 2018 marks 100 years since the end of World War I, when “dazzle” camouflage — a technique of painting ships with intricate patterns of geometric shapes and bold colors — was used as a method of disorienting and outwitting enemy submarines, disguising a boat’s form, orientation, and speed. “Flow Separation invites us to remember this devastating world war, which killed 37 million people — four times the population of New York City,” Enderby says. “As we are living in uncertain, precarious times, it felt important to remember that 100 countries went to war. If we remember, we might not repeat.”

The John J. Harvey’s own public profile contributes to the poignance of Auerbach’s message. Since its retirement from service in 1994, the John J. Harvey has been privately owned and maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers, who also offer free public rides. But in 2001, the vessel briefly returned to service following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, when its crew pumped water for more than 80 hours and evacuated people from Lower Manhattan. “It is a benevolent machine,” Auerbach says in the Kickstarter project video.

Historic examples of dazzle camouflage

To develop the dazzle camouflage that would adorn this benevolent vessel, Auerbach began by marbling over 200 sheets of paper, a process that involves floating inks in a fluid bath and dragging a comb through the the pigmented fluid to create patterns, then transferring the pigments to paper.

“By dragging the marbling comb forward and backward through the floating paint, she created the effect of directional confusion, which is a traditional notion in dazzle camouflage technique,” Enderby explains. “When mapping the design onto the fireboat, Auerbach twisted the design so that the seams at the bow and stern no longer align with their actual position. The ‘false bow’ and ‘false stern’ appear on the sides of the boat instead of the front and back — another tactic of the original dazzle designs.”

The marbling process

The process of transferring the designs onto the boat was “pretty rigorous,” Enderby adds, as the entire vessel was hand-painted over the course of six weeks. “Going from a 2D image to a 3D object with all those curves and forms was super tricky.”

Now that the dazzled ship has made its maiden voyage, it will be offering free tours throughout the summer, and “every penny we make on Kickstarter helps us to maintain the boat and run more rides,” Enderby says. Among the rewards, Flow Separation backers can own flags that illustrate the concept of “flow separation” and the marbling process that informed Auerbach’s designs — flags that are flying on the John J. Harvey right now.

The John J. Harvey will be docked at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park from July 1 to August 12, and at Pier 25 in Hudson River Park from August 13 to September 23. Visitors can take free trips on the boat on Saturdays and Sundays from July 14 to September 23. Head here to reserve your ticket.

Rebecca Hiscott

The Fireboat John J. Harvey in Lower Manhattan. Image by Nicholas Knight, courtesy Public Art Fund