Swimming in the Sea of Humanity: Swoon’s “Submerged Motherlands”

“Swoon: Submerged Motherlands” installation view. Brooklyn Museum, 11 April – 24 August 2014.

“Swoon: Submerged Motherlands” installation view. Brooklyn Museum, 11 April – 24 August 2014.

Swoon (Caledonia Curry), a 36-year-old multimedia artist based in Brooklyn, has risen to artworld stardom in the past decade. Like a handful of her peers (e.g. Ryan McGinness and Nicola López), she places printmaking squarely at the center of her practice. Swoon’s primary modes of working are street art, print-based installations and performances/community events; the first two rely heavily on life-scale or larger portraits that are produced with relief printing techniques or stencils. “Submerged Motherlands,” her current installation at the Brooklyn Museum (through 24 August), is the work of an artist entirely fluent in her chosen means of expression. The piece is a meditation on the human impact of climate change and was inspired by the devastation and dislocation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy, which she witnessed first-hand as a resident of Red Hook. Situated on the fifth floor of the museum, the work occupies the entryways and interior space of the 72-foot-high Cantor rotunda. The artist deftly exploits the possibilities of the print in terms of scale and repeatability, festooning the space to dazzling effect. In addition to her signature printed imagery, the installation also includes a 60-foot high sculpture of a tree, a small gazebo-like enclosure and two rafts she built with friends.

“Swoon: Submerged Motherlands” installation view. Brooklyn Museum, 11 April – 24 August 2014.

“Swoon: Submerged Motherlands” installation view. Brooklyn Museum, 11 April – 24 August 2014.

Swoon’s woodcut and linocut portraits have formed the backbone of her work since she first began wheat-pasting them in the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan in the early naughts as a student at Pratt Institute. “Printmaking,” she says, “is the seed from which everything else grows,” especially relief prints (as opposed to digital) due to their ability to weather the elements. Her work is generally fabricated from upcycled materials and her intended audience is the average person on the street. Most of her subjects are people she knows and her arrestingly sensitive and fantastical renderings encapsulate their abilities, struggles, needs and—above all—their profound humanity.

Like a number of artists who work with print-based imagery, Swoon has a cadre of stock images that she recontextualizes each time she uses them. In “Submerged Motherlands” the artist brings together a number of these (along with the vessels, the temple and the tree—the last two are new) to investigate further the themes of climate change she has previously explored. As usual, Swoon planned the work in advance, and enlisted a battalion of friends and collaborators to help with the three-week installation process. These people (whom she duly credits) performed many of the basic tasks of fabrication, such as pulling prints, dying fabric, building structures and cutting stenciled motifs. Swoon oversaw operations while working alongside them.

Three monumental portraits (averaging 12 feet in height) serve as sentries in the Brooklyn show–mirror images of each flank three of the four entries to the rotunda. These are accompanied by a host of smaller printed figures more human in scale, as well as complementary motifs on paper (aquatic eddies, ice shards, honeycombs, wasps’ nests, leaves, flowers) that adorn the walls and spill onto the floor. The interior of the space is dominated by a soaring 60-foot tree of dyed fabric and paper stencil cut-outs, inspired by the tropical ceiba (or kapok), which has been revered by the Maya and other cultures; its roots wind and twist, connecting the elements of the installation. Soft washes of aquas, greens and ultramarine on the walls evoke a waterscape, contextualizing the two large vessels within: the Alice and the Maria, skiffs the artist constructed and sailed with friends for Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea (2008, Hudson River) and Swimming Cities of Serenissima (2009, Adriatic Sea). (A retired relief matrix of dueling skeletons graces Maria’s stern). The installation also includes an octagonal structure for meditation (interior benches are labeled “please have a seat”). Its exterior images depict the human life cycle, with a massive portrait of a nursing mother at top and a composite image of the artist’s late mother as child, mother and phantom at eye level. Inside are hundreds of fabricated wasp nest combs and various flora and fauna motifs.

“Swoon: Submerged Motherlands” installation view. Brooklyn Museum, 11 April – 24 August 2014.

“Swoon: Submerged Motherlands” installation view. Brooklyn Museum, 11 April – 24 August 2014.

