Mary Mattingly has spent the last eight years creating work that explores human relationships to machines, the environment and the political system. Cathy Byrd speaks with her about Pull, a collaborative initiative between the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana for the 12th annual Havana Biennial. The project consists of two mobile, inhabitable ecosystem spheres that were literally pulled through the streets of Havana until they were situated in Havana’s Parque Central and at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana.
Sound Editor: Kris McConnachie
CATHY BYRD: This is Fresh Talk with artist Mary Mattingly. Our conversation begins in Cuba during the first days of the Havana Biennial. She is here because of a new partnership between The Bronx Museum of the Arts and the National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana. Her residency is part of Wild Noise, the first in a series of exhibition exchanges between the two cities. During her time in Cuba, she created two spherical ecosystems with local partners. The domes are 10 feet in diameter; one is perched in a park and the other inside a museum. Tell me about your project. It’s so beautiful and exciting.
MARY MATTINGLY: Thanks. Well, there are two spheres, one in Parque Central and one inside of the museum. They are meant to “talk” to each other in a way; they look the same from the outside, but inside the living systems supplement each other. It’s been a year in the planning, and for the last two months approximately I have been here working with builders and architects and students and teachers to make it come to life.
CB: Mattingly is deeply interested in materials with past lives. She gathered components for the two spheres from all over Havana and New York City.
MM: I have felt it’s very important to repurpose stuff from the U.S. Army, so some of the fabric that’s covering the structure and the tubing is from surplus army stock. I’m trying to translate it into something that’s about interdependency. But the project has changed a lot, having been here for so long. It’s really been influenced by songbirds and things I never would have thought.
CB: Pull, the project’s title, represents the tensions of reopening relationships between Cuba and the U.S., but there’s a literal meaning too. It’s how the domes get around.
MM: We have been moving them from place to place with whomever wants to volunteer. We have been literally dragging them to the park and then the museum, and we don’t know where next.
CB: The two spheres are constructed as habitats for local flora and fauna.
MM: You walk up a set of stairs that leads you to this platform that looks like floating barrels are underneath of it, and then there is a sphere. You walk into the sphere, it’s made with aluminum drywall studs and it’s lit underneath. Then there are lots of food plants growing inside and there are many tubes that are forcing the water into the next planter. There are fish, songbirds, and butterflies, all kinds of living off of the things that are inside.
CB: And how does this fit with your philosophy about art and the ecology?
MM: The work that I usually do is about ecosystems, either through documenting them or through making them and then trying these experiments. The experiment here is putting these in public spaces and seeing what happens. Other times I have tried to inhabit them myself— thinking about recontextualizing a geodesic dome or making something that combines something that looks futuristic with things that remind us of the past.
CB: Ever since we met, I have been thinking about this project. I call Mary Mattingly to learn more. Remember those songbirds, that she said changed everything?
MM: While I was in Cuba I lived in an apartment in Vedado. In the shared space in the center of the apartment complex, a few people were keeping songbirds. For a while I didn’t know that they were songbirds, and I thought one in particular was this boy who kept crying for his mom from about 4 to 5 PM every day. I was pretty surprised when a friend came over and told me that it was actually a songbird, not a boy. I then realized that this was great, everybody in the apartment complex knows the songbirds, this is a very sweet relationship. It really made an impact on the work, because we ended up including songbirds in the sculpture. I think the songbirds transformed it.
CB: That’s kind of an amazing discovery to make.
MM: I was thinking about the work that I have made up to this point. In retrospect, it occurred to me that a lot of the work that I have been making has to do with a frustration or an anger about something, whether it’s housing, whether it’s food, something like this. But right alongside that comes the deep love that you have to feel for something to even feel anger for that thing. So I think that’s something that I was finally able to really understand, having this time in Havana where so much of the experience for me ended up revolving around love; around love of non-human creatures, non- human things, even the plants, even strangers.
CB: It’s interesting what you just said, since I’ve also read and heard you described as an apocalyptic artist. This Cuba experience sounds like sort of a turning point.
MM: I think I am still discovering so many things about the experience there. Not too long ago I was able to go with The Bronx Museum and the State Department to the Philippines. I think that both that and the Cuba trip have made me acutely aware of the U.S.’s impact around the world, and in a not so positive way, to put it mildly. That changed my perspective on life, on my responsibility as a U.S. citizen, what I see happening around me, and what I have ignored more than I like to admit. I am at a point where I am feeling a love for my country and an anger about it. That’s definitely been something that I have brought home with me.
CB: Cuba’s green revolution was another big takeaway.
MM: One of the highlights for me was being able to learn about the organic farming in Cuba. That’s something that I definitely wanted to show in Pull, to highlight this organic type of farming on a much smaller scale inside these sculptures.
CB: The gardens are just one element of the ecosystemswithin the domes.
MM: People could go inside of them and see them working to one extent or another. The birds were able to eat some of the food that we were growing, but we also supplied them with food from outside the sculpture. We collected the rainwater in the sculpture in Parque Central. We also had some butterflies and some chickens that were actually donated to the project soon after it opened. People really loved the chickens, I think more than anything in the sculpture [laughs].
CB: What happened to the domes?
MM: One of them is coming back to The Bronx Museum, and hopefully be installed outdoors. The other one, in my understanding, is going to the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. So I think that they will both be on more permanent display, and in spaces that are in one case prominently political and the other case prominently art-centric.