Published: May 18, 2011
In what appears to be a fading, sleepy industrial building in the back of the Russell Industrial Center, a group of artists are raising a dragon. The beast is 22-1/2 feet tall and a little more than 69 feet long, weighing in at 8 tons. It's an "art car," built onto the frame of an old Dodge W-300 Power Wagon with a 318 engine. There's a 1,500-pound second-story DJ booth encased in steel wicker, mounted on a Marine Zodiac attack boat under the monster's spine. The whole contraption can carry more than a dozen riders, with seats in the mouth and in a party couch on the back, where riders can make the tail sway back and forth. Hydraulic systems bring the front of it to life, and the driver can use a fire system to shoot flames from the fearsome creature's mouth.
Later this week, the fantastic creation will star in an art show and studio-warming party celebrating the beginning of the end of the world as predicted by Christian broadcaster Harold Camping.
In addition to the dragon, which will serve as a DJ booth and art project — sans flames — there will be an art machine called "The Regurgitator," a pulse jet-powered g-force generator that can give a forward-seated passenger as much as 5 g's. Another team of artists from New York will bring their "Fuck Bike," a foot-powered dildo-pumping sex machine. There'll be videos, installations, performances — including an end-of-the-world confession booth — as well as sets from DJs from Detroit and as far as Brooklyn. And artists are coming from across the country to join a crew of newly minted Detroiters in a show that will challenge doomsday itself.
The creator of the dragon, as well as the head of the crew that has come to Detroit to build it, is 31-year-old artist Ryan C. Doyle. As artists go, he looks like one tough customer: He's 6-foot-6, broad as a biker, wears a beard and a shaven head, dresses in black, and has a nose that's clearly been broken a few times.
He may seem intimidating, but when he starts talking, it's with the easy and friendly manner of a Midwesterner — gentle speech, modest smiles and an intelligent glimmer in the eyes.
Doyle first came to Detroit last year to help 27-year-old Bay Area artist Monica Canilao transform an abandoned house — along with such other internationally recognized artists as Callie Swoon, Ben Wolf and Richard Colman — into a piece of art as part of Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert's Powerhouse program. The husband-and-wife team had been turning abandoned houses into art projects, but a sponsorship from Juxtapoz Magazine kicked things into high gear and drew the talented crew. After arriving to help Canilao, Doyle said he "fell in love" with Detroit.
"I'm from Minneapolis, and Detroit reminded me of that kind of small city where people still hold the door open for you," he says.
Meeting with local artists, such as local artist-fabricator Chip Flynn, Doyle was able to secure this industrial space where Clay Street meets the railroad, where he could work cheaply compared to the rents in the Bay Area and Brooklyn.
And Doyle is a guy who needs a lot of space for his outsized projects. In addition to "The Regurgitator," which he made for the Device Art festival in Zagreb, Croatia, he created a motorized art barge he piloted — and crashed — at the Venice Biennial. And, as part of a group called Plan C, he assisted in creating a radioactive carnival ride made from metal he and others scavenged from Chernobyl. His work is very high-concept, and always with an element of danger.
As he gives a tour of his work space — dubbed "Detroitus," a play on the city's urban detritus, but also sounding like a beast itself — he explains that the dragon is an art project called "Gon-KiRin," which means "Light Dragon" in Mandarin, or, with a slight rearrangement of the Chinese characters, "East Rising." He says it's a pun or a double entendre of sorts, thought up by his partner and funder on the project, Hong Kong-based LED artist Teddy Lo.
After the nickel tour of the dragon, Doyle takes a seat out back on the acres of blacktop behind Russell's main buildings to tell his story. A gifted student, he was impatient to get done with school. He skipped the third grade, he humbly jokes, "probably just because I was bigger than everybody else." He attended Minneapolis' Perpich Center for Arts Education, then won a merit award to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, on an academic track many would envy. But he says he was frustrated by having to take courses he felt he'd already mastered at Perpich, and he hungered to go on the road.
So he ran away and joined the circus.
If that sounds overcooked, bear in mind that Doyle had met the circus in 1999 at the Burning Man Festival, a weeklong bash where artists, ravers, DJs, fabricators and freaks meet to create a temporary city in the middle of northern Nevada's Black Rock Desert. And this was no ordinary circus: This was the End of the World Circus and Know-Nothing Family Sideshow. (There's that doomsday theme cropping up again.) The show was out-there stuff, featuring a guy who could lie on a bed of nails and suck his own dick, a woman who could hang a six-pack from her pierced labia, and Jessica Juggz, who could stick a miniature butane canister in her vagina to become a human flamethrower. Doyle's part in the circus was tall-bike jousting, and he traveled with them from 2000 to 2002, undergoing a journeyman apprenticeship of sorts. He spent off-seasons in New Orleans, where the circus wintered, building parade floats and working in a bike shop, and also jousting as a member of the Black Label Bike Club.
Impatient to learn more, he traveled to apprentice with such pioneering industrial performing groups as Kal Spelletich's Seemen and Christian Ristow's Robochrist Industries. Doyle says he found some veterans to help him figure out how to build stuff on his own "while I was helping build their stuff." He also bounced to Brooklyn, where he worked at the Madagascar Institute, helping mount shows every few months. At New York's hard-decor.com, he helped their talented architecture fabricators create custom metal work for architects and artists.
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