There are many dystopian futures out there. Mary Mattingly’s, recently on view at Robert Mann Gallery, is oddly disjunctive, containing the requisite pessimism imbued with occasional broad strokes of optimism. I read in an article online her description of the utility of nondescript clothing for future citizens, as a way to disappear in the public sphere, where escaping the surveillance of the state will become impossible — it already nearly is in London. I want to quote that statement by Mattingly, but I can no longer find it, leaving me uncertain as to whether she even wrote it. Whoever did, it made me think quite a bit about the utility of nondescript clothing, about total conformity in attire.
In Eastern Europe, after the Second World War and before 1989, everything looked gray and drab: signage, supermarkets, furnishings, especially clothing. I had always attributed this to the lack of consumer goods under state-sponsored Communism. At the same time, people were relentlessly spied upon, and calling attention to oneself in such a state could only lead to trouble. So, was this a two-way street? Could this be happening in North Korea now? By 1995, color had begun to appear in the streets, supermarkets shelves were full, and embracing Western consumer culture was all the rage in post–Iron Curtain Eastern Europe.
In the midst of the market crash in 2008, I had a moment of elation. I thought that people would finally throw away their credit cards and stop divesting themselves of cash they didn’t have while enriching others, in order to buy cartloads of cheap junk that they really didn’t need; they would simplify their lives, shed useless things. But no, the credit card companies are as healthy as ever, and by and large, our behaviors have not changed. In fact, we are told that if we don’t do our civic duty and consume, the economy will continue to shrink — the solution to our problems is not less, but rather more inane consumption. Yet everything we see around us would seem to suggest that resources are finite. We are failing to pay close enough attention, and the future could be very grim.
Now this really is a quote from Mary Mattingly: “I do expect that in the near future, much more of the world’s population will be forced to migrate for environmental or political reasons. I’ve been creating these wearable environments that involve functional aspects such as protection but are also invented as non-functional tools for a proposed future.” In the future envisioned by Mattingly, we are set adrift. She places us on shorelines, in small boats, on floating islands. And she puts us there with all of the personal belongings she thinks we can carry. My grandmother was born at the end of the 19th century. When she died, in the 1980s, the belongings she left behind could have fit in a backpack. She was born well before the age of consumerism and never really embraced it.
Mattingly’s work is a complex rumination on consumer culture and mobility in the global economy. As Mattingly surely knows, nomadic cultures have long been considered an affront to capitalism. This is deeply felt and reflected in the ways nation states have worked to forcibly settle them — the gypsies of Eastern Europe and the Bedouins of the Middle East, neither of whom owned property, both of whom perceived the land as communal space and moved with their sparse belongings from one area to the next. Like Krzysztof Wodiczko, who, in the late 1980s, largely in response to the surge of homelessness in New York City, envisioned urban nomads pushing their “Homeless Vehicles” piled with belongings and basic household goods, Mattingly sees us surviving in the future like so many turtles with our homes on our backs. Judging solely by the number of Syrian refugees entering Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey in the last two years, this future doesn’t seem so distant.
Yet there is optimism here, too. She sees us repurposing things, making use of everything to move forward. When I visited India in 1989, a poor person was selling rusted, empty spray-paint cans. I had no idea what possible new function they could serve; it seemed completely absurd to me. But there must have been a market for them — otherwise why waste so much display space on his paltry blanket?
Most grim futures seem to happen after all the books have been burned. In every assortment of things Mattingly ties together with twine, we see stuff, and tied up with the stuff, there are always books. They are heuristic, so she must feel that we are still capable of learning, despite having pretty much despoiled the entire planet. The Family of Man, The Medium Is the Massage, and even a composition notebook titled Art Historical Methodology and Theory all find their way into these corded bundles of belongings.
I remember the first image I saw of Mattingly’s, at the International Center of Photography in 2006, as being more seamless than the pictures in this show. This could be a trick of memory. In her current images she makes no attempt to hide the traces of Photoshop. Despite this Brechtian device, the works still cohere as the mind fills in the gaps and accepts what’s out of scale and perspective. And some of these images have an iconic power; they are not easily forgotten. That power gives Mattingly the ability to stimulate in us serious thoughts about how potential futures might unfold.
What’s sad is that it’s unlikely the decision to have less, consume less, live with less, will be made by choice. Even Mattingly, in one telling photograph, is seen hauling her things with great effort down the sidewalk.
Perhaps she, too, could do with less?
Mary Mattingly: House and Universe was on view at Robert Mann Gallery (525 West 26th Street, 2nd floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) from September 6 to October 19.
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