The wilderness of the Gowanus Canal

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‘Green Canal’ by Miska Draskoczy, cour­tesy of Tep­per Takayama Fine Arts.
‘Green Canal’ by Miska Draskoczy, cour­tesy of Tep­per Takayama Fine Arts.

Miska Draskoczy’s photography brings to life an area of Brooklyn that has only recently gotten major attention – for its real estate potential, Whole Foods establishment, and a new wave of gentrification. But the photographs included in Draskoczy’s recent solo show “Gowanus Wild” (Ground Floor Gallery, Brooklyn) reveal another Gowanus.

The images in the show were all taken at night, usually between midnight and four in the morning. Draskoczy, who lives by the canal, is not a self-described nature photographer. He started doing photography at fourteen, and after going on to earn a BFA, he switched to directing short films. His enthusiasm for the outdoors came from summers in the Adirondacks while growing up, and his passion for rock and ice climbing. When he moved to Brooklyn, the Gowanus became his neighborhood natural landscape, and nighttime expeditions showed him a different canal.

His new backyard had an air of uneasiness, even eeriness. The canal is associated with a history of man-made industrialization and degradation, yet remains surprisingly wild. Draskoczy perceives wilderness as the “unknown, the unattained. Something that is left to its own devices.” And his images show a waterway not defined by the unwanted items discarded along its borders but also harboring flora and fauna – industrial and infiltrated by nature at the same time.

Over a period of two years, Draskoczy captured this wildness while staying within the boundaries of the Gowanus. He said this was an interesting constraint: going back to the same places was a unique experience in its own right because he “started to understand the rhythms and cycles of nature; the same trees bloom every spring.” He found patterns, and at the same time, he encountered differences: “people discard things – trash configurations were constantly changing.”

It’s easy not to think much about the Gowanus Canal. It’s not grand like one of the city’s showcase parks or waterfronts, it’s not a little community garden nurtured with love, nor does it border an impressive new public landscape, like Brooklyn Bridge Park. Yet Draskoczy was able to see in the Gowanus Canal the odd beauty and serenity of this underdog, and the contrast between its past and where it is heading.

These contradictions were seen everywhere on an artist-led walking tour that I took, organized by the Ground Floor Gallery and the photographer.

On the tour, we saw construction scaffolding rising for a future large apartment complex, weaving around the old-timer trees, replacing a long-abandoned empty lot. We walked along a mural of fruits and vegetables, concealing industrial equipment but not the elevated subway trains in the background. And we strolled by the newly designed outside seating areas at Lowe’s Home Improvement and Whole Foods, unable to escape the curious and funky odor of the canal.

Draskoczy showed us the New England of the Gowanus Canal, in “Winter Tug,” picturing snow covered benches and a boat that looks like it’s docked for the winter at a popular summer getaway. He captured the moonlit iron u-shaped beam at the edge of the canal water that could be mistaken as a swimming pool entrance, titled “Moon Dock”. He showed us the sunflower growing among the discarded coffee cups, and evidence of birdlife in his photographs “Egret” and “Snow Parrot”. In Draskoczy’s words, the Gowanus Canal is a “bizarre urban collage of natural and unnatural stuff.”

The walking tour opened the door into the artistic process of Gowanus Wild, not often experienced by viewers of an exhibit. It was an exercise in being in the moment, as the scene was subject to instant change. This was a theme in Draskoczy’s work, “the idea of attention, bringing myself in attention to my environment.” Many of the spots we visited that he photographed already had undergone drastic change.

'Egret' by Miska Draskoczy, courtesy of Tepper Takayama Fine Arts
‘Egret’ by Miska Draskoczy, courtesy of Tepper Takayama Fine Arts

So what is the future for the Gowanus Canal and the Gowanus neighborhood? Draskoczy is the first one to say that it would be “tough to say that it shouldn’t be cleaned up,” but that it is also important to move forward with thought and mindfulness of the neighborhood character. His hope is that Gowanus Wild will convey the “sense of beauty that can be found in the most unlikely of places,” and if we allow ourselves to question and change our perception, wilderness, nature, adventure, and beauty really can be found in our local backyards.

The canal is a focus of development. (Ph: Chiara Zaccheo)
New development. (Ph: Chiara Zaccheo)

Gowanus Wild recently showed at Ground Floor Gallery, a lovely new gallery in Park Slope, Brooklyn (when I arrived for the tour, I was greeted with hot chocolate with whipped cream – much appreciated on a cold November day). If you’re curious to see the photographs for yourself and to stay in the loop about potential future showings, a sample of Draskoczy’s images from the exhibit can be viewed on his website.

If you want to get involved in shaping the future of the Gowanus Canal, check out the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, or explore the Gowanus on boat with the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, whose sign reads: “Welcome to the Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn’s Coolest Superfund Site.” More about the background and planning for the area can be found at the community blog Gowanus Your Face Off.

Click the photographer’s images below to enlarge, and find more here:


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