For several weeks last June a houseboat sat nestled between multi-million dollar yachts and sailboats at Long Wharf in New York’s Sag Harbor. The 45-foot vessel strongly contrasted the look of its sleek counterparts, a haphazardly built boat with uneven wooden slats and plants growing wildly around its exterior. The ship was a project titled “WetLand” by visual artist Mary Mattingly, and was docked in the harbor as an off-site addition for the Parrish Art Museum’s exhibition “Radical Seafaring,” curated by Andrea Grover.
“WetLand” was one of several water-based artworks featured in the exhibition, which included 25 artists who have used rivers, oceans, or seas as a site for studio, research, or performance. The exhibition featured objects, video, and ephemera within the museum’s galleries in addition to Mattingly’s off-site artwork. By situating the piece as close to its original context as possible, Grover was able to more fully engage the audience in regard to the piece’s conceptual and practical purposes.
“Having ‘WetLand’ in the water gave visitors a real life experience of being aboard an artist-made boat as it bobs and floats, attracts wildlife (a female mallard nested on the bow), grows the plants and edibles it was intended to grow, and so forth,” said Grover. “This makeshift-looking, self-sufficient houseboat also provided a stark contrast to the mega-yachts and sailboats that were docked on Long Wharf; this generated a relational dialogue with other boaters, tourists, and marine workers.”
In addition to providing a more immediate understanding of Mattingly’s work for visitors who traveled to the wharf, “WetLand” also created a literal and metaphorical platform to connect a non-art audience to the show and its ideas.
“When someone comes to a museum or a gallery, their intention is to see and experience the work there,” said Grover. “They have an interest or investment in the material. When you put something out into another environment, not an art context, you have a lot more explaining to do for a variety of people who will visit or just happen upon the work.”
This included several conversations with wharf officials to explain the houseboat’s artistic context and importance. The dialogue was flipped for the works located on-site, as it was up to Grover’s installation and wall text to translate how the included pieces had previously operated on the sea or waterway.
One such work was a large raft built by the mixed media artist Swoon. The artist had used the work “Hickory,” to crash the 2009 Venice Biennale alongside 30 other artist collaborators via the Adriatic Sea. The raft, which was pieced together with salvaged materials, was more about a singular performance than preserving a functional vessel, and was thus displayed as a sculptural object in the exhibition.
The work was a major feat for Grover and the Parrish Art Museum, with installation taking four days to complete.
“The work was in dozens of puzzle pieces when it arrived,” said Grover. “Much of the original wood had been scavenged, then floated in the Adriatic—it wasn’t the pristine material museums are accustomed to handling.”
The museum staff and members from Swoon’s original voyage worked from memory and images, which resulted in a 5-foot error during installation. “Hickory” ended up taking nearly the entire width of the gallery, which forced other works to be moved to accommodate its girth. This issue however, only led to the the magnitude of its impact. Grover was not worried about its new location within the gallery ruining the vitality of the once water-bound work, as the whimsical quality of the raft’s appearance was enough to provoke awe from the exhibition’s visitors.
“People literally turned the corner in the gallery and breathed, ‘Wow,’” explained Grover.
Another recent environmentally-charged exhibition was the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center’s 2012 show “Green Acres,” curated by Sue Spaid. The exhibition included artwork that focused on invention and cultivation by artists who identified as farmers and vice versa. One particular work was an installation of Newton and Helen Harrison’s “Survival Series” (1970-1973). Spaid and the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center were fortunate enough to have blueprints to recreate the work within the gallery space, rather than relying on memory like the Parrish Art Museum’s team. Although the indoor garden had no installation-based difficulties, there were initial institutional worries about mounting an operational farm inside the arts center’s walls.
“At one point [the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center was] not even going to let me build the farm inside of the museum,” explained Spaid. “They were really against that idea. So I told them that if the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati couldn’t figure out how to install this piece, than how would Tate Modern or MOMA figure it out? This was supposed to be where the experiments take place.”
Eventually Spaid convinced the museum by suggesting the use of a screen that controlled and contained insects, dust, and dirt. This addition prevented issues of contamination associated with the indoor garden.
Like “Radical Seafaring,” “Green Acres” also had off-site elements (six in total). One such work was the “Red Bank Pawpaw Circle,” an outdoor farm on a plot of land within the intersection of three roads. The piece was built by the collaborative duo Susanne Cockrell and Ted Purves, or Fieldfaring. This in situ work was not a subtle intervention to the land, yet aesthetically it might have gone unnoticed as a piece of art to those unaware of its artistic intention.
“The artists, who knew they wanted to create a pawpaw circle, checked out a dozen sites before they decided that this one worked the best,” said Spaid. “The work is meant to be edible landscaping, so to function, it must be seen first as food, then as art.”
Both off-site works mentioned lived outside of an obvious arts context which allowed for a larger audience to approach the work. “Green Acres” merged conversations regarding farming and art, while “Radical Seafaring” pushed how art art can be viewed within an environmental conversation.
“That was the success of the exhibit,” said Grover. “We brought these people together into a single dialogue about how art, with other branches of knowledge, can affect the larger world.”