Mary Mattingly's Garden on a Ship Tackles Inequality and Food Deserts
In 2015, the New York based artist, Mary Mattingly, published a manifesto which expresses her practice and vision as an artist; it states “that art and utopian thought can cultivate systemic social change. Art can transform people’s perceptions about value, and collective art forms can reframe predominant ideologies.” Using art as a tool for social, economic, and environmental change, Mattingly creates performative and publicly engaged art projects that range in size and media. From environmental, dystopian photographs to collage-like sculptures made from personal possessions to public farms and ecotopian libraries, her artworks aim to disassemble and fight against traditional and damaging systems of economic, ecologic, and educational order. Having exhibited work in both galleries and public space for over 15 years, her career as an artist and environmental activist is expansive. She also works as an adjunct visual art professor at Pratt Institute and has previously lectured at several well-known institutions including Yale University School of Art and University of Oxford.
Responding to conditions of her ecological and geographical upbringing, Mattingly derived one of the first of her many performative and sustainably-driven project series titled Wearable Homes (ongoing). She states, “The Wearable Homes were a response to the realities of living in a country where there is still not a safety net for so many people,” where lack of infrastructure, access to basic needs, and actively changing climate cause everyday threats to the survival of generations of people. To create Wearable Homes, Mattingly envisioned what life might be like in a dystopian future where the entirety of world’s resources were “marketized and sold,”–– a future where human beings race to survive by migrating across the world “as a result of un-predictabilities surrounding climate change.” With various design elements, the self-sustaining bodysuits acclimatize to protect bodies from environmental stressors. They also include water filters and hammock-structures to accommodate basic needs of human survival.
Many of Mattingly’s artworks imagine the grim possibilities of global futures by critiquing current systems of capitalist consumption; however, in her practice, she creates promising and tangible systems that aim to increase access to ecological and social sustainability. In 2016, Mattingly launched the public living sculpture Swale. Swale is described as “a floating food forest,” located on a reclaimed barge. Open for public use and interaction, Swale promotes spaces for ecological food sharing in New York City parks. Visitors can use Swale to source perennial foods, from edible flowers, to cooking herbs, vegetables, and medicinal plants. The ongoing public artwork “is organized with the help of individuals, community groups, as well as city organizations, promoting “food and water as essential elements,” and the importance of “cooperatively stewarded commons.”
As a transient and usable garden, Swale moves to different parts of the city. It was first located at Concrete Plant in South Bronx and, later, Brooklyn Army Terminal. The project coordinators state that, “food deserts are a reality in many communities in New York City; as many as three million New Yorkers live in communities with limited access to places where they can get fresh produce.” In NYC, it is illegal to grow or pick food on public land; therefore, Swale is located on the water, via the reclaimed barge, to make use of marine common law and to bypass NYC land regulations.
Swale is an accessible public environment for diverse communities, and as an artwork it encourages individuals “to reconsider industrial food systems, to confirm a belief in healthy food as a human right, and to pave pathways to create public food in public space.” In 2022, the Swale Barge will become a permanent floating park in New York City.