Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

Mary Mattingly: Second Nature

Robert Mann Gallery
210 Eleventh Avenue
New York NY 10001

January 5 to February 25, 2006

Mary Mattingly Loss-Accountability of Top-Down Ontologies 2005 chromogenic dye coupler print, 30 x 30 inch. All images courtesy Robert Mann Gallery
Mary Mattingly Loss-Accountability of Top-Down Ontologies 2005 chromogenic dye coupler print, 30 x 30 inch. All images courtesy Robert Mann Gallery

Mary Mattingly’s photography explores many themes and concepts: home, travel, cartography, human relationships, human interaction with the organic world, the corporate entities that have influenced and shaped so much of our lives, language, the privatization of natural resources such as fresh water, the blurring of the boundaries between reality and virtual reality. To do this the artist has invented an imaginary terrain populated by “navigators” who have “wearable homes” and are mentally and materially equipped to survive a rootless existence. Her navigators are humans who have learned to survive in a landscape reconfigured by the rising tides.

The photographs in this exhibition are all extrapolations. Mattingly’s work is Science Fiction (SF) in the sense that it is predominantly cerebral, focused on ideas. That is why they feel a bit cold. Humanistic values are forsaken and technology and humans become one in her vision of the future. As Carl Freedman writes in “Critical Theory and Science Fiction” (2000), “SF is of all genres the one most devoted to historical specificity, for the SF world is not only one different in time or place from our own, but one whose chief interest is precisely the difference that such difference makes and, in addition, one whose difference is nonetheless contained within a cognitive continuum with the actual.”

Exploration of the artist’s website [] helps one learn about the visionary objects and garments appearing in these photographs. On a page titled “theevolutionoflanguage” Mattingly provides us with definitions of 26 “new” words, which are hybrids of existing words or word roots.  This generation of something new through the process of combining fragments of existing systems parallels what Mattingly does with her photographs. These terms help us to understand Mattingly’s extrapolations concerning human consciousness and the material and natural world.

The nomadic humans of the future will have accessories — “elements” as the artist puts it — which will help mitigate the alienation they feel due to being unable to “discern one architectural space from the next.” They will wear “celcerforms” to protect against the growth of cancerous tumors. The headiest accessory described in this dictionary is the “G-Simpod,” a handheld device which provides for every need, at least in a virtual sense. One emergency button on this device makes the user feel warm and fuzzy in his/her brain and erogenous zones, and inspires them to spend money in a “mall-space” or “store-space.” The second emergency button satisfies all of the user’s cravings, such as hunger, by stimulating the brain or hypothalamus with electrodes. Mattingly suggests that this device is a “God-substitute,” providing graphics and sounds that enable the user to comfortably avoid human interaction by “transforming the intangible into the tangible.”

While it becomes apparent that some of Mattingly’s futurology is tongue-in-cheek, it is clear that she concurs with the writings of Ray Kurzweil (who is quoted on her website), especially such optimistic notions put forth by the inventor/philosopher as “We will literally multiply the intelligence of our civilization by merging with, and supplementing our biological intelligence, with this profoundly more capable nonbiological intelligence by a factor of billions, ultimately trillions. And that will dramatically change the nature of human civilization. That in a nutshell is what the singularity is all about.” Because Mattingly believes that we can capture our authenticity through technology rather than through nature, her images are more earnest than ironic.

Mattingly uses digital photography to create images of a world she believes humans will one day live in. Her imaginings are based on current scientific beliefs, which she imaginatively builds upon. But they are also critical science-fictional estrangements, in that they provide a critique of the homogenization of the environment by corporations. Mattingly’s photographs suggest that in the future we will be forced (or choose) to live completely nomadic lives or compete with corporate superpowers for the few remaining land masses or tiny islands that still exist. Humans will transform into comfortably numb spiritually attuned “navigators,” entities who no longer distinguish between reality and virtual reality, will be forced to live transient existences, constructing portable shells or ad hoc dwellings to protect themselves against unstable weather patterns, and will comfort themselves with technology.

“Wearable homes,” billowing, saggy, multi-pocketed garments, will act as mobile storage containers for security devices, vitamin supplements, and the above-noted gadgetry. This new transience will not lead to dystopia but will bring people together in accordance with “The New Way,” or the church of the customer. Mattingly imagines future populations becoming one through the virtual spaces of “the net” and building self-sufficient barges or islands where navigators can spend their days. We will measure time in a different manner, breaking the “day” up into four sections rather than the current arrangement of day and night.

