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Swoon’s Submerged Motherlands

Swoon: Submerged Motherlands, Brooklyn Museum, 2014, Installation View —

The Brooklyn-based artist Caledonia Curry is known best as the street artist named Swoon. She remains one of the very few female street artists whose style is as recognizable as a Banksy, and who has been wheatpasting her intricate portraits and paper cutouts onto Brooklyn buildings and beyond for over a decade. In the last five years, as the street art movement has gained momentum and commercial appeal in the art world, Swoon has created several site-specific, high-traffic installations. From her Swimming Cities project,handmade rafts that sailed uninvited onto the shores of the Venice Biennale in 2009, to the suspended sculptural installation Thalassa, made for the entryway of the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2011, Swoon has been bringing her urban aesthetic to site-specific art.

This spring, the 36-year-old artist unveiled Submerged Motherlands at the Brooklyn Museum. A massive composite of past pieces and new works, this installation was designed specifically for the Brooklyn Museum’s towering Rotunda Gallery. Submerged Motherlands, a piece that deals with flooding, climate change and other environmental concerns, is an enchanting installation full of contradictory narratives: fairytale fantasy meets apocalyptic realities, and idealistic exploration discovers only wreckage and colonization.

Swoon’s materiality in this installation, as is typical with much of her street art, is impeccable, and it’s hard to find fault with her upcycled choice of materials or how they are employed. Working within a circular gallery with arched white walls and a cavernous ceiling, Swoon covers the entire Rotunda in pigment, cloth, paper and cardboard. Using fire extinguishers loaded with paint, she sprayed 80 gallons of liquid several stories up the walls, creating layer upon layer of uneven, drippy paint, giving the walls the texture of oxidized metal. Swoon’s use of colorful shades of blue and green provide the installation with its strongly aquatic feel, as bright shades of aqua blend with yellowish sea greens. Her paint references nature, architecture and geography simultaneously, and is just the first layer of the artist’s dynamic installation.

Around the outer walls of the gallery stand Swoon’s cardboard people, like sentinels guarding or simply inhabiting her world. Figurative and two-dimensional, like cardboard cutouts, Swoon’s people either look indigenous, belonging only to her fictitious society, or appear to be familiar and modern, like her massive portrait of a topless women breastfeeding her child. Many of her portraits look like figureheads, women with their arms back and their faces intently looking toward unknown landscapes. There is strength and comfort in their forms, and they remind us of pioneer women and famous statues that embody maternal qualities: the Statue of Liberty, Winged Victory or Michelangelo’s Pieta. Swoon’s men and children, by contrast, seem to represent the downtrodden, and many of those drawn figures reference labor, industrialization, immigration and slavery.

In main floor of the gallery are Swoon’s “junk” rafts, currently docked in the Brooklyn Museum but alluding to their former life on the rivers of New York City and elsewhere. They give the installation the feeling of floating wreckage, and they look like pieces of a society that has been destroyed, dislodged, lost at sea or shipwrecked as in The Tempest. Made up of New York City trash—scrap metal, wood, tires, crates, tin, fencing, stairs, wheels—Swoon’s rafts are critical of waste and landfills while whimsically embracing human ingenuity. They also remind us of what our society is likely to leave behind, and of what might be found floating in our oceans when any number of apocalyptic events have finally occurred.

The centerpiece of Swoon’s installation is a 60-foot tree that reaches toward the Rotunda’s skylight like a massive testament to life and nature. Made of dyed and draped fabric that mimics the color and texture of bark, delicate and leafy paper cutouts cover the trees branches like leaves. Extra fabric dangles from the trees upper branches like mossy parasites, and light from the skylight shines through the cutout leaves, casting eerie shadows onto the walls. Every piece in this installation conjures images of growth and decay, be it nature or our built civilization.

As successful as the individual pieces of this installation are, the problems with the overall experience are greater. Street artists, almost by default, are accustomed to relying on their chosen locations to provide a conceptual context for their work, and can feel weightless when brought into a space with no context at all, like the white gallery walls of the Brooklyn Museum. For example, while Swoon’s Swimming Cities made perfect sense while floating down the Hudson River or in the Venice canal, they look like rafts from the set of an amusement park inside the gallery. The museum’s Rotunda also feels like the wrong space for this installation, being both too claustrophobic and close to other artwork in the museum. The installation is dependant on viewers being submerged within it, like drowning travelers, and this space doesn’t allow it to happen. It’s too easy to step outside the installation while trying to be inside it, leaving viewers stranded outside Swoon’s meticulously constructed fantasy.

Most difficult, however, is Swoon’s level of execution. Conceptually it’s impossible to make sense of the disparate parts of Submerged Motherlands. The whole installation feels too theatrical, like a set waiting for actors to give it life, and the weighty issues of environmental displacement become completely secondary to the playful and enticing nature of the individual elements on view. The installation is likeable to a fault, and Swoon’s unrelenting idealism reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; the islands filled with the exiled always sounded more interesting than his World State. If Swoon’s installation is meant to warn and foreshadow, then her conception of dystopia feels more optimistic than our current reality.

 All Photographs Courtesy Alissa Guzman

 

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