Environmental cautionary tale: ‘WetLand’ succumbs to river forces

"Wetland" art installation, in 2014 (Kimberly Paynter / WHYY)

A floating art installation once featured in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival is now resting on the bottom of the Schuylkill River.

The experimental houseboat, “WetLand,” sank over the weekend.

Ironically, “WetLand” was built to resemble a sinking rowhome, appearing to list due to an imagined flood. Artist Mary Mattingly’s work was a commentary on climate change, and she installed it with systems — including solar panels and a water garden — that might prevent environmental damage.

After the 2014 Fringe Festival, where “WetLand” debuted, the boat was docked at Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philadelphia.

Bartram’s director of programming, Justin DiBerardinis, said the ship helped people reconnect with the river that had been lost to industrialization for generations.

“It would spark that interest,” he said. “People would come down to the riverfront and see that boat and say, ‘What is that? What is this boat?’ It carried the fantasy of living on the water again.”

For two years, the University of Pennsylvania’s program in environmental humanities used the vessel for artist residencies, workshops, and research. That arrangement ended in June, so the boat was waiting for its next mission. Lacking an engine, the craft is strictly a showcase vessel.

Ultimately, the river did the boat in — DiBerardinis said he suspects a fallen tree floating downstream may have struck the boat, causing it to take on water.

“We don’t know for sure,” he said. “We do know we have had some major debris flows due to some really heavy summer rains over the last two weeks. We’ve seen a lot of debris coming down the river.”

The boat is still owned by Mattingly, who is currently working in France and could not be reached for comment. She intends to bring the boat back up for repair and move it to a new home, said DiBerardinis.

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