People in these photographs are completely inward. They don’t address the viewer or other people within the frame and they are completely absorbed by the imaginary devices Mattingly has equipped them with. They cling to them as they wander around the barren landscape or tinker with them in a complete state of absorption. Figures are half submerged in water, are plunged in a dense wall of fog or are completely alone on a desolate shoreline. Their facial expressions are blank. There is no room for angst or despair in this futurologist’s vision.

Mary Mattingly Always On 2005 chromogenic dye coupler print, 29-1/2 x 22-1/4 inches
Mary Mattingly, Always On 2005 chromogenic dye coupler print, 29-1/2 x 22-1/4 inches

In these photographs we see “navigators” and re-imagined landscapes created through a variety of means: there is seamless digital merging of imagery created with 3-D imaging programs like Bryce or Maya, topographical photographs taken in different parts of the world, and posed photographs of models in costume with hand made props. This blending of the completely fabricated and the actual increases the verisimilitude of Mattingly’s vision of the future. Not unlike good SF books, Mattingly “challenges our sense of the stability of reality by insisting upon the contingency of the present order of things.”

Mattingly is so dedicated to her inventions and the belief that one day they will be used to alleviate the suffering of populations dealing with limited natural resources, that she spent a month living in the desert outside of Bend, Oregon experimenting with prototypes that appear in these photographs. “I wore a wearable home, equipped with a “toolbelt,” a tazer and pack of 9V batteries, solar-recording equipment from sponsor companies like Spy Emporium, pockets for a month’s worth of vitamins and other compact food sources, compass, diary, analog camera, and a prototype Blackberry that would pick up signals as far as 50 mi. out of range.” She also admits to living a vagabond existence, moving over five times within a short span of time. So her visual predictions about the fate of the earth, her jarring cognitive estrangements, have a personal dimension, are perhaps the wish fulfillments of a person with a restless temperament. These nomadic figures could also be stand ins for the wandering photographer who leads a sort of transient existence, searching out new subject matter with camera in hand.

A number of these carefully constructed C-prints are mediations on the tenacity, longevity and hubris of corporate entities through time. In “Go Forth and Multiply,” 2005, weird manufactured “tree” shapes loom in a flooded coastal zone. It is hard to make out what is sprouting from or dangling from these faux trees, but the actual sculptural prop appearing in the photograph is placed in the middle of the gallery and we can examine it more closely. Plastic dates, bananas, pineapples, and apples hang from the tree and all of them are branded, Banana Republic, Lexus, Nestlé, etc. Considering that corporations are currently copyrighting parts of our genetic code this doesn’t seem so far fetched. In a darkly humorous and enigmatic C-print titled “Hirshworld 2,” 2004, there are two desolate looking tree filled islets in close proximity to a cleared islet with an ominous looking Filene’s Basement on it. This retail store/evil castle has an ominous presence in the waterscape because we don’t know what relationship exists between it and the humans who pass it by on their ad hoc flotation devices.

In the most disturbing C-print in the exhibit, “Loss-Accountability of Top-Down Ontologies,” 2005, we see a tree filled islet with an ominous CVS sign with accompanying digital billboard advertising a sale on bleach rising above the trees, and a long metal utility pole with a security camera mounted on top of it, scanning the surrounding waters. This photograph is not a prediction of the future, but it does estrange us from our present reality. A chainstore located on a desolate islet surrounded by large stretches of water is absurd but it forces us to think about how ubiquitous corporate entities are in our lives.

Hopefully Mattingly will challenge herself in the future by adding more layers to her extrapolations, different scientific concepts, some theoretical and some backed up by more concrete evidence. Her constructive, photographic, and sculptural imaginings are fanciful but it is important to the artist that we believe that they could be a reality someday. Her discovery that digital manipulation of photographic material can be used to explore possible futures for the human race and the planet is the most exciting thing about her work.

She believes that when humans and technology arrive at a common center it will be a positive event, the necessity of nomadic lifestyles in the future will be aided by and made tolerable with the help of the portable technology we have slowly come to love and depend on. Interestingly, Mattingly tries to convince us in her photographs that humans will become more humanized or self aware through their deepening dependence upon technology. Although people might consider the landscapes in these photographs to be dreary and barren (“There will be little difference between here and there.”), the images try to convince us that the homogenization of the landscape through cataclysm might free us up from  dependence upon possessions and property and allow us to explore inner spaces without hindrance.