Arts, Culture & Media

This artist's work is at home on the Mississippi River, the Adriatic Sea and in a museum in Brooklyn


Alice, from left, Maria, and Ol’ Hickory sail on the Adriatic Sea, part of Swoon’s 2009 project The Swimming Cities of Serenissima. Alice and Maria also appear in Submerged Motherlands at the Brooklyn Museum.


Tod Seelie

Not many artists can claim to have sailed their artwork down the Mississippi River — or on the Adriatic Sea.

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Swoon can. Because she did.

Swoon, whose given name is Caledonia Dance Curry, and a group of diverse artists created colorful, almost unbelievably jerry-built boats, and, on three separate trips, sailed together on them, creating art and incredible memories along the way.

Now, these boats are part of a larger art installation, called Submerged Motherlands, at the Brooklyn Museum.

Submerged Motherlands is a fantastical landscape. At the center, reaching all the way up toward the sky-lit dome at the top of the museum, is an enormous tree.

“Its interior is made out of a truss, a sixty-foot truss system,” Swoon explains, “We had to install a lift point in the building in order to hoist it up. So there’s obviously engineering that the fabric is hiding. But the exterior is all hand-dyed and shredded fabric and cut-paper leaves.”

Resting against the trunk of the tree, as if they were tied at the edge of a river, are two of the handmade boats. Made entirely from reclaimed materials found on construction sites, they are ramshackle and cheerful, like something out of a cartoon.

Swoon describes one of the boats, named Alice, this way:

“She has two styrofoam pontoons decked across, joisted like the floor of a house, and then these kind of knotty, tangly sort of roots — which for me were reminiscent of the mangrove swamps.” Miraculously, Alice is also an entirely functional vessel.

While on the Mississippi, Swoon says, their travels generated a warm response from nearly everyone they met — perhaps because of the Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer feel of their adventure.

“People really connected with it so much in that way,” Swoon says. “Along the river, people would constantly say, ‘Oh, I’ve always dreamed of doing this.’”

The boats are also meant to evoke real-world shantytowns — an expression of Swoon’s concern with climate change and the threat it poses to poor, coastal cities. But, she says the shanty-like feel is not "cultural appropriation" — or an attempt to borrow directly the "language of the shanty."

Instead, Swoon says she “imagined them like bits of cities that had broken off from their coastal perches and kind of evolved and changed and moved around and perhaps were in some way seeking a home, a safety and a refuge.”

Surrounding the boats and the mangrove swamp is a group of Swoon’s portraits — cut-outs that are pasted on boards to make them life-size, and in some cases larger-than-life. They’re mostly female figures of very different kinds — a mother breast-feeding an infant; a demon figure sticking out her tongue. There is also a woman with the same cloud of curly hair as Swoon.

While Swoon was working on the installation, she explains, her mother became sick with cancer and passed away.

“[My mother] was a person who had a really difficult life, and I had a difficult relationship with her,” Swoon says. “She struggled with addiction and mental illness, heroin and alcohol — everything you can imagine.”

The figures represent Swoon’s mother at various times in her life.

While Swoon’s work is personal and infused with a sense of whimsy, it's also a way of addressing real issues. She has gone to Haiti to help build housing for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake, and here in the United States she has worked with the struggling former steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, to help create a community center.

“It’s really important to me to not just take on subjects, but to actually work in situ, and to try to use problem-solving to tackle the issues directly. I think it's because I'm such a concrete thinker. I just think, ‘If I'm thinking about this, if I’m worried about this, if I’m concerned about it, let's get our hands on it. How can we be involved? How can we start to be part of the process?'"

Submerged Motherlands is at the Brooklyn Museum in New York through the end of August.

This story is based on an interview by PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, where you'll find other coverage of popular culture, design and the arts.