Through the use of science fiction and fantasy imagery, New York artist Mary Mattingly addresses real world problems of environmental sustainability. Throughout her various photographic series, which supplement her sculptural, installation, and performative works, Mattingly offers a vision of the world populated by ingenuous survivors- building, scrapping, and inventing new methods of living off the land in what alludes to as a post-apocalyptic society.
Gregory Jones: First off Mary, Talk about your work as a whole. What are your origins as an artist?
Mary Mattingly: Growing up in a mobile home I have always considered mobility as either choice or necessity, with little in-between. In school in Portland, Oregon in the year 2000, I began making and implementing tools for a future existence upon learning of Bechtel’s privatization of water in Bolivia. Learning about that really affected me, as I’ve always been very close to living on the edge of necessity and understood that there were many things I didn’t know how to do to obtain basic resources, such as collecting water. Extending this proposal to the rest of the world in the not-so-distant future, I started designing simple water collection and purification devices for decentralized systems that empowered a person with regular skills, who had to make it and then use it. I would take them to the desert in Oregon and test them. From there, I began constructing these suits called Wearable Homes and documenting myself using them in extreme natural conditions, understanding that these conditions may be more prevalent and widespread in the future. They began as cocoon-like tents that could be worn for easy carry and then deployed. They quickly got bigger, more abstract and in fact monstrous in most cases. I documented them being used. They became metaphors for a future based on the most rudimentary and distorted survival.
GJ: The bulk of your work seems to revolve around ideas of environmental concerns, and our role as stewards of the earth. I see influences of the ParkeHarrisons in this respect; am I close to the mark here? Who are some of the other artists who’ve helped to inform your work?
MM: I do expect that in the near future, much more of the world’s population will be forced to migrate for environmental or political reasons. I’ve been creating these wearable environments that involve functional aspects such as protection but are also invented as non-functional tools for a proposed future. When I started this body of work, I had diverse sources of influence, from sculptor/photographer Thomas Demand, earthworks artist Robert Smithson, and architects like Buckminster Fuller, or Archigram; to sources like the Whole Earth Catalog and science journals. A lot of the people I look to work in several different realms at one time, for instance Smithson created the earthwork The Spiral Jetty which also involved writing and a film.
GJ: Talk us through the process of making your photographs. Just how involved is the production from one image to the next?
MM: I either start with a situation, experiment, or tool and then work towards photographing these things as proposals for a future world, or start a proposal for a future through a photograph that I then attempt to realize in an actual situation – like the Wearable Homes, Waterpod or Flock House project, where people (including myself) live in biosphere-like conditions, floating or in urban centers. The photographs are documents of the sculptures, and collages of multiple places like the sculptures are collages of multiple materials. I rely on collage to tell the story of a future when place-specificity is no longer necessary. At one point I would have said I was describing an impending dystopic reality and a warning, but for a while now I’ve been working towards new ways of living within these realities that I see as unavoidable.
GJ: Your photographs contain figures that seem to be experiencing a type of spiritual kinship with the land they occupy. They are strangely costumed, and interact with similarly strange sculptural contraptions. Who are these nomads and what is their goal?
MM: These nomads are a proposal for the future conditions of anyone, when more and more people are forced to move for environmental, political, and economic reasons. Their suits provide bubble-like protection, more so than common clothes, and in the photographs they are co-existing with their surroundings in a way that is functional. In the photographs they build habitats, use nonsensical tools and so forth, and in the research that is often documented in texts and online, their narrative is expanded through descriptions of these tools and environment.
GJ: The landscapes themselves seem to depict a type of virgin environment that is intermittently violated by the machinations of war and destruction. I first read these pictures as pure fantasy, but there are some very poignant metaphors here. Can you talk about the messages these pictures aim for? Are they fables? Or warnings?
MM: A lot of these landscapes were places I traveled through where I saw instances of migration in unusual forms or places or where I photographed sculptures to tell a story about the potential for migration and what that would look like within future conditions. These include continuously over-exploited and over-consumed land and oceans, and an isolation that results from degradation of the community-unit stemming from a general concern over less public space, the politics and economy of fear. I’m interested in a work of art that can be as expansive and reaching as a fable passed on from generation to generation, and pictures can often do this.
GJ: Throughout your Nomadographies series, there’s a re-occurring motif about personal possessions. As your characters traverse difficult environments, their belongings are both a great burden and a great necessity. Talk about your attitude towards this notion of materiality and necessity.
MM: Nomadographies is a group of photographs that document a trip I took with a friend from Guadalajara to Mexcaltitan in Mexico on bicycles with our stuff piled high in boxes. I was interested in the form (bikes or shopping carts with piles of stuff) as a commonplace way to move in a future when everyone is moving. I wanted to depict something that will be everywhere (given time) and was interested in the repurposing of those objects. How can an umbrella become a tool for collecting water instead of for protecting from it? Whether mass-produced objects are bundled into sculptures and made useless or these possessions are necessary for survival, I think that the story is the most important part. The object itself is an indicator for the story it contains: one of a cycle of connection and disconnection that happens between people and things along the route of a supply chain, the life of the object and the underlying fact that everything and everyone in this cycle is a commodity. These things reflect a sped-up cycle of building, collecting, packing, decomposing, destroying, and rebuilding.
GJ: A popular application of digital imaging I’ve been seeing is this act of re-imagining the world– creating a type of alternate narrative containing ideas about myth and post-apocalyptic lore. It seems to me that among the primary goals of digital image-makers is to fabricate the world in their own image, and to draft their own stories of creation and destruction. Do you have any thoughts on this idea?
MM: People still want to believe photographs, including the makers. They exist in the real world in a way that’s entirely possible to understand, so that break with reality is more seamless. This work allows me to challenge my perception of reality, through the record and its abstraction. Artists have been utilizing photo-collaging techniques since photography’s invention, it’s always straddling the real.
GJ: Lastly, what’s in store for you over the next year?
MM: I just opened a show called House and Universe at Robert Mann Gallery, it’s about the duality between local and universal, and how one affects the other. It describes the leftovers in object-based economies of exploitation by focusing on the mass produced objects that I personally own and wrapping them into large boulder-like forms. I think of them as object-based icons. I’ve been using them in public experiments and public artwork, and photographing them to begin inventing a new set of tools for a post-industrial world. I’m asking myself, what could future building blocks look like? Through this process I document these things and their new use.
Introduction and Interview by Gregory Jones
Special thank you to the Robert Mann Gallery
Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published on our previous platform, In the In-Between: Journal of Digital Imaging Artists.
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