As is clear in this partial description, there is much to take in with “Submerged Motherlands.” It is perhaps Swoon’s most ambitious installation to date, bringing together much of her prior work on the theme of climate change. After Hurricane Sandy, she felt the need “to meditate on all our anxieties about this situation, bringing this thinking to the forefront and…tangibly get our hearts and minds around it.” While the work contains a wealth of content related this subject, the spectacle itself can be overwhelming and the museum’s didactic materials offer little assistance in unraveling its multifarious threads. A brief video interview in the gallery and an online forum with the artist provide some insight, but the focus is primarily on process. Doggerland, an ancient flooded land mass under the English Channel, is mentioned in the wall text and interview as an influence on the artist, but there is no evidence of it in the work itself. After introducing the general theme of climate change and describing the symbolism of the tree, the wall text offers some general information about the artist and concludes with an invitation to “unravel its interwoven references and discover its meanings for yourself.” This is difficult to do on the spot unless you have been following Swoon’s work for years. In fairness, the museum has organized a host of exhibition programs that will enlighten the dedicated viewer, including a forum titled In Conversation: Brooklyn Street Art (now online) and a program called Art off the Wall: Swoon’s “Submerged Collaborations” on Thursday, June 12 from 6:30-9:30. The evening will include the New York premiere of Flood Tide, a 70-minute documentary on Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea, a talk with the artist and her collaborators and a musical performance by the Submerged Motherlands Orchestra. say hello #swoonstreetart is a competition sponsored by the museum that will allow visitors a chance to meet the artist or one of her collaborators. Nonetheless, the average visitor is likely to walk away from Submerged Motherlands with a number of unanswered questions.

Swoon’s work is greatly enhanced by the knowledge that her life is part of her art. Her grassroots activism and humble lifestyle model the social changes she would like to see. Further meaning accrues to the images and objects in “Submerged Motherlands” through information about her prior work. For instance, the three monumental figures described above were central to prior installations exploring climate change. In Brooklyn, they build on one another to symbolize the various shifts of the Anthropocene era. The elderly seated woman of ample girth is a portrait of the late Australian aboriginal artist Nyurapayia Nampitjinpa (a.k.a. Mrs. Bennett), a central figure in Swoon’s installation “Anthropocene Extinction“ at the ICA Boston, which explored the cultural extinction of nomadic peoples. On another side of the gallery, a beguiling female form adorned with marine life thrusts skyward from a wave. She is Thalassa, the Greek sea goddess whose name gave title to Swoon’s installation at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2011. Her upward swirling motion intimates rising sea levels: the installation itself was a response to Hurricane Katrina and the importance of the Gulf to the city’s people. (Swoon modeled the goddess on Naima Penniman of Climbing PoeTree). And the stoic female profile set atop a mound of ice shards was the main component of the The Ice Queen, an installation created for the group show “Art in the Streets” (Geffen Contemporary at MoCA, Los Angeles, 17 April-8 August, 2011). Based on the artist’s grandmother, the queen invites us to consider the Arctic thaw.

Swoon and collaborators, Swimming Seas of Serenissima (2009, Adriatic Sea).

Swoon and collaborators, Swimming Seas of Serenissima (2009, Adriatic Sea).

Similarly, while much can be gleaned from observing the two boats on their own (they are built with found materials and their decks are littered with cans of recycled fryer oil, bicycles and basic cooking implements), their deeper meaning depends on the knowledge that they were designed to be entirely “off the grid” and sustainable. They grew out of Miss Rockaway Armada, an ongoing collaborative project begun in 2006 in which Swoon and over a hundred collaborators built a raft from salvaged materials and sailed down the Mississippi River over two summers, spreading goodwill, free music, knowledge and wonder. It was a response to the artist’s frustration with the war in Iraq: “I decided that … I should make something that traveled through the heart of the country. That addressed some of the reasons I felt we were going to war by being an example of another way to live” (Swoon [New York: Abrams, 2010], 124). She found the experience so transformative that she organized the construction of seven new vessels for a similar project on the Hudson, Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea, which lasted several weeks in the late summer of 2008. Of these seven, Alice and Maria were later put into service on the Adriatic (along with a newly fabricated boat), where they crashed the 2009 Venice Biennale.

Even without the benefit of such information, the work carries immense impact. Swoon is motivated by the transformative power of giving her time, effort and talents freely; she enjoys bringing people together to create something exceptional and the magic that happens when people encounter the unexpected. “Submerged Motherlands” offers a salve for the calamity of Sandy and other recent storms. Indeed, the appeal of her work is palpable–visitors approach the installation with reverence, often so absorbed that they tread on its components unknowingly. It is a pleasure to watch discovery take place in those who are encountering her work for the first time, or to hear an acolyte exclaim in delight at this wildly ambitious incarnation of her concerns. In this masterwork, Swoon reminds each of us of our own humanity and connection to life, pointing to a way beyond our increasingly isolated, consumption-addled and technologically-mediated existence.

Swoon in her studio, Red Hook, Brooklyn, 2013.

Swoon in her studio, Red Hook, Brooklyn, 2013.

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