“We’re probably doomed as humans if we don’t start thinking in a posthuman way,” Mary Mattingly posited during a recent “Art:21” documentary. Her grim assessment, a by-product of years spent independently studying the exploitation of workers and natural resources that propels consumption in the world’s affluent areas, is accompanied by ambitious experiments in imagining more sustainable means of subsistence. In the highly inventive tradition of Buckminster Fuller, Mattingly has fabricated futuristic “Wearable Homes”—protective suits equipped to guard against extreme temperatures, flooding, insects and bacteria—and mobile geodesic domes. Several such domes were mounted on the “Waterpod,” a retrofitted barge that carried the artist and her crew around New York City’s harbor for six months in 2009 as they tried to live self sufficiently on the vessel (growing food, recycling rainwater, etc.).
“House and Universe,” Mattingly’s third solo show with Robert Mann, reflected the artist’s environmental concerns in two sculptures and 15 photographs, many of which document her public projects. The photo Flock (2012), for example, features one of her floating structures. Atop a platform, two geodesic domes covered with white tarps and surrounded by containers of plants are engulfed by an expanse of sky and sea. Continent (2012) shows a barge and rafts subsumed in a murky fog; a sharp edge between the rippling waters and the solid background, among other Photoshopped aspects of the image, reveals the barren surroundings as an aesthetic frame. The unmoored vessel thus emerges as both a symbol of vulnerability and a privileged vantage point in these and several other of the show’s photographs, which evince a romantic tendency eclipsed by sheer purpose and will in the artist’s mobile environments. Yet, if Mattingly’s intentions are resolutely political, her photographs nonetheless evoke the spiritual. Take the serene vision of escape in For a Week Without Speaking (2012), a photograph depicting the artist rowing in quietly rippling waters, her bundled possessions atop wooden shafts, in the autumnal glow of a forested bank.
Mattingly’s combination of ecological engagement and otherworldly beauty is reminiscent of much Land art, and she knowingly interpolates herself into this tradition with Filling Double Negative (in collaboration with Greg Lindquist), 2013. Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969), a vast trench on Nevada’s Mormon Mesa, is pictured from its depths with a boulder in the foreground wrapped in a blue-green tarp and twine. Heizer’s piece functions as an important reference for the show, in its paradoxical use of emptying to achieve scale.
Mattingly advances reduction as a Sisyphean task. In the 52-by-36-by-36-inch sculpture Terrene (2012), a hanging twine-wrapped ball of domestic sundries—purses, bedside lamps, paperback novels and art magazines—the artist has compressed her belongings into a burden. Rather than push this hodgepodge boulder up a hill, she pulls it across a city sidewalk in Pull (2013) and places it on top of a reclined nude male, seen from behind, for Life of Objects (2013). In the urban outdoors, the mass of intimate possessions seems to expose the shame of private accumulation; indoors, on a naked, anonymous man, it becomes a more visceral strain on individualism.
Accompanying these works, Mattingly created a website, own-it.us, that catalogues each of her possessions, tracing their constituent elements to mining and extraction operations around the world. In this way, she elegantly extends her work from the domestic to the global, proving her show’s title a political injunction to understand how each house contributes to the making of our universe.