Interview: Swoon Talks Her New Installation "Submerged Motherlands" at the Brooklyn Museum

Swoon opens her new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum today, including a 60-foot tree.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Brooklyn-based artist Swoon's work is the stuff of myths. Her oeuvre includes themes from folk traditions, ancient legends, and foreign communities, and she has covered cities in her visual fairy tales through street art. Swoon's newest installation is no exception. For a show called "Swoon: Submerged Motherlands," the artist is bringing a magical, 60-foot tree into theBrooklyn Museum's rotunda.

Known for her wheatpastes of evocative portraits, Swoon most recently brought her work to the Bowery Wall in New York. Her mural, a communal project, featured the Greek sea goddess, Thalassa, alongside painted pieces from teens who live in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. Previously, Swoon created sustainable shelters for spaces in post-earthquake Haiti, and she sailed rafts made from garbage in international rivers. For her exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Swoon's fantastical installation also touches on social and environmental issues, specifically climate change. We got a chance to talk to the prolific artist about her new show.

"Swoon: Submerged Motherlands" will be on view April 11 to August 24 at the Brooklyn Museum.

Doing a show in New York for me is very special because it’s where I live, and it’s where my community comes together.

What do you have planned for the Brooklyn Museum?
I'm building this tree sculpture, which is the central anchor point for this room, the rotunda of the Brooklyn museum. It’s on the fifth floor, this immense room, and I wanted to create a piece that responded to it. We brought back these raft sculptures, which had been done on the Hudson River and the Adriatic Sea, and now they’re having a final moment in this larger installation.

It’s an immersive environment that represents about five or six years of work, a lot of what I’ve been doing since the last time I had a big show in New York. Doing a show in New York for me is very special because it’s where I live, and it’s where my community comes together.

What does the show's title, "Submerged Motherlands," mean?
When I first started to build the rafts, I was thinking a lot about climate change and rising seas, distant cities broken off and out to sea adrift, packing your whole life up on to a floating piece of something—all of these ideas.

When I knew I was going create an installation that would include the boat, I was still thinking about climate change—a more pressing issue now. Then I read about this placed called Doggerland, which is a submerged bit of land between England and Denmark that was once the most populous place in Europe and then was flooded at the end of the last Ice Age. And so this whole population got pushed out about 8,000 years ago. I was thinking about the loss of homelands.

During that time period when I was working on the installation, my mother actually got sick and died, and so there was also this personal loss for me, of that relationship. I chose the word “Motherlands” because I was thinking about all my work, and the drawings I have included actually have stories of people and places around the world who are struggling to keep their indigenous places and their own homelands. It felt all the more relevant in a personal way that I started to include drawings of my mother and her life.

In some ways, the museum is trying to function as a public space, and in other ways it’ll never be as public as a city street.

How does your work bring together different folk traditions, myths, and contemporary themes?
Making drawings in and of itself is a tradition that reaches really far back; we’ve been doing it for a long time. While I really love to push what I’m creating—to embrace things like the raft project and other sorts of community practices—I also really love to acknowledge that one of my most central practices is also one of the oldest practices that we have. What are the old stories that people have drawn? What are the sort of archetypes we’ve spoken to each other for centuries?

Your work also has an architectural drive, as in building rafts or shelters and creating different spaces out of recyclable or sustainable materials. Will this architectural theme be part of your new installation?
Because the installation is so much a response to the architecture of this space, which is this immensely vertical space, I worked with an engineer to build this 60-foot tree. So, it’s architecture of its own.

Does your work take on a different meaning once it’s inside a gallery or a museum instead of out on the street?
The installations out on the street have a kind of temporal site specificity, which is shared by working at a museum. You are creating something temporary for space. For me the difference is more about chance. In some ways, the museum is trying to function as a public space, and in other ways it’ll never be as public as a city street. It becomes a situation that’s kind of nested inside a protected space. The work outside is really about that chance encounter and that kind of raw freedom of being out of that space, and the work that’s inside starts to respond to the fact that it’s nested inside this hugely institutional architecture.

You could spend weeks and weeks and weeks building something that’s protected from the elements. There are things you can do in this space that I can’t do anywhere—in the rest of my work in Haiti, on the river, or out on the street. I feel like in each place that I work, I respond, as much as I can, to what is happening.

Will this installation be different from other museum projects you’ve done before?
In a big way, yes, because Brooklyn is my home. I am just really giving everything to this project—more than any installation that I’ve done in a long time. My family and friends are really coming together around it. To me, it’s really special, and I’ve been planning it and working really hard on this thing for a long time.

Are there any artists working right now who you admire?
My easiest answer is my neighbors for this show. On one side of me is Ai Weiwei, and on the other side is Judy Chicago. I feel so incredibly honored. Ai Weiwei is doing such massive work within China and all over the world, and with Judy, I feel like so much of why I’m here rests on the shoulders of the work that she did.

On one side of me is Ai Weiwei, and on the other side is Judy Chicago. I feel so incredibly honored.

Judy Chicago's work deals a lot with being a woman artist, and people thought you were initially a man because you were working under a pseudonym. Do you see your work as gendered at all?
When I first started working, I really didn’t want to have a gendered identit, because it’s like being pigeonholed. Now I think I’m a lot more comfortable expressing things that can be really easily identified as the experience of being a woman. The death of my mom really pushed me to draw a lot around the themes of motherhood, birth, and death. I imagine that when people see this piece, they will really strongly identify it as being created by a woman, even though I’m not a mother myself.

I feel like your work is very different than a lot of kind of more "masculine" street art.
I always felt that when I first started working on the street, I knew that I was coming from a different place than so many of the people who I was inspired by. I felt like I had to bring who I was, specifically, into the work for it to be real, for it to be mine.

Why do you think street artists choose to remain anonymous, especially since the medium has now become so popular?
There are a lot of different reasons to do it. For a long time, I really enjoyed having a double identity. It seemed important to me to separate a lot of the hype happening from who I was as a person, so I really liked the idea of creating this name that could stand in for a lot of ideas. Then I could keep myself more of a person who wasn’t necessarily a symbol for something. I think creating pseudonyms and creating an anonymous identity is an art form of its own.

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