Under the Bridge

Students explore the underside of one of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

By Peter Crimmins
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 4, 2009

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Chain gang: A dozen Temple University students created art after getting up close and personal with one of the city's largest overpasses.

To capture the scope of the Ben Franklin Bridge, an artist ought to paint from the vantage point of Penn's Landing or a Northern Liberties rooftop. But if you wanted to study the steel structure, you'd find yourself dodging expressway on-ramp traffic, kicking away bits of twisted rebar, broken bottles and generally getting your shoes dirty. Most people would rather just hop in a car and drive to Camden.

That's not an option for a dozen Temple University art and architecture students. As part of Temple Gallery's current exhibit "Field Reports, Documents and Strategies from Land Arts of the American West," workshop participants had to go out and explore. They collected emotional, sensual and aesthetic detritus by poking around the underbelly of the bridge. Then they recreated it inside a small basement gallery on Third Street.

Jenna Price used a metal detector to pull a long-lost toy car, sunglasses and crushed beer cans from the dirt beneath the span. Thin plexiglass tubes arranged by architecture student Andrea DeVico simulate the sweeping arch of a trestle. Marcello Schiffino made flawed prints of homeless camp photographs using faulty ink cartridges and hung them amid the cleaning products in the janitor's closet. The whole space rumbles with the sound of automobiles vibrating the bridge deck, recorded by video artist Sarah Muehlbauer.

"History is richer because of intricacies and complexities," says workshop leader Chris Taylor, director of the Land Arts of the American West program in Texas. "I like to construct groups to see them in equally diverse and rich ways. That way we don't walk away with just a single story."

Part of Taylor's method is forcing artists and designers out of their cozy studio comfort zones to accept the serendipitous or calamitous vagaries of the real world outside.

To create the 42-and-a-half-foot drawing of the bridge scrolling along the top of the gallery's walls, Gretchen Batcheller's ungloved fingers faced subfreezing temperatures for four days. Which explains why one end of the scroll is more detailed than the other. "When the windchill was 10 degrees, I was doing what I could to get to the end of the block." At the end she was also dealing with onlookers suggesting, "If you just took a picture you'd be a lot warmer."

The show doesn't end in the gallery. Each installation is completed by companion installations left on or near the bridge. The purpose of these works is to encourage gallery viewers to go out experience the site firsthand, to hear the crunch of gravel underfoot and feel the cold sting in the air.

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