Swoon: Submerged Motherlands - Blue Week


By Tanya Silverman

The tree centerpiece of Submerged Motherlands. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.

Within a spacious, rounded enclosure of tall walls sprayed blue, a colossal tree stands strong. It’s draped in lengthy, earth-toned fabrics: some blue, some beige, some brown, and several more.

Up the tree’s 60-foot trunk, lanky branches reach throughout, holding intricately cut white paper leaves. Certain leaves look like snowflakes, others like flowers, and as the light lingers through them, elaborate shadow patterns are cast onto the water, resembling walls. An eerie, two-dimensional population of linoleum block-print portraits thrives below.

The unique environment is part of a new artistic installation titled Submerged Motherlands, located on the fifth floor of the Brooklyn Museum. It’s the latest project by Swoon, herself a Brooklyn-based artist, who specializes in street art and large installations.

Opening to the public on April 11, lots of supplies lay around the culminating site of Submerged Motherlands: heaps of dyed fabrics, stacks of paper patterns, buckets of mixed paint, assorted hardware, and machinery.

The standing portraits of people each seem to embody a complicated universe within their beings. One image shows a curly-haired woman closely holding a small child, both bodies engulfed by the ribs and arms of a skeletal structure above, attached to deadly bones–plus a developing fetus–below.

Separately, a print of a young, longhaired woman appears to have fishtails and leaves erratically crashing into her midsection–below that madness sits a small sketch of an industrial landscape with a plow, crane, and dump truck.

Though the crew is still hard at work constructing this phantasmal world for its opening, Swoon takes a break to talk to BTR about Submerged Motherlands.

“I thought about climate change, rising seas, and the vulnerability of our urban population, with the world and planet and ecosystem,” she explains about the imagery in the gallery.

Swoon adds that she began brainstorming some aspects of the installation during Hurricane Sandy, connecting themes of the windy, watery disaster with images of “floating cities” and “refugee encampments,” to express some of the anxieties the earth’s population is facing.

Swoon in her studio. Red Hook, Brooklyn, 2013. Photo copyright Bryan Welch.

Inevitably, BTR became curious about the differences Swoon finds working with outdoor and indoor environments.

“The thing about work outside is that it’s so temporary–you generally put up a piece in five minutes and then you’re gone,” she responds. “But for me one has led straight to the other,” as her years of street projects caused her to think of the context and architecture in a site-specific manner.

Because the Brooklyn Museum building is “monumental,” and “well-protected,” the spatial dimensions of the room can be challenging, so part of the process is finding ways to embrace the environment. Even with all the giant structures hoisted to the ceiling, and the intricate narratives depicted in the portraits, Swoon says she tries to think of the dynamics of the piece as a whole.

One of Swoon’s pivotal projects, however, did not take place on the streets or in a museum, but rather, out at sea: Swimming Cities of Serenissima. It was back in 2009, and on the coast of Slovenia, when she and her team took New York City garbage and assembled seven rafts to sail. That entailed a two-week journey across the Adriatic Sea to Venice, Italy.

Describing the Swimming Cities project as one of the most “incredibly amazing things” she’s done, the adventure was quite influential to Submerged Motherlands, like incorporating prospects of floating communities. So, Swoon was determined to bring the rafts.

The Swimming Cities of Serenissima, Adriatic Sea. Photo copyright Tod Seelie.

Alas, all the fun and craziness and spontaneity embodied by the vessels came into conflict with the real world’s bureaucratic rules and regulations.

“[The rafts] got caught in Italian customs because they couldn’t understand what they were,” exclaims Swoon.

She continues that the officials just could not comprehend the giant piles of garbage they faced, and they could not understand how such items possibly got into Italy.

“’I was like, ‘We drove it! Here are these pictures,’’’ says Swoon, though her response did not convince the guards.

The rafts stayed stuck in customs limbo because “no bureaucrat would touch” them. It took a long time, but eventually, a “crazy fixer” was hired to sort things out and get the rafts sent across the Atlantic via shipping container. The giant tree from Submerged Motherlands is up until August, but afterwards, will it be incorporated into any future projects?

“This tree is strangely the largest and most immaterial thing I’ve ever built,” explains Swoon, “meaning when it comes apart, it’s just going to be a pile of fabric and a pile of truss work and that’s it.”

She reasons that the “tree will probably never exist anywhere else,” as, logistically, it’s 60 feet tall and would need something taller than itself to support it.

While the installation is closed off and in progress, Swoon says that the museum’s security staff has responded to the installation with amazement, so she hopes that the reaction will follow when it opens to the public.

“There are a lot of narratives contained within,” Swoon says about Submerged Motherlands. “So I feel like I can create a place where people can identify with the strand that pulls them and have their own experience.”

Swoon: Submerged Motherlands will be on display from Apr 11 to Aug 24 at the Iris and B. Gerald Candor Gallery, Fifth Floor, Brooklyn Museum.