Carrying around a heavy duty handle like Caledonia Dance Curry, means something remarkable is bound to happen. And with her installation, Submerged Motherlands, at the Brooklyn Museum, the street artist known by the ‘tag’ Swoon (aka, Curry) does not disappoint. For this exhibition, Swoon creates a site-specific installation in the towering rotunda gallery, transforming it into a fantastical landscape, centering on a monumental sculpted tree with a constructed environment at its base, including boats and rafts, figurative prints and drawings, and cut paper foliage. The assemblage invites the viewer to wander among the component parts, inadvertently stepping on and even being invited to enter certain features, as if to take closer measure of their apparent fragility. Assembled from found objects and discarded debris, the whole becomes larger than the sum of its parts, standing on its head the adage that ‘less is more,’ as the artist makes the more in our lives her central theme. The natural world appears under siege in this exhibition, encroached from every direction by the detritus in our lives; but careful examination of the subtext of the work reveals a hopeful message after all—and one tied to our core humanity—that nature’s cycle of life will win in the end. xxxxxx
Often inspired by contemporary and historical events, Swoon engages with climate change in this installation. Serving as a personalized response to the catastrophic devastation wreaked by Superstorm Sandy on the coastal Northeast in 2012, Swoon set out to capture the physical and human toll on the region. A New London, CT, native, she is no stranger to the effects that hurricanes can have on communities near the water. Her long history as a street artist and social activist made her the perfect fit to configure a narrative to fit the scale of devastation and loss felt in densely populated urban areas, such as New York and the Jersey shoreline.
Brooklyn-based and Pratt Institute trained, Swoon celebrates everyday people and explores social and environmental issues with her signature paper portraits—many of friends, family and acquaintances. These figurative works, completed in the bold, in the in-your-face style of German Expressionist woodblocks and intricate ink drawings, then appear as wheat pasted cutouts on industrial buildings in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Most observant New Yorkers will immediately recognize the unique style of Swoon’s larger-than-life-size “street people” plastered on the walls of the city (example, left). And like the installation at the Brooklyn Museum, which is slated for destruction and a return to the earth from whence it came, each urban graffiti piece eventually succumbs to the destructive force of the elements.
As such, the museum’s Submerged Motherlands is an assimilative work, incorporating many similar paper cutouts of those who are important in her life, rendering the work deeply autobiographical. And as one wanders around the work, peering deep into the complex configuration, rounding a corner means being confronted by a series of towering human figures, helping to mark the experience as both deeply personal journey for the artist, herself, and as a cogent call to action on behalf of an afflicted but resilient world.
Another one of her high profile projects that makes it into the Brooklyn Museum installation are two of a fleet of boats built from scrap wood and other discarded junk. Part of her Swimming Cities series, these hand-made armadas are cobbled-together rafts, built from discarded wood, foam blocks, bed sheets, car parts and other found “junk”, then launched and piloted by crews of craftsmen down the Mississippi, the Hudson River, the Adriatic Sea, on their way to the canals of Venice as part of the 2008 Biennale event. “The structures were built in some ways as an interpretation of the city,” says Swoon of the project’s Venice appearance. “They were meant to make it feel like little bits of Venice that had broken off; a floating community that’s part city and part boat.” Constructed in Slovenia and powered the eighty miles to Venice by outboard motors, the three elaborate platforms—all designed by the artist—docked in various towns en route to Venice There, Swoon and her crew explored abandoned buildings and other forgotten areas, amassing souvenirs and installing the collection on board as a “cabinet of curiosities.” Guests in Venice were then invited on board the boats to examine the treasures.
Two of Swoon’s Venice boats have been incorporated in the Motherlands installation. “I watched them come out of the water there on cranes and they looked like beasts—like monsters—and I thought, oh my god, they have to have one more life.” So they are now part of the Brooklyn installation. Shoved up against the base of the sixty-five foot, dyed fabric and ribbon ‘tree,’ they resemble beached leviathans, preparing to devour everything in sight, but too decrepit and dysfunctional to do so. It is hard to believe, on closer examination, that they were ever capable of floating. The miscellany of metal scraps, concrete encrusted plywood, plastic pipes, rope, old bicycles, and car parts are piled high in a gravity defying tower, a gargantuan aberration of our own collective, trash-obsessed making—brought to life again for one last fling at functionality, before being returned to the landfill from which they morphed.
The cycle of life theme is brought home most dramatically in her womb-like garden gazebo, which sits astride the spreading roots of the massive tree. Topped by a linotype image of a breast-feeding woman, a sign on the wood-framed structure invites visitors in to sit for a spell, to be cradled by its warmth and intimacy. And just as the exterior is festooned by all manner of fanciful floral designs, trailing vines, reptilian creatures and mirror images of the artist and her own ailing mother, the interior is likewise hung heavy with dozens of wasp nests and daintily-cut leaves. No threat in here—nature’s womb conflates with our own fragile life cycle, offering security and a seemingly secret escape from the chaotic scene just outside it doors, including a respite from the noise and crowds of the museum, itself.
Yet, above it all stands the towering tree, centerpiece of the installation. The very act of raising our gaze upward toward the distant rotunda skylight is a gesture that, of itself, emulates our respect and awe for nature’s creations. This fabricated creation, though, rewards the curious by revealing branches high above, draped with massive, otherworldly leafy cutouts (left). Their fanciful, gravity-defying airiness belies the gravity-bound clutter surrounding the base of the tree—as though human wastefulness continues to tether us to our earthly habitat, while nature is always capable of soaring toward life-giving light.
This parable of redemption offered by a renewed stewardship of the earth is central to Swoon’s body of work, as she has given of her time, energy and creativity to projects in other places. This includes the Konbit Shelter Project, which helps Haitians create sustainable buildings in post-earthquake Haiti, and Transformazium in Braddock, Pennsylvania, which works with local residents to revitalize their community. The irony of her work, at least as it appears in Brooklyn Museum’s Submerged Motherland, is that she chooses the intensity and harshness of New York City as an emotional catalyst for her work, while railing, through her art, against the forces of urban sprawl exacting a toll on the natural world. As Callie (her preferred handle) puts it, “City spaces allow me to put a tiny message out there in the form of one of my wheat paste drawings and watch how it can make a series of connections; how people view the space around them, and how that new awareness can be the genesis of possible worlds. If you can make something that people are not expecting to see, and place it in a spot where people are not expecting to find anything, a little opening happens, a moment of childlike curiosity where everything is possible.”
Swoon continues to create art in radical ways, ambushing those who don’t yet know her work (and some who do), while persuading us to adopt a paradigm shift and see the world in a new light. Submerged Motherland is a step in that direction, as it explores the fragile balance between the cycle of renewed life and decay, the inexorable link between nature and its nurturing powers, and the impulse to preserve and create in a culture grown accustomed to discarding. Her work ultimately asks, “can we rekindle a sense of discovery and a belief in an infinity of possibilities?”
By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor
Through August 24, 2014
Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Gallery, 5th Floor