Mary Mattingly: Pipelines and Permafrost
On ViewRobert Mann Gallery
Mary Mattingly: Pipelines and Permafrost
October 26 – December 31, 2020
Mary Mattingly’s recent photographs in Pipelines and Permafrost stitch together a story of geologic deep time for the imagination. The New York-based artist has always woven ecological concerns into her public works and photography practice, committed to helping audiences question how the land and water resources as well as the products and presumptions of our lives came to be. As geologist Marcia Bjornerud writes in her 2018 book Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, “we accelerate into landscapes and ecosystems with no sense of their long-established traffic patterns, and then react with surprise and indignation when we face the penalties for ignoring natural laws.” Mattingly is deft, however—never preaching or moralizing. She leaves it for us to see what we can and do what we wish with these insights. In this exhibition at Robert Mann Gallery, her photographs help us glimpse the deep time of the Earth we inhabit.
In Pipelines Crossing Permafrost (all works 2020), a line runs through the narrow vertical image. Closer, you see it is a fence coming up from the bottom that encounters a crack halfway, which slowly widens to meet the ocean. As with all the photographs in this show, Mattingly has layered images to produce something like core samples in her imagined narrative of a location. Taken while flying over Alaska across a dozen years, the photograph connects human development with the breaking of the polar ice cap. In 1972, approval was granted to commence construction of the Alaska oil pipeline. That’s the same year that Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, representing a team of 17 researchers, published Limits to Growth, using computer modeling to analyze the possible environmental and economic impact of our presence. Their analyses have proven true, with the 30-year update emphasizing what little time remains before our actions are irreversible for the environment, with dire consequences for global economies. It could happen within some of our lifetimes. These histories and texts are profound, and Mattingly’s photograph captures this story succinctly, with a quiet and disconcerting beauty. Pipelines Crossing Permafrost is dedicated to Neetsa’ii Gwich’in elder Sarah James and the fight against oil development in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Mattingly compiled these images during the quarantine. Unable to leave her home, she foraged through her personal archive of photographs from traveling the world, documenting humanity’s troubled relationship to land. She equates her photography practice to her public art making. In part, a photograph is often the final moment of a public work. It is also a surprisingly believable witness. As Mattingly examined her images of controlled burns in Ecuador or logging in the Yucatan, she began to see their elongated timelines. The Lookout shows an aerial view of a section of the Amazon rainforest 300 miles away from the gold and copper mine, El Mirador. The use of water for the mining devastates the soil across a wide terrain and for a long time.
Mattingly adds photographs taken from various locations into the visual archeology of her primary image, using digital imaging processes, to create thin rectangles that tell a story of the land across time. She picks one location as the “present”—typically identified in the dedication that she gives each work—but introduces other places in her vertical formation to depict the long histories of any plot of land and how human impact accelerates certain processes. Mattingly enlarges the works to dimensions reminiscent of cathedral windows. The images are seamless, but they are not digitally friendly since their elongated shape makes them challenging on most social media sites, an irony that forces us to come to terms with the value of physical engagement.
Despite their narrow dimensions, because the images often flip along the centerline, they also invoke globes and are a reminder that up and down are both relative; The Gualcarque River emphasizes that with a day and night contrast. The bottom half of Rematriation shows a dusty valley leading up to a rocky mountain, the white sky “above” it being at the bottom edge of the image; the top half spreading out from the dusty valley into a lush plain with a tree wrapped in ivy reaching up to a cheerful blue sky suggesting good days to come. These photographs are an homage to the elongated timeline of those places and to the people who have fought to protect them, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangarĩ Maathai who founded the Green Belt Movement or Berta Cáceres, co-founder and coordinator of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, who was assassinated for her resistance to the Agua Zarca dam.
While the lands tell the core of the story, Mattingly’s skies offer spaces for our own musings. The skies are not always at the top and bottom of the photographs, but sometimes appear in the middle or twice in the layering that Mattingly produces. There is no way to capture geologic movement in one image but in works like Desire Lines, the sky acts as striations of time. They are evocative of the shifts we know nothing about, but can still consider. I remember reading Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970) as a kid and suddenly contemplating how New York City had not so long ago been fields. Ever since, I’ve often tried to imagine the way that the lands I walk may have looked 100, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000 years ago. It’s almost impossible to stretch my mind to a million years ago, or more, but Mattingly’s photographs give me a peek and remind me that the effort of imagining deep planetary history is to respect the place we live, by accepting what we have done and turning to what we need to do, now.