Waves: Swoon at the Brooklyn Museum
Swoon: Submerged Motherlands at the Brooklyn Museum
April 11 to August 24, 2014
200 Eastern Parkway (at Washington Ave.)
Brooklyn, 718 638 5000
With her installation at the Brooklyn Museum, entitled “Submerged Motherlands,” New York-based artist Swoon (Caledonia Curry) has come home in full force. For the better part of the last decade, Swoon has brought her particular brand of socially conscious and thoughtfully impermanent street art around the globe, from the banks of the Hudson to New Orleans to Venice to Haiti. Her creations, like a turn of phrase by poet Ann Lauterbach, powerfully convey “something in the mix of habit and hope.” They’re lavish yet down-to-earth, full of youthful dynamism and the fragility of time. Swoon combines found materials, expressionistic figure drawing and intricately detailed patterns on a grand scale, layering personal narrative and community crises into a dense, dramatic outpouring of lovingly curated objects. Of late, she has emerged alongside such artists as Ai Wei Wei and Shirin Neshat as a master of a kind of civic-minded, positively impactful art activism that is often as exquisite as it is challenging.
“Submerged Motherlands” has engulfed the entire Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Gallery on the Museum’s fifth floor, transforming it into a dreamy ad hoc jungle village where the sea has crawled up to marry the land. An enormous tree stands tall at the center of the gallery’s rotunda, reaching gracefully up to the skylight, its limbs draped and dripping with delicate circular paper cutouts. Flanking the tree’s massive trunk — which is woven from long, vertical strips of fabric, each dyed a different muted tone — are two ragtag boats that the artist previously floated down the Mississippi River (in 2006), the Hudson River (2008) and into the Venice Bienniale (2009). Sets of mirrored cardboard figures radiate outward from the heart of the installation, looming large like sentinels or sphinxes, deities that bless and protect the space within. One is a pair of Incan mothers, arms outstretched as they gaze skyward, with matching crowns made of tentacles and breastplates of crabs’ legs; another couple resembles plump, seated Buddhas, each sporting a careworn grimace and a bandaged hand. Here, the mundane and discarded have been invigorated and made beautiful; waste has been turned to want.
Everywhere the viewer looks there is something new to see: on the walls, the floors, the ceiling, in every nook and crevice. The forms are sundry and precise, and the textures and colors created by the play of light are splendid. According to the artist, the piece was conceived as a response to Hurricane Sandy, which struck the Atlantic Coast in 2012, and to the great tsunami that destroyed Doggerland, a landmass that once connected Great Britain and Europe, 8,000 years ago. References to the sea are pervasive: ornate mandalas and medallions made of thick lines sketched in marker on cardboard echo shells, aquatic plants and cephalopods, while the walls have been splashed with various jewel tones of blue. By fusing these maritime elements into the larger landlocked installation, Swoon rhythmically reiterates the simultaneous life-giving and life-threatening force of water, reminding us that the key to our existence and extinction lies curled in the crest of every wave. And while the artist’s style of mark making is decidedly street, embodying a frenetic sense of forward movement, the overall effect is calm, almost otherworldly, as though viewed from the quiet recesses of the ocean floor.
When faced with this magnanimous installation, one realizes the aptness of the artist’s pseudonym: Swoon. It is little wonder that standing in this space evokes a rush of emotion, like falling in love or the flush before a faint. There is a sense of safety, but no comfort, for to swoon is the body’s defense against perilous circumstance — extreme heat, fear, or fever, say — the moment when consciousness becomes too much to bear.”Submerged Motherlands” feels like the moment before that moment, or perhaps the one just after, when delirium sets in and sends the mind reeling, everything at once impossibly fuzzy and terribly clear. You focus on a single spot at the core of your vision while mirror images bloom along the periphery. Shapes and shadows swirl and flutter, multiplying and expanding until all dissolves into the unknown.
On a more literal note, the installation is also meant to be a memorial to the artist’s mother, who became ill and passed away during the gestation phase of the project. Swoon is very aware of her loss, and that awareness (and wariness) presses her toward an intimate way of making art that both embraces and cautions the viewer. Every aspect of the installation feels personal, and poised just so, as though it could collapse at any moment. Like a site-specific sculpture by Sarah Sze, the work is elaborate and immense but also vulnerable, forever on the verge of falling apart. In it, ideas of shelter and exposure, past and future, life and death are folded together into the very real, often difficult, often lovely median state where we live. The figure of a mother breast-feeding her child, or a skeletal woman whose bones are wrapped around the artist’s self-portrait are enough to convince this critic of the integrity of Swoon’s means, whatever (and whenever) the end.