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Site/Sound: Revealing the Rail Park Moon Viewing Platform

For Site/Sound: Revealing the Rail Park, Nadia Hironaka, Matt Suib, and Eugene Lew teamed up to create Moon Viewing Platform, an installation and performance space that brings cosmological awareness to an urban fragment of Philadelphia. The project drew inspiration from the metaphysical aesthetics of the Japanese garden, particularly the karesansui, or “dry gardens” of rock and sand associated with Zen Buddhism. Designed to draw us inward, these gardens invited contemplation of our existence within the natural world.

Sited in a section of the former railway referred to as “The Cut,” between North 17th and North 18th Street adjacent to Baldwin Park – just a few blocks away from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Callowhill – Moon Viewing Platform occupied a long, rectangular swath of abandoned land bordered by parking structures and overpasses. An enormous blank wall served as a projection screen. Here, passersby experienced a series of eight short whimsical projections inspired by zen koans. Recorded onsite, each featured the mysterious moon in various phases of waxing or waning, as well as a gardener caretaker performing simple acts that gave way to supernatural experience. (Local chef Cristina Martinez, artist Sarah McEneaney, and musician Harold E. Smith are among the “luminaries.”)

Historically, karesansui gardens are contemplative spaces that are not entered, but viewed from the veranda of a temple. In this contemporary version, one of the parking garages and the overpasses supplanted the temple. Viewers hovering above looked down into the space below.

Plants growing in this urban netherzone were “volunteers,” seeded haphazardly by wind and birds. They included black locust, redbud, milkweed, sumac, paulownia, goldenrod, and a lone weeping willow tree. Hironaka, Suib, and Lew worked with landscapers to shape and built upon this vegetation alive with cicadas, crickets, and mourning doves. Japanese gardens often incorporate a distant landscape as “borrowed scenery” – the edges of a pine or bamboo forest, for example. Here, an eclectic mix of buildings in the skyline became part of the visual backdrop.

In the “dry garden,” gravel substitutes water. At times recalling a pond, a river, or the edge of the sea, it flows around small islands of rocks and plantings – evoking the “river of life” itself. In Moon Viewing Platform, ⅜ inch limestone sourced from local quarries, similar to the stone is used between railroad ties, was shaped into enormous semi-circles representative of half-moons. A rectilinear shape cut into the sand mirrored the aperture of the parking lot windows above. The artists drew inspiration from the famous Kogetsudai or “moon viewing platform” of Ginkaku-ji, also known as the Temple of the Silver Pavilion created in Kyoto in 1480. The “platform,” an eight-foot tall cone of sand truncated at the top, and seemingly incapable of bearing weight, rose from a sea of sand—a profound enigma–sublime when illuminated by a full moon in the darkness of the garden.

Autumn is moon-viewing season in Japan, a time when people gather for Tsukimi (moon viewing parties). Here in Philly, Hironaka, Suib, and Lew brought us together under the spell of the moonlight for precious occasions of respite from our troubled and troubling world. If ever there were a moment to gather together, to look inward, and contemplate the inner secrets of the natural world, as well as share in the fleeting beauty and sadness of all evanescent life – this was the time.

Site/Sound: Revealing the Rail Park Moon Viewing Platform