Working wet, down by the riverside

Artist Mary Mattingly at her home on - and in - the Delaware River. "We're in this really dystopian time," she says. "To me, the sinking house can be iconic."
Artist Mary Mattingly at her home on - and in - the Delaware River. "We're in this really dystopian time," she says. "To me, the sinking house can be iconic." (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 15, 2014

Early hype for WetLand, a live-in art installation by Mary Mattingly commissioned for the 2014 Fringe Festival, described it as a "visually stunning utopic" structure of green-roofed geodesic domes floating serenely on a barge.

But the artwork/artist residence/community hub that Mattingly, previously of Brooklyn and currently of Penn's Landing, has been building since July is quite different: It is a ramshackle take on a postdiluvian rowhouse, listing and sinking into the Delaware River.

Mattingly - whose previous dome-house creations caught the eye of FringeArts organizers looking to pair the inauguration of their waterfront headquarters with a blockbuster public artwork on the river - had to persuade Fringe to follow her in this new, and potentially darker, direction.

"We're in this really dystopian time," she said citing the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. "To me, the sinking house can be iconic. It's really just what's been happening all over the East Coast recently."

WetLand is an artistic response to that: a semi-self-contained habitat docked just south of the Independence Seaport Museum that will open for public tours and events Friday through Sept. 21.

The two-story, wood-frame structure wrapped around a 42-foot 1971 houseboat contains three small bedrooms, a library, and an event space that can accommodate about 20 people. It's ringed with floating gardens of wetland plants connected to rain-barrel pontoons.

It will house Mattingly and a rotation of visiting artists. And it will serve as a demonstration - of food production, by way of two chickens, a beehive, and vegetable gardens; of energy independence, via roof-mounted solar panels; and of water conservation, with a rain barrel to collect drinking water and a gray-water purification system for the plants.

Visitors can take home a how-to booklet with tips on composting, solar cooking, and water harvesting.

"It's supposed to be provocative," Mattingly said. "There's probably at least one thing someone could come on here and say, 'I can do that.' "

Visiting artists will include Philadelphia's Kaitlin Pomerantz and John Heron, who will make paper tinted with Delaware River water, and New York artist Jon Cohrs, whose "Spice Trade Expedition" involves canoeing down the Delaware to artificial-flavoring factories in New Jersey. (A full schedule is online at

There also will be less esoteric offerings: preserve-making, water purification, gardening and yoga workshops, film screenings, and live music performances.

This week, Mattingly invited her first houseguest, a reporter, to experience life in WetLand's tight quarters, where she and artist Esteban Gaspar Silva have been living - and building - since early July.

"Living on it really helps," said Silva, who cooked an elaborate vegetarian meal on a gas burner, despite a lack of running water and counter space. "We learn what the issues are, and how to deal with them."

Mattingly is interested in the line between public and private spaces. This floating home, amid swan boat and kayak rentals and the crowds at Spruce Street Harbor Park, straddles that line, drawing plenty of gawkers.

One, John Crandall, a visitor from Rochester, N.Y., queried Mattingly about the construction.

"I thought it was some kind of experiment," he said. "I could see where being here it could start some conversations."

WetLand isn't complete; as of Monday, the hard work of installing plumbing and solar panels was still ahead. Construction has been slow going, rife with unique challenges.

Levels, for example, are useless on the water. Tidal shifts of seven feet created complications (and crushed one early attempt at a floating garden). And building a second-floor addition that would not topple in a stiff breeze was an engineering concern.

"Since we added the addition on top, it's definitely catching more wind than it once was," Mattingly observed, as a queasy visitor contemplated making a Dramamine run.

Mattingly is accustomed to the turbulence.

She's been making architectural live-in artworks for nearly a decade. The temporary houses, sometimes aquatic or amphibious, offer a forum for examining issues around housing and water access.

This particular project - made on a budget of $37,000, with recycled and repurposed materials - is designed also to start conversations about our environmental future, and perhaps even improve it a bit.

"The wetland plants, their roots metabolize pollutants in the water," noted Karla Stingerstein, a Philadelphia artist who has been volunteering on WetLand. Local nurseries gave her free advice and plants; EnviroKure, an organic chicken-manure fertilizer company in Tacony, donated fertilizer. They'll be testing water quality to see whether the plants can affect this bit of the Delaware, bobbing with trash and the occasional dead fish.

Though Mattingly's goal was to build a self-sustaining ecosystem, this is no geodesic dome cut off from the community. On the contrary, WetLand is about collaboration. It's a floating community hub, built by a network of about 30 volunteers, who stop by when they want, work autonomously, and, at times, invite themselves to sleep over.

"The boat is in a way a free space where there are a lot less rules than on land," Mattingly said.

That includes the end date of the Fringe Festival. She's planning to stay aboard, and perhaps turn WetLand into a permanent artists' residency.

"This is kind of a life-changing project for me," she said. "It feels like there's a lot of potential. For so long, this was just a proposal, and now it's real. I'd like to see it out."



10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday through Sept. 21, 211 S. Columbus Blvd.





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