Catskill, New York, and North Adams, Massachusetts
Marc Swanson’s “A Memorial to Ice at the Dead Deer Disco” offers a queer elegy for our collective climate futures. The two-venue exhibition tackles a huge set of parameters, including climate change, the AIDS crisis and the friends he’s lost to it, the Industrial Revolution, the Hudson River School, sublime forests, and backyard gardens. By personalizing the ecological gaze, Swanson builds a proscenium and an altar where we can lament and, crucially, celebrate.
At MASS MoCA, within a warehouse-style gallery complete with soaring ceilings and exposed girders, Swanson has situated dozens of figural sculptures made from taxidermy mounts, plaster-dipped and expertly draped gauze, photography, video, and light. Deer forms collide, melt, and disappear under their draperies, some losing their heads or limbs. The arrangement of these hard foam bodies evokes the small-town cemeteries that dot the landscape of New England, the ruins of which are often discovered deep in the forest. Like visiting a cemetery—or perhaps a mausoleum in this instance—the experience is intimate yet very anonymous. Moving through the space, the light fades to a deepening dark. Mirrored frames reflect the light of slowly spinning, rhinestone-covered antlers; the feeling is that of a nightclub, albeit a nightclub inside a forest that thinks it’s a graveyard.
Swanson, who is known for his use of embellished taxidermy forms, especially deer, began this project after moving to Catskill, New York, from Brooklyn. Looking at Thomas Cole’s paintings of Catskill Creek, Swanson and his partner realized that their property was once a favorite painting site for the 19th-century founder of the Hudson River School. Swanson began researching Cole and discovered that he had more in common with his predecessor than just a shared love for a particular parcel of land. Cole immigrated to the U.S. in 1818 when he was 17 years old to escape the increasingly toxic industrialization of England. He was a climate migrant. By the time he moved to Catskill in 1825, the same industrial schemes that had prompted his flight were ramping up in the U.S.
Through a study of Cole’s essays and lectures, Swanson learned that Cole’s work as a painter was partially an effort to warn about where this development would lead and to galvanize people into rejecting perceived human progress at the cost of nature. Cole’s much-feared, worst-case scenario for his beloved Catskill Creek never came to specific fruition. Instead, his prediction is playing out on a global scale. That may not be a good sign for the many contemporary artists hoping to turn the tide somehow with their work, but it remains important to bear witness—and to celebrate that which is still here. This background provides the stage setting for Swanson’s project in its entirety, and it makes his second installation at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site one of nuance and depth.
In contrast to the cavernous former industrial site of MASS MoCA, Cole’s butter-yellow house offers the intimacy of a familiar, domestic setting. Swanson’s works hang next to a four-poster bed, stand atop a dresser, and flank a sitting-room fireplace. The interior is compact yet stately, with brightly colored
and patterned walls, some hand-painted by Cole himself (and later restored). Swanson’s figures—draped, sparkling, surrounded by flowers—add a present-day opulence and splendor, enhancing and enlivening the site. Somehow, these glittering things belong here. They add the next act to the narrative arc. The adjacency of Swanson’s contemporary Romantic sculptures and Cole’s 19th-century Romantic landscape paintings highlights the messy entanglements that we continue to struggle with today: Which nature/which culture? Whose history/ whose progress? Which bodies—human, animal, vegetal, geographical—have been marked and how will they survive?