Yesterday evening, as the sun rather spectacularly set over New Jersey, artist Tom Sachs led a tour of the U.S.S. Intrepid, the aircraft-carrier-as-museum parked at Pier 86 on Manhattan's West Side. The occasion was the fact that the Intrepid will be leaving its familiar birth near the circle line in just a few days.
"Oh, is the Bush adminstration re-classifying it?" quipped my wife, Gina, alluding to the 55,000 documents that disappeared from the National Archives earlier this year, documents containing information like the numbers of now-obsolete missles that were in the U.S. arsenal in 1971. Little is known, however, about the reclassification program, because the program itself is classified.
No, actually the storied flat-top is being towed out of its berth in the Hudson mud across the river to Bayonne, where it will undergo a complete renovation that will take until 2009. Tom is something of an expert on aircraft carriers, since he is probably the only artist to have built his own. Actually, he didn't build a whole carrier, but he did build a 1/6 scale model of the the U.S.S. Enterprise's "island," the massive control superstructure where the bridge, command centers, and mast are located, for his recent exhibition at Fondazione Prada in Milan.
We tramped across the flight deck, the hangar deck, through the island, the junior officers' quarters, and the chain locker, while Tom and the museum's curators made enlightening comments on the ship and I piped up once in a while, being something of a naval buff. I had impressed Tom weeks ago with my knowledge of the missile submarine—the U.S.S. Growler—which is parked across the pier from the Intrepid, and which we also visited, so I was an amateur technical advisor. When Tom referred to the Intrepid's "forecastle" I told him that he should say "folk-sul," which is how any seaman worth his salt says it, and much of Tom's knowledge is book knowledge. His sea legs seem impressive but mostly theoretical. Somehow the word came out "fork-sul," which I liked a lot and hope will catch on.
There is a fantastic collection of aircraft on the flight deck and everyone's favorite seemed to be the SR71 Blackbird, an incredible craft which set the official world's speed record on its farewell flight, hitting Mach 3.2. The Blackbird, a.k.a Sled, went into service in 1966, replacing the old U-2. Its mission was snooping on Russian military installations, and it remained in service until satellite technology replaced it. It had missles fired at it several times but was never hit, as it flew too high and too fast. The museum curator said the plane actually flew higher than 100,000 feet and faster than Mach 3.2., but that was all off the record and hush hush. As I tapped on the titanium fuselage I wondered if any of this stuff had been "re-classified" by the Bush Administration in their frenzy of returning things declassified under previous administrations.
Here's Tom pointing out the spycam port on the SR 71:
As an old submarine buff, this issue of classified antiques reminded me of how, as a kid, I'd never been able to get into the conning tower of the old decommissioned World War II subs you could tour because it was still "classified." In a world where even Congress is deemed too risky to read the National Intelligence Estimate, I guess you can't be too careful. We were allowed to see some interesting parts of both the Intrepid and the Growler. There was an elevator to the magazine that had all kinds of warnings posted on it. When the Intrepid was on duty off the shores of Vietnam, there was a marine sentry posted here at all times because, as our guide pointed out, this was where they kept the nukes that these ships did not officially carry.
Tom pointed out the snazzy Mig 21, with its brutal nose cone, noting that this was the reason for all of this, as he waved his arms at the Intrepid, all the aircraft, and the submarine with its poised Regulus cruise missile. The delta-winged Mig 21 was one of the most successful fighter aircraft ever designed—over 13,000 were manufactured and they served in the air forces of fifty-six nations. It was a fast and highly maneuverable plane that was feared by the naval aviators who served on the Intrepid because it was more than a match for the American F-4.
Sachs was also quite taken with the Israel Aircraft Industries Kfir, which certainly has the snazziest paint job on the flight deck, I think because it was created using the contemporary artists' strategy known as "appropriation." When the French decided not to sell their Mirage fighter to Israel, the Israelis knocked it off and they did a great job of it, as the 1973 war proved. This particular aircraft is a veteran of the U.S. Marines' "Aggressor Squadron," which played the role of the enemy in training Top Gun school pilots.
I think the Growler tour was perhaps the most impressive part of the evening for this artworld bunch because the submarine lifestyle is something few have thought about. The Growler ws one of the first missile subs, posted off the coast of Russia or China carrying four Regulus guided missles—which look like small, pilotless fighter jets. The Regulus was the first cruise missile, I told the group, named after the star of Top Gun.
"Oh, will the name be changed," asked a young woman, "now that Cruise has been dropped by Paramount?"
"It's rumored," I said, "that Sumner Redstone, after whom the Redstone missile was named, is considering calling them Lowe missiles now, after Rob Lowe."
That was about as funny as things got. I liked the mid-century modern efficiency of the Growler interiors, with the very nice handles on the stainless steel sinks, and I liked the built-in chess and backgammon boards on the formica mess tables. Tom was most impressed by the professional ice-cream maker on board. "It's part of the amenities/suffering ratio," he said, honing in on one of the key strategies in military, if not human, thinking.