Alongside the river wall on Delaware Avenue, outside Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum, visitors will encounter a strange sight — a large floating house that looks like it’s sinking.
Some describe it as a house on its side floating down the Delaware River. That description is not too far off, except that the large boat is docked. It’s surrounded by floating gardens with tomato plants and other vegetables and herbs. Solar panels provide energy and power to filter water, and there’s a chicken coop on deck.
It’s “WetLand,” artist Mary Mattingly’s work for the Fringe Festival. As visitors are invited aboard, they see a table set with the fruits of the latest harvest. One of the windows is entirely covered by a honeycomb panel from the beehive that sits in the bow of the boat. Mattingly and another artist live aboard full time, and visitors come in and out at all hours to wonder about the meaning of her work. Interpretations of the installation are as varied as the viewers. For beekeeper Susan Matlock, it’s about calling attention to the river’s complex ecology. “Most wetlands are difficult to reach and are disappearing in some areas. And the animals that live in them are very valuable to the ecological chain,” Matlock said. “I believe that’s the gist of what Mary wants to do.” Mattingly recently sat on the deck for a lively conversation with John Brady, CEO of the Seaport Museum. “The sinking house is something that talks about where we are environmentally, but also where we are on the economic and the political climate,” she said. Use of the term “house underwater” during the recent mortgage crisis and images of the devastation left by hurricane Sandy also helped inspire the work. “Yes, yes,” said Brady, also a boat builder, as he told the story of many boats he’s crafted over the years that were docked in Mantoloking, a New Jersey coastal town that was destroyed by Sandy.
“You could see a lot of houses that were floating,” Mattingly said. “It’s eerie, but it’s happening … very scary.” The idea behind Mattingly’s installation is at once disturbing and utopian; it asks what would happen if we found ourselves isolated, surrounded by wetland without access to food, potable water and social networks.
With this Fringe installation, Mattingly set out to explore self-sufficiency and resilience. Since she prefers not to give answers or resolutions, she asks us, the public, to draw our own conclusions and to talk about it.
“It’s an opportunity to live, maybe, in a less strenuous way on the environment and an urban space,” she said. “We are trying to find a balance here where we can work with nature in an urban space more fully.” To do so, she has invited scientists, poets, musicians, environmentalists and the public in general to spend time in the boat to share stories and food, ask questions and just hang out.
The “WetLand” experience is in sync with the Seaport Museum’s major upcoming project called the Living River, Brady said. Seeing this boat made of uneven planks and bare-bones construction, evoked for me images of Huck Finn and Robinson Crusoe, even lousy apocalyptic movies like “Waterworld” — and also the old wanderlust that drives people to get a boat and roam the world or get a car and just hit the road. Karla Stingerstein, a Philadelphia-based artist who collaborated on the project, said “WetLand” is a Fringe event that won’t be forgotten soon because “if you walk away from a work of art and you have questions in you, that’s success.
“I don’t think success is the exact idea that the artist may have inside his or her head, but what it transforms inside the person that’s experienced the work,” she said. This longest-lasting of the Fringe Festival offerings will undock Sept. 21. It’s perhaps also the only one whose message has had time to, pardon the pun, sink in.