As our environment is becoming more and more tainted with the remnantsof our consumption, it is essential to take a step back to reconsider how we engage with the objects we possess, remembering the journey that not only precedes them, but also will follow once they are outwith our control. Do objects come with responsibility? This is the question which defines our relationship with the material world and lingers behind the artistic devotion of Mary Mattingly, a visual artist based in Brooklyn, NYC.
Her works range through photography, collaborative sculpture, performance and land art, expressed in some of her collective projects such as Swale, an edible landscape floating on a barge in New York for fresh food foraging; Public Water, a public artwork and campaign on the city’s water supply chain; or the Waterpod Project, exploring the possibility of nomadic and mobile water-communities. The building of these independent living systems repre-sents a need to reimagine the ways we will live together as a community in the present and future. Along with these urban ‘ecosystems’, Mattingly has also thoroughly explored the themes of sustainability, possession and waste, tracing the maps which underlie the life of objects that surround us every day.
Through her series ‘Nomadographies and Wearable Homes’ and ‘House and Universe’, she was able to capture the nature of humankind as a constituent part of the environment, constantly roaming and transforming with it. Through the contrast of local and non-local spaces, whose interdependency is ever so evident in supply and waste chains, Mattingly presents an allegorical collection of photographs embracing the connection between climate disasters and consumption. In 2013, she decided to bundle almost all of the objects she possessed in seven large bundles which were pushed or rolled through the streets of New York. Afterwards, she began a digital archive of all these objects, emphasising their history before parting with them: from their extraction from the earth, to their journey into the hands of makers and distributors, to the impact of chemicals dispersed in the air and water. In her own words, each object is embedded with trauma. Though this practice, she wished to shed light not only on the weight that reduces our mobility, but also on the material relationships within the objects themselves and their impact on others. In her photographs, it becomes clear how the answer to the question is yes: we are responsible for our waste of time and the Sisyphean burden of objects we collect throughout our lives, but we are also able to take the lead and cultivate our lightness.
Where did it all start? When did art become your main language?
My father taught me how to use a camera and I started building sculptures to photograph when I was young. I enjoyed composing in the camera and photographing something I made within the world around me, it gave me emotional distance to better reflect upon daily life. But when I started building sculptural spaces to inhabit, and life could unfold around the sculptures, art became my main language.
How did you first approach sustainability with your art? What led you in this direction?
Growing up in an agricultural community where the drinking water was polluted from pesticides made me aware of how fragile access can be to basic daily needs. I also grew up in a home where we reused almost everything. I first approached ecological concerns in art through focusing on water. I built sculptural and wearable water purification systems. Eventually, I began focusing on food and shelter, two other necessities that are tied to a host of questions and concerns about access, sustainability, and environmental change.
What is the connection between art and the earth? In your opinion, what is the role of the artist in times such as the climate crisis we are facing?
Often artists are in a dialogic relationship with the earth. Much of the art I make literally comes from the earth, whether the soils or plants, or the minerals mined to make the objects I reuse. Art questions and it asks the people who experience it to question as well. The questions art provokes don’t necessarily have answers. Art often evokes contradiction, which is an essential human condition. I believe people like artists who imagine alternatives hold a powerful instrument for change and also need to use their gifts to contribute to a global movement combating climate change.
Could you describe your most precious creation ever made, and why it is important to you?
In 2013 I bundled all of my belongings into seven boulders to iconify my own consumption. Some of the belongings I had carried with me for twenty years and had saved from when I was a child. Before I bundled them, I documented most of them, in some cases even making 3D scans. The bundling process felt like building a time capsule, it was at once a cleansing and a reminder.
In a series of your photographs you represent our relationship with possession, waste and the environment. What do you think must change in our consumer culture, in order to both avoid waste and enable our being to flourish?
Consumer culture has entire industries that support it, from advertising to some news to market research. People in these industries need to help create a systemic change of purpose, and that will happen by these people doing it on their own or people outside of these industries compelling a change of purpose. What must change is purpose.
What responsibility comes with the ownership of our objects?
Every freedom comes with responsibility, and I believe some of the responsibilities people hold around objects include: not to waste, to reuse and repair rather than buy something new, and to understand how the current pace of extraction is not sustainable. It affects all of us, including the land, water, air and nonhumans. When systems of production, trade, and consumption use the social and ecological space of others, it is a form of violence.
In your own words, what is beauty to you?
I find beauty in most things, especially things humans do and make, but it stops me in my tracks when people consider more just and equitable worlds through utopian imagining.
Would you describe art as an extension of your life or as life itself?
Absolutely, I don’t see a difference. Life is filled with large and small rituals, all of which are art.
What are the main teachings you wish future generations will carry with them?
That art is integral for systemic eco-social change, and of course that everyone and everything is interdependent. The future has to be interdependent with regenerative potentials.