Mary Mattingly’s Way to Adapt

Swale Floating Farm, New York City, courtesy of Dezeen.

On an unseasonably warm day in mid-December, I took a ferry from lower Manhattan on the short trip across to Governors Island. I was going to meet the artist Mary Mattingly, who has been in residence on the island for two years. She was checking on a project she’s been working on since the summer: a saline farming experiment. I asked to tag along because I had been thinking about Mattingly’s work recently. The bulk of it explores systems and the ways humans are entangled with the natural world, subjects she has been addressing in earnest since the early 2000s. I had talked to her six years ago when I wrote about her Swale project, a floating food garden on a 5,000 square-foot barge. Then climate change was evident to those who were paying attention, those who were reading the IPCC reports or articles on glacier melt, or tracking the increasing number of hurricanes. Mattingly was among the artists engaging with aspects of this imminent collapse—along with artists like Agnes Denes, Olafur Eliasson, and Justin Brice Guariglia. Eliasson garnered a huge amount of attention when he brought large chunks of arctic ice back from Greenland and let them melt in public exhibitions as a reminder of the increasing loss of arctic glaciers. Climate change was still more of an abstraction then, something that felt far away, and artists strived to communicate its imminence and intensity.

But now the evidence of climate change doesn’t need to be mediated; it is apparent all around us in the storms, droughts, and wildfires that arrive with increasing frequency. A majority of Americans now believe that climate change is real and affecting their communities: They see the water lapping at their doors or the ash filling their skies. But this recognition has come too late and we have missed the opportunity to stave off the change. The question now is how we live with it—something that’s been on Mattingly’s mind for a while.

Photo by Mary Mattingly, May 2, 2022.

Governors Island sits between lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn waterfront. It was once a military outpost but has since been turned into a public venue, hosting cultural events and artists residencies. Mattingly met me near the dock and we walked through the island’s strange campus, past rows of dilapidated Victorian houses that were once homes for Coast Guard officers. The Trust for Governors Island, which administers the island, opened up the buildings as cultural residencies in 2015. Mattingly had been using one of these houses as a studio and programming space but was in the process of moving to a different space for the next season. Several larger buildings nearby were in various stages of being rebuilt or torn down, and large portions of the island appeared to be under construction or in a state of disrepair. Scaffolding and tarps surrounded some buildings while others were fenced off and lacked walls or roofs.

Mattingly told me that, originally, her saline garden had been in the middle of a large, fenced-off concrete lot. But the building right next to this lot had started to collapse over the summer, and she had to move the project somewhere safer. The garden’s new location was about a hundred feet away, through a chainlink gate in an area that looked like the backyard of an art school, with half-finished projects scattered throughout. Mattingly’s twenty raised planter beds, splayed in a loose pattern, were tucked next to a long squat brick building. A shipping container painted in jagged white and black patches by the artist Charles Mary Kubricht sat in the middle of the garden. It was cut open along one side and modular wooden seating and tables fitted inside made it look like a post-industrial gazebo. Mattingly told me that she and her team use it to shelter from the elements while they work, logging data gathered from plants. Seeming most at ease when talking about logistics or research, Mattingly explained the project to me as she checked the planter boxes. The plants are watered once a week from the East River, which is actually a tidal estuary, a mix of salt and fresh water. Some of the plants receive only this brackish water and others also get fresh. Mattingly and her team monitor their health and track the results. As she plucked dead leaves from some plants, the artist explained that avocados, tomatoes, and potatoes fare better with salt water than other plants, but they still tend to grow smaller and have a salty taste.

Some of Mattingly’s work can feel dry, like a research project or a design experiment, but the works evolve (or deconstruct) over time. Sometimes they grow and die with the seasons, such as her Arctic Food Forest (2016), installed on the grounds of the Anchorage Museum. Her projects often involve other people, artists, and activists––the saline farming experiment, for example, is tended by volunteers from Services for the Underserved, a housing advocacy non-profit, and the soil is monitored by the Urban Soils Institute which is based on the Island and promotes sustainable soil use in cities. But they can also be experienced alone, unto themselves. Often Mattingly’s art doesn’t reside in the objects she makes but inhabits a point between the viewer and the work’s underlying system. When I asked herif she ever thinks of her works as pure research, she replied that the aesthetics and research are meant to reinforce one another. “You may be interested in the uncanny of a sculpture,” she said, “but it will lead you into thinking about what’s behind it.”

Right before the pandemic, she launched a project called Public Water, meant to call attention, in her words, to the “rarely-seen labor that humans (and non-humans) do to care for New York City’s drinking water.” The project centered around a ten-foot geodesic dome called Watershed Core (2021), in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Planters on the dome’s inside walls overflowed with plants native to the local ecosystem. Water moved through the garden from one planter to the next via a series of plastic tubes, being filtered as it went.

