I’ve passed through Philadelphia’s Northeast Corridor on a train many times over the last ten years. My impressions of the experience are shared by many, I’m sure: wonder at the ruins; fear of unknown places; disappointment at society’s inability to manage its landscapes better. Katharina Grosse’s psychylustro has me looking at the corridor again, stoking conflicting thoughts—not about the site itself, but rather about this type of painting as public art and/or landscape interpretation—that I find challenging to reconcile.
My interest in such “no-man’s-lands” as the Northeast Corridor emerges from my education as a cultural geographer. The empirical tradition I was schooled in demanded attention be paid to every part of the built environment because it all says something about the people and society that created it (or neglected it). These no-man’s-lands have telling pasts, and their narratives force us to reflect on how our culture designs, uses, and otherwise interprets built environments. No-man’s-lands reveal the forces of landscape generation, including the industries and social norms that create new ones, as well as the economic and cultural forces that compel us to abandon old ones, casting them in some in-between state. The market has left these places behind, so to give them a future we must own, understand, reckon with, even inhabit (metaphorically at least) them as public landscapes—representing a shared, collective past and future.
At first, psychylustro struck me as somehow hollow. Or more accurately, shallow. It presents itself unabashedly as a painting, and thinking of the landscape as a painting so foregrounds surface, appearance, and our contemporary manipulations that it risks undervaluing the buried layers, invisible lives, and obscure potentials of the place. I found its lack of depth signaling a disinterest in all the deep complications I had come to value. The scenographic quality of the paintings tacitly reinforces the thinness of the paint and the gesture—marking something, more than making something.
I began to think about psychylustro’s status as a work of public art. Much public art, of course, speaks only about itself and not about its surroundings. But the purposeful location of psychylustro signaled an intention to rescue the site by reinterpreting it. Urban-scale public paintings can enrich cities in deep ways—witness the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program’s many murals, demonstrating, repeatedly and plurally through the thousands of them, a great legacy of socially purposeful public art. These works operate first and foremost as a layer in a complex urban landscape, not as a painting. As a work of public art, psychylustro should be held to the test of whether it bears a sufficiently deep and complicated reflection on collective memory, urban space, and other public-good issues. In my reckoning, it does not.
The signal quality of experiencing the Northeast Corridor today is the irony and tension between its two typical experiences—from the train and from the ground, from the intense use of the Acela to the uselessness of the derelict factories that line the tracks. psychylustro shows little interest in recognizing or reconciling these, privileging the view from the train and aestheticizing the ruins. The artwork creates an experience of the corridor for train riders, but it does nothing to connect the different experiences Philadelphians and others have of the place. More to the point, it misses the opportunity to create a platform for understanding this landscape better across the divides of time (historical evolution), geography (riders zooming through, residents rooted in place nearby), and social distinctions (the affluent and employed versus the disadvantaged). Addressing these divides is an ever more urgent issue for a part of the city riven by misunderstanding, poor apprehension, and possible misappropriation as an “entrance” to the city.
Notwithstanding these critiques, my opinions of the work changed over time: After weeks of thinking about and looking at it, psychylustro began to win me over. Where I once found it interesting but shallow, repeated exposure has led me to appreciate this public painting’s possible deeper resonance as a provocation—or at least to realize a different reading of Grosse’s work. My change of perspective came less from taking the train than from experiencing psychylustro on foot.
For exercise, I often run on the Schuylkill River trail, stopping at the water fountain at the back of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, near the four-seahorse fountain. While I catch my breath, I see psychylustro there across the river—big orange strokes on the retaining wall on the west bank. This most-southern piece of the project draws me psychically up the rail corridor; it transports me away from the polished renovation of the Waterworks and the museum’s gardens and in to the Northeast Corridor. More meaningfully, psychylustro challenges me to think about how the city’s different parts are put together, not just historically but in our own experiences—how polite views and well-made running trails are of a piece with the abandoned factories, absent opportunities, and ruination evident elsewhere, “upstream” of the connecting railroad.
Further on, if I have the energy, I run as far as the stone trestle supporting the Connecting Railroad, where the train line crosses the Schuylkill and connects the old Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line to its diagonal trace across the grid toward Frankford. Picking up the cue from Grosse’s painting downstream, now it is the massive masonry transporting me psychically, and temporally, to other earlier versions of Philadelphia now out of time or out of sight—not just the Eakins-esque rowing scenes from the riverbank here, but tatty rail spurs and disused factories and eroded neighborhoods distant and long missing up in the Northeast Corridor’s no-man’s-land.
psychylustro does enable me to connect some of the pieces. And I’ve begun to appreciate the sly power and serendipitous geographic and temporal lessons of Grosse’s project. I don’t know how many fellow Philadelphians will have or take the time to contemplate these sorts of connections, but for those who do, psychylustro is—or at least has the potential to become—another piece of the armature of collective remembering. Alas, it’s not just a painting.
Randy Mason is the chair of historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the executive director of PennPraxis.
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