Mary Mattingly’s work explores economic, social, political and ecological issues through art. In 2012, Percent for Art commissioned Mattingly for a project based on her temporary installations of Flock House, a group of self-contained ecosystems that have been exhibited around New York City. Her Percent commission – a permanent adaptation of this idea – is due to be completed in 2015. Percent for Art interviewed Mattingly to discuss Flock House, her current project Wetland, and the partially-submerged house in Philadelphia she plans to move into with her two cats.
Percent for Art: Can you speak about your education as an artist, and how that has influenced your approach to public artwork?
Mary Mattingly: I’ve been making artwork for as long as I can remember, but I started with photography and film. Once I went to school for art, my work changed. I became really concerned with what was going on around me globally, and took a specific interest in flooding around the world and water privatization. I grew up in an area outside Hartford, Connecticut that frequently flooded, and we had a situation that later caused cancer in a lot of people because DDT and other chemicals were in the water from farming. It was always something that was in the back of my mind, but I never really connected it with artwork until I went to school on the West Coast where people are much more conscious about it as an issue. I jumped around a lot during college; I started at a community college, moved west to go to PNCA and then came back east to attend Yale, and finished at Parsons. I liked the combination of all the schools, and don’t think I would feel as strongly about my school experience if I had just gone to one. I started as a photographer, but once I went to school I began to shift into more of a sculptor. It was a pretty natural shift because I was making sculptures as props for the photographs, until the photographs eventually evolved into being a record of the sculptures.
Percent for Art: Can you speak about your previous experience with public art and how they influenced your Percent for Art commission?
Mary Mattingly: My experience as a viewer of public art has been more “land” art pieces, generally sculpture in outdoor spaces. The experiences that I have making pieces are broader in range. Most of my pieces are interactive; I have seen interactive works in public spaces before, but a lot less, and I hope to see more. My experiences are largely collaborative, not only with other artists and engineers, but with government officials and even lawyers. Having the opportunity to work with a broad range of people with different expertise is really important when I think about public artwork and its ability to transcend boundaries.
My Percent for Art piece has evolved a great deal; I proposed one thing but ended up creating a form that I had just recently completed in public spaces in New York City. That project was called Flock House, and was comprised of three spherical homes. They were quite small, and moved around the city to different locations. These locations varied from a parking lot in the Bronx, the middle of Dumbo, and even on rooftops, which perfectly described my idea about how we can live higher. Taking that idea and playing with the form to create something that would last a hundred years is great because most of the work that I make in public spaces causes me to complain about its ephemerality. I love the moment and how an idea can evolve and translate different stories to different people who keep temporary projects alive by thinking about or writing about them, but I have been fixated on how to make something permanent, because many of my projects take so long to create, and then are gone so quickly.
Percent for Art: How has working with Percent for Art helped your work evolve?
Mary Mattingly: Working with Percent for Art has really made me take a step back, and want to have less control over my work. Because of the process that goes into creating a Percent for Art piece, you are given the ability to work slowly, and that is incredibly helpful as it allows room to adjust your piece. I always feel like I have a lot of time in the planning stages of a project, but then it is always a rush to make it. With Percent for Art, you have a year to make it after everything is planned and the engineer signs off on your proposal, and that final rush is something that doesn’t really happen. It is really nice to have that space, and the ability to come back to a project over a long period of time.
Percent for Art: Your current project Wetland is an interactive public art installation docked at the Penn Marina on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. You’ve created a water-based eco-system with solar panels, gardens, other environmental technologies and housing. Can you speak about how it began, its current state, and your hopes for the future?
Mary Mattingly: I began to conceive Wetland after the Lehman Brothers Collapse and subsequent housing crisis. People were losing their homes, and that became more real for me when hurricane Sandy happened. Places all along the East Coast were flooded and the image of houses falling into water on cliff-sides was really moving to me, in a traumatic way. I wanted to use that as a form, and make a space where people could convene and discuss those issues, as well as having various other functions. It is not self-sufficient at this point, but a lot of components are necessary for living your daily life. The sinking house is the central component, and then there will be an island that surrounds it (presently you can see three docks). This island will have edible gardens and wetlands—not only highlighting the importance of wetlands to protect a natural and human habitat, but also having the role of urging collaboration. We need to learn to work together to make things, instead of looking outward. Humans as a race need to be less reliant on the global economic system that is self-destructive; the more we participate, the worse it gets.
On Wetland, we are growing things and inviting people to eat from them. We will also eventually get chickens for eggs, and bees for honey and pollination. Another aspect of collaboration will come in when we build the second floor. The second floor will be where I will live along with my two cats, and either one or two artists-in-residence that will rotate weekly. We are currently trying to figure out how to make the main space conducive both to events as well as a collaborative work space for these artists. As of now we have about three to four things programmed every week from workshops to bands and maybe even a speakeasy. It will only be in the Marina at Penn’s Landing for a few months, but will have a life after that.
Percent for Art: You are a very versatile artist in the sense that you work with a lot of different materials. Could you speak a little about how that helps you as an artist and how that relates to Wetland?
Mary Mattingly: I don’t really think of artwork in terms of mediums. I think about it in terms of the idea, and working towards it in any capacity necessary for it to be completed. If I thought of Wetland as a medium I would say it is probably a combination of sculpture and performance, but it is hard to describe because a lot of it is relational and has to do with collaboration with those who come into the space. When someone comes to help they really transform it. It is a compromise; how much are you going to let that person’s aesthetic take over and what that means for a project that is collaborative? Wetland is something that I have been invested in for two years now and the exchange is hard at times, but something that I am constantly figuring out.
Percent for Art: Do you see a line separating your artwork from your lifestyle?
Mary Mattingly: Less and less. I think for a time I viewed my work as a prediction or even a proposal for what could happen. But now it is really fluid and the difference is diminishing. This project in particular has been such a learning experience for me, as an artist as well as a person. We are all learning how to make this space at the same time; I will be taught by a colleague how to do something and then teach someone else, but then they will teach me how to do it better, so I will re-teach the original person this better process. It will get remade three times until it is finally stable, and then the engineer will come and tell us to take it down and we will have to start all over again. But that is okay because this idea of learning has become such a large part of the process. Not being an expert at anything, but knowing a little bit about everything would be an ideal state for me. For example, at this point I know a little bit about plumbing; I could build or fix something to a certain extent; someone could probably come in and correct me, but I could basically get it done to a certain extent on my own.
Interview and all photographs by Sarah F. Haimes.