Mary Mattingly, “Public Water: Watershed Core,” installation at Prospect Park, Brooklyn NY, June 3 – September 7, 2021. Photo by Manuel Molina Martagon.

The project was borne out of an old preoccupation with clean drinking water. Mattingly grew up in an agricultural area of Connecticut in the 1980s, and when she was a child, toxic runoff seeped into her family’s well and poisoned their drinking water. This had a profound effect on her outlook and bled into her work. The earliest sculptures she recalled making were DIY water purification systems, which she crafted from two-liter soda bottles, sand, and carbon.

Mattingly approaches the world with the attentiveness of a lay scientist, looking for patterns and anomalies in the natural and human systems around us. She follows in the lineage of the 1970s land artists and their almost scientific interest in the natural world. (Swale references Robert Smithson’s Floating Island (1970-2005), a barge with a forest in it.) But her work also feels like a departure from the sculptures of artists like Michael Heizer or Walter De Maria. Their largescale interventions into nature are sometimes described as environmental art, but in reality replicate human dominance over nature. Their works resemble huge construction projects, cut into the landscape or arranged with large-scale machinery. In these works, nature is a raw material to be used to create an aesthetic object. Mattingly’s work subverts this anthropocentric approach. Her projects emphasize the interdependence between natural and manmade systems, based on keen observation of natural phenomena. The saline farming experiments, for example, started from an observation she made while working on Swale.

Up until recently, the barge had been docked at Governors Island (it’s now in a dry dock in Verplanck, NY, being repaired), and Mattingly noticed that saltwater spray was affecting some of the food plants around the edge of the barge but not others. She rearranged the plants so that the more resilient species formed a buffer around the edge of the barge. But then she started to wonder if those plants could survive on brackish water alone and set about to test the theory on the island. She plans to use the data she collects from these experiments for an expanded saline farming project in the future, on the Swale barge and in multiple locations on the New York waterfront. Her dream is that saline farming could be incorporated into plans to make the city storm resilient, providing both a buffer against storm surges and opportunities for access to freshly grown vegetables.

New York City extends over a collection of islands at the confluence of the Hudson River and the Long Island sound. Proximity to water made New York an imperial city, but also leaves it susceptible to sea level rise and increasingly severe storm surges. Mattingly mentioned Hurricane Sandy as one catalyst for her project. During the storm surge, four feet of water topped Governor Island’s seawalls and flooded low-lying buildings. But larger forces were also on her mind. The day before we met, the New York Times published an interactive feature that described how climate change was disrupting an Antarctic current, and how this disruption could accelerate sea level rise in the coming decades. Most of Governors Island sits only slightly above sea level, as do portions of most major cities in the world.

Mary Mattingly, “Swale,” 2017. © Mary Mattingly. Courtesy Cloudfactory and Robert Mann Gallery.

This is part of the reason Mattingly is experimenting with saline farming and growing food on floating barges. As the seas rise, more and more arable land will be flooded and bodies of freshwater will turn brackish. “It makes more and more sense,” Mattingly said, “to start thinking about how you can grow more land-based plants on the water.”

I asked Mattingly if the ecological attunement in her work made her feel the climate crisis more acutely. She said that it does but, after a conversation with the artist David Brooks, she was trying to focus on deeper time scales. She talked about research Brooks had been doing on a species of fish in the Amazon that only appears every hundred years. Thinking about these longer time scales, she said, “has helped me be calmer but it hasn’t really taken away the anger and frustration that I can feel.” Mattingly has some faith that people can change course rapidly when the urgency arrives. She noted the massive protests in Bolivia in 2000, for example, which blocked an attempt to privatize the public water system in Cochabamba, one of the largest cities in the country. But she is shocked that people aren’t feeling that urgency. “It’s crazy to read everything today about climate change and realize how many people know we’re heading toward more and more disasters and how people wait until the absolute last minute,” Mattingly said, “without even knowing what that last minute is.”

The withered stalks in Mattingly’s planter boxes don’t look like much but wandering through them I thought of the briny water all around us, pushing at the edges of the city, trying to get in. It was a strange feeling, like seeing something close up and at a wide angle all at once. This is the feeling I think she is aiming for: an aesthetic environmental awareness that situates the viewer in time. It doesn’t function in the manner of the large symbolic environmental art of, say, Olafur Eliasson, which tries to bring the enormity and immediacy of climate change to the viewer. Instead, Mattingly’s projects dig into the human relationship with the environment, within the context of this seismic manmade change. Hers is not a call for aggressive interventions, like robotic seawalls or geo-engineered cloud cover. She offers, instead, glimmers of different ways to live. Mattingly’s is a vision, however apocalyptic, of a way to adapt.

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