Greg Lindquist – artist, professor, and WetLand collaborator – is fashioning a harness out of rope. He secures himself in, ties the other end to a naked beam, and leans back, held firm by the same rope that is lashed around the dozens of hollow, blue drums keeping WetLand’s garden barges afloat on the Delaware River.
These gardens surround a central structure, a post-apocalyptic vision of a house succumbing to rising water, its windows tilted in deference to nature’s torrid, turgid comeuppance. WetLand, which will open to the public on August 15th as part of the 2014 FringeArts Festival, is a floating structure comprised of this crooked domicile and a mess of plants thriving around it, including the series of buoyant barges which support everything from sunflowers to tomatoes. The doomed house is built upon a reconfigured houseboat, which will soon also be home to solar panels, a water filtration system, a chicken coop for egg-laying hens, and a beehive. With these resources, WetLand’s main creator, artist Mary Mattingly, will live on-site, accompanied by a rotating cast of collaborators and artists-in-residence who will stow away at night in WetLand’s angular attic, under a dramatic slope of upcycled plywood.
It is this slope that Lindquist now clings to, drilling neat lines of screws into its surface. His homemade harness is holding him securely to the boat, albeit a boat sculpted intentionally to appear on the cusp of complete instability.
Lindquist’s connection to WetLand starts with his relationship with Mattingly, whose early photographic work he came across while working on his thesis at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Lindquist has long been interested in how landscapes can represent social, economic, and political issues, and he was accordingly drawn to Mattingly’s work, which imagines how water usage and flooding might impact land formation. Since then, the two have collaborated on a variety of projects, from a two-person exhibition in North Carolina that Lindquist organized to Mattingly’s Flock House project, in which he made a painting installation. Like WetLand, Flock House involved creating an aesthetically interesting public habitat that makes us rethink the shape of our everydays.
Although Lindquist identifies as more artist than activist, his paintings are always enmeshed in issues and themes that he cares about, worlds of ideas much larger than could ever be expressed. “The one thing that I know about the work I make is that it’s not simply a pretty painting. It has a contextual basis, it has a network of other issues and meanings and enactments of things.” he said. “These series of translations are important because I’m taking a lot of imagery and collating and collapsing it into a two-dimensional work.” This process of rendering is messy but necessary.
“I’ve always been a painter who has been interested in ideas outside of painting,” Lindquist said. He cites a critical reading group that he and Mattingly founded together with some writer and curator friends as one example of his work as an artist extending off the canvas, as something that has “pushed against the idea of painting as being this static, singular, discrete object, a painting on the wall. It’s about everything around it, too,” he said. Lindquist sees his writing, teaching, painting, and collaborating as completely intertwined. “[They] are all the same project, they just happen to not fit within the same frame,” he said. “No pun intended.”
Some of Lindquist’s recent work has focused on an environmental disaster close to his childhood home in Wilmington, North Carolina – a coal ash spill in the northern part of the state that contaminated the Dan River and dredged up the governor’s affiliations with the perpetrator, Duke Energy. “My work dealt with [the question], ‘How do you visualize this in a pleasing, beautiful way that lured people into the issue and then allowed them to engage and be confronted by it in a way that works against the inherent beauty [of the piece]?” Lindquist said. One of his pieces, a 40-foot wide painting of “swirling vortices” of coal ash mixing with river water, embodies a particularly grotesque beauty which both attracts and repels.
Lindquist wants his work to elicit a complex aesthetic response, but also an empathic response. “I believe painting is very important to engaging people because it can put someone in the position where they imagine themselves not only as the viewer but as the person who made it,” he said. Painting can also allow an audience to see the work “as a living, breathing entity and object that can have a dialogue with you,” he said. This mutable ability for empathy can in fact be invoked by an aesthetic response. “I think beauty can increase sensitivity,” Lindquist said.
With a pressing issue like environmental disaster, an audience moved to sensitivity and engagement may be one step closer to taking action. Lindquist believes that only art can generate that kind of charged attention. “The difference between using beauty in… art and in activism is that activism has a main goal in sight and it’s about getting to that goal. I think that in doing that it mechanizes and commodifies the process,” he said. “Painting is a very slow burn, it’s a very open-ended process, so it also allows you to see the nuances of a situation and be able to constantly amend and revise your position on something, so it’s more organic and open ended.”
For Lindquist, developing empathy about important issues through his art is also deeply tied to building community. “I have no disillusionment about art changing the world or changing these issues. I don’t think that’s going to take great strides, but I think it will give a platform for people to talk about [these issues], to come together and have conversations,” he said. These conversations, however, cannot happen until communities are aware of the issues in the first place. Lindquist recalls travelling across North Carolina with Mattingly and giving talks at universities where few people knew the basic facts about the coal ash disaster happening in their own state. “I think raising awareness is the first step, but it’s not the end goal,” he said. “The end goal is to really build a discourse and then have people make the decisions themselves, to see the issue, to decide how they want to be inspired by it or what action they want to take.”
With his art, Lindquist hopes to provide a way for people to come together and make these decisions collaboratively. “Empathy is the way to bring people in and give them a safe space to think about [these issues],” he says. He is inspired by a number of community-oriented artists, including Doug Ashford, whose artist collective Group Material put together community-engaged exhibitions in the East Village of New York City. One featured donated household items from around the neighborhood, accompanied by their stories.
Lindquist has also learned a lot about community from Mattingly. “Something I’ve really learned from Mary and her work is that it involves many partnerships and collaborations and mutual learning exchanges,” he said. Lindquist is excited about his own role on WetLand, which involves a focus on developing the gardens and planning the Boat Banquet, which will take place on Saturday, August 16th and Sunday, August 17th and celebrate WetLand’s opening with mainly boat-grown food.
“There’s something interesting about making the work site specific in its endemic location, from the gardens, in the proximity of which they were taken,” he said. Lindquist will be cooking with a combination of solar cookers and induction cooktops running on solar power. The solar cookers “look like futuristic instruments from some of Mary’s earlier photographs so I find it interesting that it’s within a speculation about what the future looks like if we didn’t have resources,” he said.
The future may be murky but the table will be set on Friday with enough greenery to feed a horde of hammer-wielding artists. The food will be vegan and gluten-free. On the menu is everything from a lavender and orange salad with micro-greens to sorrel pesto to dinosaur kale, a vegetable whose moniker promises great things. “Eating is one of the few essential pleasures we have left,” Lindquist said. “Just like painting.”
– Abby Holtzman
Independence Seaport Museum Pier
211 South Columbus Blvd (at Dock St)
Aug 15–Sept 21, 10:00am–5:00pm (ongoing)
More information: http://www.wet-land.org/