Visual Arts Review: “Ravages of the Axe” — Marc Swanson at MASS MoCA and Thomas Cole National Historic Site

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By Chloe Pingeon

A memorial to ice cream at the Dead Deer Disco does not demand political action from its audience. Instead, it allows viewers to sit in the harsh reality of the present and perhaps find community in the shared reality the space creates.

An ice cream memorial at the Dead Deer Disco, Marc Swanson at MASS MoCA, North Adams, through January 2023. This is the first half of a double exposure that continues at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, Main House, Old Studio and on the ground, in Catskill, NY, until November 27. .

A view of Marc Swanson An ice cream memorial at the Dead Deer Disco. Photo: MASS MoCA

What strikes me most deeply drifting through Marc Swanson A memorial to ice cream at the Dead Deer Disco is that his work, housed in two of MASS MoCA’s vast upper galleries, projects an unassuming, almost transcendental beauty. Scattered throughout the first gallery, large white structures resemble trees in places. There are also abstract figurations made of light and mirror. The largest structure stands in the center of the room: a tangle of white wood and white fabric that serves as an altar, adorned with framed black-and-white photographs of ’80s revelers and frozen waterfalls. Under and around the structure are plastic stags, presented in various frozen states. The deer are dead, but somehow the scene isn’t outwardly violent or gruesome. The world Swanson has created is muted and still, existence is suddenly frozen.

For the most part, visitors have to draw their own conclusions about what they see. There are no title cards on the gallery walls. No sound explains the meaning of the exhibit beyond what can be inferred from the resonant sound of a murmuring stream playing above a sculpture of a frosty tree. At first, it is easier to process the exposure in pieces. They are fragments of something which, although undoubtedly unified, is not necessarily ordered. Still, Swanson offers a brief guide in a statement on the wall. The work reflects the sense of freedom he found in nightclubs and in nature. The “memorial” celebrates the beauty, community and freedom that nightclubs gave him when he was 18 in New Hampshire. But the show also laments how these spaces have become places of loss and danger during the AIDS crisis. Swanson also discovered this freedom in the woods of the Catskills. But, while these woods exist today, he predicts that in the future they will be ravaged by climate change.

At MASS Moca, woods and nightclubs dialogue: a disembodied head of a dead deer sits enthroned under a structure made up of luminous and scintillating mirrors. There is the outline of a frozen tree under a disco ball. Nature is perceived as calm and cold. No green must be found; nor is there any music or people to accompany the dazzling lights. It’s a stark portrait of humanity, with hints of intrinsic fragility. The party is over, now preserved via a memorial. The same could be said of the natural world. Swanson mourns the lost spaces of freedom, the liberation he discovered in disco and the woods, but he also pays a fierce tribute to the beauty of these spaces, despite (or because of) their impermanence.

Another view of a Marc Swanson play An ice cream memorial at the Dead Deer Disco. Photo: MASS MoCA.

Despite the extinction theme, there is no sign that asks that we use sustainable materials or links that direct visitors to donation resources. Over the phone, Swanson tells me he thinks people who have been (and are) deeply affected by the AIDS crisis can help us understand the difficult nature of the climate crisis. It is difficult to conceive of a catastrophe – unless you are confronted with it. Whether A memorial to ice cream at the Dead Deer Disco talks about the need to act politically, its strategy is to present the harsh reality of the present. First, face unpleasant facts, then imagine a solution. Swanson’s approach here is more philosophical than pragmatic.

The second gallery of the exhibition is dark. Organized around a disturbing permanent bronze installation by Joseph Beuys, the light here mimics twilight. Suspended from the ceiling in the far corner is a column of shimmering antlers etched in rhinestones. They spin in circles of light, casting colorful shadows on the white walls. A museum staff member tells me that this installation is a vision of time beyond climate change. In particular, there is no human presence here or elsewhere. The rhinestone deer, according to the staff member, symbolizes hope for the future. But to me, it seems like a post-tragedy image. There is no hope that catastrophe will be averted. Most contemporary art that explores the climate crisis naturally aims to shout warnings. There is the assumption, at least the slight possibility, that with effective action, nature can be preserved. Swanson tells us here that it is already too late. We have passed the point of no return.

The message is terrible, but the work is not angry. The rhinestone deer, although frozen, sparkle when spinning. Some may see this as nihilism, but it’s simply Swanson’s way of recognizing that destruction inevitably creates beauty. The work seems eerily peaceful, as if there is comfort – for the artist, for us – in imagining the worst.

Thomas Cole National Historic Site

The route from the MASS MoCA to the Thomas Cole National Historic Site winds through the landscape that Swanson commemorates in his work. The mountains are green and misty. Fog shrouds the horizon, but the smoky gauze only makes the emerald leaves of the Catskills all the more vivid. It’s pouring rain when I arrive. For the Thomas Cole house, Swanson created an exhibition in situ. Cole, an early member of the Hudson River School of Painters, was deeply moved by the beauty of the Catskills. And it has been deeply disturbed by the deforestation and logging that beset the region almost 200 years ago. Cole’s paintings revel in the lush yet gentle peace of the landscape. The windows of his home overlook the same green grandeur, and it’s that aesthetic calm that Swanson learned to love when he moved to the Catskills. It wasn’t until nearly a year after moving that Swanson learned that the creek in his garden is the same one Cole repeatedly returned to in his painting.

Swanson’s show revolves around a bittersweet conversation with the 19th-century artist. If Cole could see the Catskills today, he would be overjoyed. The trees have grown back; the mountains are alive and lush. But, if he were here today, he would be forced to face the reality of climate change, a far greater and more existential threat to the woods than the systematic looting of loggers.

Swanson’s golden stags and shaded white structures are in Thomas Cole’s house, but the rooms seem more austere there. The soft frames of the animals and the luminous towers of the artist’s trees evoke a sense of the present in the past. The contrast shouldn’t be natural: a plastic deer peers into the heart of a 200-year-old oil landscape. There is a predictable sense of unease: Swanson’s plays inflict a sad awareness of contemporary alarm. But, at least for me, the contrast sparks a conversation between centuries. Cole’s mountains were destroyed and then pushed back. Swanson reworks the same landscape, inspired by the same stream, now threatened by a new human threat. Will the cycle repeat itself? Swanson seems to think that’s the nature of things; the thing to do is to commemorate the present, to chill time.


Chloe Penguin is a recent graduate of Boston College, where she studied film and journalism. She has written regularly for the articles and arts section of Boston College’s independent student newspaper, the Heightsand also wrote for the culture section of Lithium charger. She is currently a creative development intern at Foundation Films.

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