Inside a Floating, Eco-Conscious Art Project
New York Times T Magazine // June, 2016
NY Times T Magazine Link
This summer on Long Island’s East End, one exhibition features artwork that’s a far cry from the stereotypical blue-chip Hamptons summer style, with utopian aspirations and often provisional aesthetics. “Radical Seafaring,” organized by the Parrish Art Museum curator Andrea Grover, brings together 25 artists and collectives who create, as she writes, “land art, only afloat”: installations and performances designed to be experienced off dry land. The show traces the history of the genre, from midcentury Conceptualists such as Bas Jan Ader (who was tragically lost at sea during a 1975 sailing performance), Chris Burden and the obscure Japanese collective The Play to contemporary makers like Mark Dion, Duke Riley and Swoon. And for two weeks this summer, the New York-based artist Mary Mattingly brings the exhibition truly offshore with “WetLand,” a houseboat sculpture docked beside yachts at the Long Wharf in Sag Harbor.
Mattingly, 37, follows the tradition of environmental artists who devise alternative ways of living in the face of impending ecological disaster: she seeks to explore “what you can do on the water that you can’t do on land,” she says, and considers the sea an extension of the commons. In a 2009 work, the “Waterpod” project, Mattingly and four others lived on a self-sustaining barge that navigated New York’s waterways, kitted out with solar energy, edible plants, a water filtration system and chicken coop. Mattingly initially conceived “WetLand” — a repurposed 1971 Rockwell Whitcraft houseboat — for the Philadelphia nonprofit FringeArts in 2014. Collaborating with over 30 organizations, Mattingly gutted the 45-by-12-foot vessel, outfitting it with solar panels and varied species of wood stripped from a gym floor in Iowa. She describes the dramatically sloping boat as “something between sinking and rising, a shack and a palace.” It symbolically evokes the housing market crash, and is literally reminiscent of collapsing homes.
At the Parrish, as in Philadelphia, “WetLand” functions as a semi-sustainable residency and a platform for Mattingly to demonstrate DIY solutions. The boat contains a rainwater purification system, a composting toilet, a bathtub, a library and edible perennial plants. The project, and Mattingly herself, attract a loyal following — last Wednesday, a duck even spontaneously laid eggs on the vessel. And the utopian thinking that informs “WetLand” carries through to Mattingly’s next venture, “Swale,” which launches at the end of this month: a floating food forest, host to perennial crops like figs and huckleberries, on a 130-by-110-foot barge that will sail around the city.