DETROIT — As humans we undergo wildly divergent experiences — some so radically different from each other as to create a complete lack of understanding or empathy — but there is one guarantee. We are all born, and so will we all die. In a sense, death is the greatest shared human experience, and for a subset of caregivers, loved ones, or even sometimes simply bystanders to a dying person’s moment of passing, there is a literal and deeply profound shared death experience. Internationally renowned artist Caledonia “Swoon” Curry glimpsed the afterlife when her mother died in 2013, following a protracted struggle with lung cancer. But it took years of research for Swoon to connect this visceral event — a literal visual and emotional experience of passing between the material world and a realm beyond — with several others, and time beyond that to process her findings into an immersive three-room installation, The Light After, at the Library Street Collective.
“When my mom passed away, I had this incredible experience, but I’ve always wondered what it was,” said Swoon, sitting down for a brief interview with Hyperallergic in the midst of installing the second of two public murals during her whirlwind stay in Detroit. “And I was researching all kinds of things, because I was like, how did that happen? Am I crazy? I don’t feel crazy; I feel that that was an event. I wanted to hear other people talk about it.” Swoon’s research led her to Dr. Sam Parnia, a specialist in the field of resuscitation medicine who has written on the subject of near-death experiences as reported by patients.
“And suddenly people are describing things that are very similar and feelings that are very similar,” she said. “I was like, oh that’s what that was — it really roots you back into humanity.”
The Light After, like all of Swoon’s work, moves through the highly personal toward the universal, synthesizing her life and relationships, her research on the shared death experiences of others, and the rotating and ever-expanding cast of characters that make up her oeuvre of detailed larger-than-life portraits. Only two among some dozen figures on display at Library Street are deceased, including Swoon’s mother, who is memorialized in a two-in-one image that captures her holding Swoon as a baby, as well as a skeletal form hooked up to the medical devices that were accessories to her last moments on Earth. The tableau draws a parallel between the life-support provided by modern medicine and the umbilical life support provided from mother to child — trailing from the pelvis of the skeleton-mother is a child in utero. This, and a handful of other figures, occupy the front room of the gallery. Building on her own vision and those reported by others, Swoon leveraged Library Street’s divided architecture to create three sections: the tunnel, the barrier, and the meadow.
“I found that when people described near-death experiences, there were a few common elements,” said Swoon. “It’s generally like, you’re going through a tunnel of light, you’re seeing some beautiful, warm, very welcoming thing that you’re trying to reach, and then something stops you — there’s a barrier, and then you get turned back. And that’s when you — at that point you wake up and you’re being resuscitated.”
The Library Street front room is the blue tunnel, with figures staged among a tissue of delicate, white paper, allowing for shifting glimpses of shapes and light as one moves through the space. The barrier is staged in a narrow corridor covered floor-to-ceiling in zig-zagging Tim Burtonesque black and white lines, and that connects the main gallery with the recently annexed second gallery — a converted garage that faces onto the newly developed Belt Alley downtown. This new space, done up with warm yellow walls plastered with some of Swoon’s trademark portrait subjects, represents the meadow, accessible only to those who complete the journey beyond life as we know it. “That I don’t have any experience of,” said Swoon. “So the front room is kind of a visual reconstruction, the side room is speculation.”
Whether or not visitors to Library Street Collective are believers of shared death experiences, the installation provides an opportunity to enjoy Swoon’s beautiful portraiture and painstaking attention to detail. And while the work is not a reflection on Detroit, some of the themes resonate, regardless. In the center of the meadow, Swoon’s “Kamayura” portrait depicts a (presumably) Amazonian woman, grasping an armful of fish, birds, and flora as a host of bulldozers eat away at the base of the portrait. The encroachment of bulldozer-driven development on sacred native spaces gains relevance every day in Detroit, particularly in the heavily gentrified downtown epicenter where Library Street is located. Taken as a whole, Swoon’s cast of characters is as multicultural and diverse as Detroit itself, and it’s heartening to see the portraits of everyday folk that she started out installing, unauthorized, on the streets of New York, continuing to get due respect in a gallery setting.
Swoon’s visit also included a lecture at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), in support of the large-scale installation of her 2011 work, “Thalassa,” in the DIA’s Great Hall. The 20-foot sea goddess rises, trailing her train of paper and detritus, in the vaulted hall outside the Riviera Courtyard, creating a new conversation with one of Detroit’s cultural treasures. The DIA also funded the installation of a mural in the far east side neighborhood of Jefferson-Chalmerson on a wall overlooking a $4 car wash. Swoon struck up a spontaneous collaboration with neighborhood resident, artist, and Feedom Freedom farmer Wayne Curtis for the mural, which depicts a young woman painting buildings at a miniature scale, with Curtis’s portraits scattered in between. While Swoon’s work travels far and wide, it seems to foster connection and accessibility wherever one finds it.
“I have found that a lot of my long-term projects are really about how creativity addresses crisis — from ecological disaster to social crisis,” said Swoon. “[They] tend to be about bringing the balm and the problem-solving skill set of creativity to some of the more difficult times and places in our lives.”
Despite its inevitability, death — our own and that of others — poses one of life’s greatest challenges, and The Light After manages to cast it in celebratory terms. When I asked Swoon if she had any hopes about her own passing, she said: “I actually don’t feel like I have to have hopes, because listening to all the people’s stories, I was like, this is amazing. I’m not in any rush to die, I want to live my life — and I’m sure I’ll be scared when I get there, because that’s human nature — but conceptually I’m not scared at all. I’m excited.”
Swoon’s The Light After continues at Library Street Collective (1260 Library St, Detroit) through November 26. Swoon’s “Thassala” continues at the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit Institute of Arts) through March 19, 2017. Swoon’s mural at Jefferson St. and Manistique Ave. is ongoing.