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The Story of an Installation in a Polluted River and Its Subsequent Removal

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Mary Mattingly, “Wading Bridge” (2015) at Des Moines, Iowa’s Raccoon River (all images courtesy Mat Greiner)

DES MOINES, Iowa — On June 27th, the third-worst flood in the history of Des Moines, Iowa’s Raccoon River, necessitated the quick and urgent rescue of “Wading Bridge,” the most recent installation by the New York-based artist Mary Mattingly. This move was the fifth of a total of nine displacements that the approximately 4,500-pound installation has endured to date. When floodwaters weren’t threatening to wash it away, it was (according to the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation) either the Army Corps of Engineers suddenly vetoing previously approved design proposals or the budget — insufficient to pay for a professional installation crew and equipment — that almost killed the project.

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Nitrate foam collecting on the east edge of Mary Mattingly’s “Wading Bridge” (2015) at Des Moines, Iowa’s Raccoon River (click to enlarge)

Neither Mattingly nor the Des Moines organizations that commissioned the piece — the Des Moines Area MPO, the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation, Des Moines Water Works Park Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Iowa Arts Council — anticipated how poorly “Wading Bridge” would handle the volatility of the river and the pressures of a vocal minority of community detractors. When “Wading Bridge” eventually was installed, it provoked the raucous protest of petty paddlers who claimed that the installation blocked boat access to the river. On August 15, following another floodwater rescue, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) announced that “Wading Bridge” would not be reinstalled in its site-specific location on the Raccoon “out of respect for the time of the volunteer installation crew.” After its removal, the installation came into the possession of Robert Riley, the CEO of “a collection of related companies that serve the agricultural industry.” Last month, Riley offered “Wading Bridge” a safe home near his company’s corporate campus in Pleasant Hill, Iowa, away from the river’s torrents and, paradoxically, from the setting that gave the installation its critical force.

For the past 14 years, Mattingly’s work has been about imagining how we could survive a future ravaged by climate change. Her installations and performances are often staged in highly sustainable, built environments that rely on community involvement. An example is the 2009 “Waterpod Project,” which involved Mattingly, three other crewmembers, and various visitors living within a self-sustaining habitat aboard a 30-by-100-foot barge on New York City’s Hudson River. The “Waterpod Project” provided participants with a different model for living in relation to the Hudson. In its former location on the Raccoon River, “Wading Bridge” did something similar, allowing visitors to interact safely with a natural resource, which, despite its vital role to the city of Des Moines, is often perceived as unpredictable and dangerous.

“Water is not necessarily something that I feel safe around,” said Mattingly in a phone interview, undoubtedly echoing the feeling of Iowans who are most affected by frequent and severe flooding. “But hearing people in Des Moines express their yearning for these natural spaces reminded me that we cannot only talk about their destruction. We also need to remind ourselves of the beauty and joy that these spaces bring us and remember that that is another reason we struggle for their preservation.”

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Mary Mattingly, “Wading Bridge” (2015) at Des Moines, Iowa’s Raccoon River

In July, during the moments of calm between floodwater rescues, I visited “Wading Bridge” when it was still installed on the Raccoon River. More dock than bridge, “Wading Bridge” protruded 12 feet into the water. A sunken central platform invited visitors to remove their shoes and step into the river. Ideally, the feeling of dread that many people had when confronted with water would turn to joy when they were able to interact with it in a safe manner via “Wading Bridge.” My own feelings of delight, however, mingled with repulsion as I looked down at the water rushing over my own toes. I was delighted because water is the primeval wellspring of all life on earth. I was repulsed because this water was murky brown with chunks of foamy white nitrate run-off that broke over my ankles as it flowed by in a nearly constant stream. Enjoyment is the objective of the city’s role in this public art project. A critical reflection on the state of Earth’s ecosystems is Mattingly’s.

These cloudy masses could be considered exhibit-A in the upcoming lawsuit between the city’s independent water treatment utility, Des Moines Water Works, and the Iowa counties of Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun. Water Works alleges that these three counties tainted the city’s water supply by failing to regulate industrial farming. Current estimates project a cost of $60 billion per year over 50 years to manage the current rate of pollution and to ensure that 500,000 central Iowans have clean drinking water.

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“Wading Bridge” in its new, permanent location near the campus of the Riley Resource Group

In “Wading Bridge’s” previous location it was possible and probable that park visitors — as well as the throng of journalists, pundits, and presidential candidates that have descended on the city in anticipation of the caucuses in February — would visit and witness the gravity of the situation. However, in its current location, this element of political relevancy is lost. Visitors to the installation are still able to safely enjoy nature but they are no longer made to witness the ecological crisis threating the state. In short, the context that is so vital to public art in general, and this specific piece of ecologically-minded work in particular is compromised.

“When I heard about where it would be reinstalled, it gave me pause,” Mattingly admitted to me over email. “I wondered if the employees at Riley Resource Group would wade during their lunch break. I wondered if the water there was clean, and what message it would send them.” Hopefully that the natural world is full of enticing spaces that are worthy of being saved.

As I watched the brown water wash over my toes, during my visit to “Wading Bridge,” it struck me: How much more do I care about the quality of my water if I am close enough to see it? To feel it? Certainly, it’s hard to ignore pertinent ecological realities when they are bubbling over your feet.

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