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In one of the largest galleries at the Brooklyn museum, the artist Swoon has erected Submerged Motherlands, a colorful installation cloaked in the language of fairy tale and myth. At the center of the piece is a massive and beautifully constructed tree, which shoots up 72 feet until it appears to poke through the skylight in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Gallery on the museum’s fifth floor. Two of the three boats from her aquatic Swimming Cities project — one used on the Hudson River, the other on the Adriatic during the 2009 Venice Biennale — are beached at its base, while cut-paper foliage branches out and human figures from previous works are littered about.
The piece, we are told, directly addresses Hurricane Sandy, which brought havoc and destruction to the Caribbean and Eastern United States Seaboard in 2012. Swoon evokes the flooding caused by the “superstorm” by washing the gallery walls in blue, to the point that it even obscures the names of the donors affixed to the wall. For a work that addresses destruction, the general mood is surprisingly ethereal. Alone in the hall, you can look up and feel submerged by the installation’s scale.
The large work bleeds through its allotted space and makes you wish it would have continued further into the hallways and other galleries. The edges of the work are abrupt and rough, like a plant yanked from its native soil and placed on a hard alien surface.
The dreamlike fantasy of the installation is center stage, but it’s hard not to fixate on the hundreds, if not thousands, of parts. The black and white figures around the perimeter of the atrium are somewhat awkwardly placed, but ultimately act as a frame for the central sculpture of the tree, a universal symbol of life and longevity.
If the visual allure of the work is unmistakeable, its conceptual underpinnings are more muddied. Swoon’s distinctive handmade aesthetic is attractive, but the installation is too theatrical; the narrative of the work seems clouded in histories that aren’t immediately apparent or fully explained. Abandoned ships cobbled together from refuse, a peculiar hut crowned with a breastfeeding “Madonna,” and cutout figures not reacting to their surrounding are among the cryptic parts that make up the whole — it’s an abandoned Mad Max–like dystopia with just enough sunshine to crack the clouds.
Yet part of Swoon’s appeal is undoubtedly how her work excites the imagination even when the subject matter can be elusive. When she created “Portrait of Silvia Elena” (2008) with Tennessee Jone-Watson, you had to crawl into a hole in the ground to encounter a carefully arranged grotto. Once you entered the lair you were immediately seduced by the shadowy meditation on the unsolved femicides in Juarez, Mexico. Unlike “Portrait of Silvia Elena,” Submerged Motherlands is confined to the austerity of an encyclopedic museum. Objects that would normally be wondrous, appear slightly more sterile and cold, like an exotic insect pinned down under a bell jar.
Standing underneath this mighty tree, I couldn’t help but imagine what the space would look like if it were flooded by water, and how I would rush to one of the boats for safety from the deluge. Swoon’s installation, like some of her strongest work, invites us to imagine the stories of the people she depicts, the previous lives of the objects she selects, and how each of these wonky objects is made. There is love and caring in every inch of her work. What is missing in the work is a sense of urgency to the impending disaster. This is an optimistic vision of how nature will find its own equilibrium post-apocalypse, a time after the world is consumed by water and the flood waters finally recede. I just don’t see how, looking at the facts we are faced with, you could be that positive about the future. Sometimes art is about helping us transform the impossible into something less so.
Swoon’s Submerged Motherlands continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Park, Brooklyn) through August 24.