Objects of Life

October 6th, 2013

Our oceans have warmed by almost one degree fahrenheit in the past 40 years, sea levels rose almost eight inches in the past 100 years, and the Arctic sea ice has lost more than 300,000 square miles per decade since 1979. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have passed, in parts of the world, 400 parts per million – the highest in millions of years. Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported 95% certainty that humans are responsible for climate change, up from 66% in 2001. And based on our current CO2 emissions, our atmosphere will become dangerous before the end of this century. For doomsday scenarios, how about this one, which already is under way?

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Luckily, we have artists committed to environmental topics and practices. And these artists have traditions to support them. Mary Mattingly is one of these committed artists. Her current show, House and Universe, at Robert Mann Gallery, combines photographs and sculptures about cycles of consumption.

Mary Mattingly, "House and Universe" at Robert Mann Gallery

For starters, Mattingly consolidates her belongings into clusters that she calls “man-made boulders,” then performs with them in set-up photos to demonstrate her views about alternative ways we might live with the things we consume. For example, Pull (2013), in which the artist does just that to a twine-bound bundle of belongings, suggests an itinerant (and labor-intensive) practice that makes use of existing urban infrastructure. (Would Push be too Sisyphean?)  Mobile living might be in our futures, and the obvious way to facilitate this way of living is to reduce our possessions. (Then again, most young renters in the City are familiar with this lifestyle.)

Mary Mattingly, "Pull" and "Life of Objects" (both 2013)

More poignant is Life of Objects (2013), in which that cumbersome bundle rests on top of a fetal-positioned nude figure. Although the boulder seems massive, the figure does not appear distressed, and there’s even an ergonomic negotiation between the contours of the model’s upper body and the boulder. This picture asks: Are we overwhelmed by our weighty consumption? Is there an ideal proportion between individuals and their belongings? And could we repurpose our consumed goods as sheltering resources? Mattingly seems to believe that we could. About the model/boulder stack, she writes:

“Cradled in the curve of the spine, these ‘things’ are also our blanket and thus our protection. Subsequent works like Floating a Boulder and Flock explicate the ways that wayside objects can transform into clothing, transportation, or shelter in a post-apocalyptic world.”

Mary Mattingly, "House and Universe" at Robert Mann Gallery

Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969-70) appears in Mattingly’s Filling Double Negative (in collaboration with Greg Lindquist) (2013), and other images in this show might remind viewers of Robert Smithson, Ana Mendieta, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and even Robert Rauschenberg. What’s interesting is that these senior pioneers did not have explicit environmentalist agendas, but through Mattingly’s references and citations, possible environmentalist dimensions of those artists’ output might rise to the surface.

Viewers can glean a sense of Mattingly’s optimism by examining her resourcefulness with materials, her provisional experimentation, and above all, her readiness to make lemonade from the lemons that climate change might give. Is there a utopia in store for the humans who survive a CO2 saturated atmosphere – the 500 ppm club? If so, Mattingly might already have begun to supply a vocabulary for it.

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