Brooklyn Artist Duke Riley Pits the Animals of the Zodiac Against Each Other in a Shanghai River Race

Brooklyn Artist Duke Riley Pits the Animals of the Zodiac Against Each Other in a Shanghai River Race
A student in Zhujiajiao shows off his Zodiac drawing
(Courtesy the Artist)

The story behind the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac runs like this: China's Jade Emperor called a meeting in heaven, and asked all the animals to attend. The 12 that arrived fastest would have a year in the 12-year cycle named after them. As things shook out, the rat pulled some dirty tricks on the ox and the cat during a river crossing to come in first place. But Duke Riley — a Brooklyn artist known for his nautical spectacles, staging dramatic naval battles and piloting guerrilla submarines — may well rewrite mythology when he restages a version of the legendary race in Shanghai on April 15.

For “The Rematch,” the sculptor and performance-planner is working with local artists in the suburbs of Shanghai to create a series of decorated gondolas which will carry real live Zodiac animals sourced from the countryside down the Caogang River, starting from the city’s Ming dynasty old town past newly built condominiums. Thus, once more, sheep, cats, roosters, and the rest will square off in a battle for supremacy. May the best beast win.


Of course, one of the Zodiac animals is thoroughly confined to the misty regions of folklore. That, however, didn't stop the intrepid Riley: “Who says we didn’t get a dragon?” he wrote in an email from Shanghai. “We got a scary komodo dragon that looks like it would kill you pretty quick.”

The quirky performance is the product of smARTpower, a pilot collaboration between the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Bronx Museum of the Arts that is sending 15 U.S. artists abroad to create community art projects, serving "people who have limited access to cultural opportunity," said Elizabeth Grady, the program's manager at the museum. Riley's race engages the local populace in more than just its mythology. Local rowers will pilot the animal crafts, Chinese opera singers will ride along and sing songs of praise for their host animal, and students from the Zhujiajiao region created drawings of the Zodiac creatures that were turned into embroidered pennants for the boats.

“I was originally concerned that my idea would not be well received, as an outsider altering a local tradition,” Riley wrote to ARTINFO. “But people have been really excited.” Davide Quadrio (Zodiac sign: dog), who produced the project for Arthub Asia, added that as the project came together, “we realized that the fact that this myth is so well known in China helped the project to be rooted in the community.”

As for which animal will win, the artist isn’t sure. “One might assume some boats have a greater advantage due to the size of the load that they are carrying… but it’s impossible to make an educated guess like you would with a horse race,” he explained. Nevertheless, New York audiences have a chance to place their bets when the event is broadcasted to the MagnanMetz gallery in Chelsea at 6 pm on April 15. Suggested donation to the event is $10, with a portion going to animal charities and the possibility of posing a gentlemanly wager on the Zodiac creature of your choice. 

ARTINFO has reason to believe that the rat, once again, has the edge: That happens to be Riley's symbol.