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The Extremophile

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A portrait of Mary Mattingly and the world she is creating beyond precarious modern civilization

Mary Mattingly is no Luddite. She delivers presentations with a Mac Book. Neither is she a survivalist stockpiling water and salted meat— she’d rather grow her own food. Yet ideas that brush against these polar extremes come up in her work on ‘wearable portable architecture.’

A native of Brooklyn, Mattingly spent a month here in the Philippines as a guest of the Green Papaya Art Project and the UP College of Fine Arts. A week after her arrival, she was speaking to a roomful of art students and guests about wearable architecture, creations that span multiple genres from installations to mixed media to maritime communitarian dwellings. It’s eccentric and often reminiscent of both third world urban poverty and science fiction—Mattingly does confess familiarity with Frank Herbert’s Dune saga.

The incredible part of her oeuvre so far is its eclecticism and ambition. She doesn’t do art, she builds things. Sometimes on her own, other times with collaborators. She’s big on collaboration, like for the Waterpod project where a converted barge set out to sea.

Half a year was spent to prove that a very small community—Mary and intrepid fellow artists—could live off of their sweat and live sustainably without the disposable comforts of 21st century life. It was extreme and in her own words “rewarding but at times very difficult.”

Yet she admits how “living in the desert in Oregon in a wearable home for weeks at a time and collecting water from solar stills near plants, after doing that in the early 2000s, the Waterpod was a picnic.”

So far, it has been quite a ride since she graduated from the Pacific Northwest College of Art in 2002 armed only with superior photography and video skills. In the ensuing decade, Mary branched out to several disciplines and skill sets, which explains why her intense focus on wearable architecture combines design, ingenuity, and a powerful DIY ethos.

She says that over the years, “I taught myself sculpture, building, sewing, electrical work, water-systems and food-systems skills, and studied architecture on my own.”

Element of Risk
Since launching herself on an unsuspecting world, the Mary Mattingly brand has become quite ubiquitous in the New York art scene. According to several online sources, including her website (www.marymattingly. com) where an extensive decade-long selection of press coverage is featured, her body of work touches on “nomadic themes within current and future global environmental and political conditions, focusing on the interdependence of communities facing challenging political and climatic conditions.” The entire idea of a wearable home, as Mary explains, is supposed to be “adaptable in any situation a person is in where he or she needs to move. It allows the wearer to handle extreme climatic conditions and even float. It is useful for anyone in between settlements.”

The most surprising aspect of Mary Mattingly, the artist, is herself. She’s demure. Soft spoken as well. While interacting with an audience, Mary sounds as if she were explaining statistics and not creative survival techniques in a post-disaster scenario.

This is the molten core of Mary Mattingly after all; she’s obsessed with the idea of using art to find solutions for the looming crises that threatens our exhausted consumer-driven globalized society. It’s exciting to think about considering the creativity, subversive spirit, green consciousness, and almost playful mindset involved.

A crucial influence that shaped her thinking is the corporate monopoly on essential commodities, “like in 2000, when Bechtel and the World Bank privatized water in Bolivia,” she discloses. In its own way, such trends motivated her search for out-of-the-box solutions to future extreme scarcity.

Despite her post-capitalist vision of a rootless lifestyle, a strong belief in community is what drives Mary Mattingly. Summarizing her reason for being, she declares, “I want to think about how we can work together.”

Print ed: 11/12


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