Swooning Over Urban Art at the ICA

“She does represent a new breed of artists and a new breed of working,” Pedro H. Alonzo, adjunct curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, said about Caledonia D. Curry. Curry—better known as “Swoon”—is featured in a new installation, “Anthropocene Extinction,” on exhibit at the ICA until December 30. This work represents an unusual break from the street and performance art for which she has gained prominence in the contemporary art community.

Swoon began her career with an extensive background in drawing and portraiture at the Pratt Institute. While she always loved drawing, she struggled to find larger significance in it. “I [had] no idea how it interacts in the actual world,” Swoon says about her college days. Her classical training provided a foundation for her to explore other artistic outlets in the city.

Swoon was inspired by her surroundings in New York City. “I felt really attracted to the energy of the city…. I just wanted to connect with it in this, like, visceral, physical way,” she said. Swoon said that it was difficult to stay true to who she felt that she was in the city. It was at this point that she began to explore a new vehicle of artistic expression in street art, specifically, “ad jamming,” in which artists modify public advertisements as a form of expression and commentary. “[There is an] unspoken rule that your mind can be trafficked through but that you can’t speak back,” Swoon says in reference to the cause behind her collective. This rule bothered Swoon, so she acted against it.

One of her first projects was called “Toyshop,” a collective that modified hundreds of billboards that crowded the streets of Brooklyn. From there, she has gone on to participate in a number of public performance projects. These activities range from a relief project constructing reinforced adobe structures in post-disaster Haiti to the “Miss Rockaway Armada,” which consisted of a group of artists that constructed a raft from reclaimed materials and sailed it down the Mississippi while making stops and giving performances along the way.

“Anthropocene Extinction” seems to be a break from Swoon’s trend of direct involvement—an opportunity with both advantages and disadvantages. “The reason why street artists are street artists is because they want an unmediated relationship with the public,” says Alonzo. This relationship is compromised when the art is exhibited at a museum. “What you make on the street becomes associated with commoditization, so people will steal it and want to sell it,” Swoon says. “For me, always putting stuff outside was always about making it not an object and making it free to every person.” Swoon began to see more potential in having her art in a gallery. “I really understood it as not something that was a reduction of ‘This used to be on the street, now it’s stuck on a wall, and it seems less alive.’ It was more, ‘I get to go through another whole level of thinking, and I get to enact another whole thought process.’”

For Swoon, this different process involved engaging with her pieces more symbolically and less directly than the work with which she has been typically associated. “This is a piece that is really about the environment and the devastation of the environment,” Alonzo says about “Anthropocene Extinction.” He goes on to point out that this particular exhibit is a more symbolic commentary because Swoon is not interacting directly with nature. In one space is a temple with germinating creatures that spill through the mouth of a temple. These creatures are suspended above the audience between this temple and a large wall where the second component of the piece resides. Here, there is what Swoon descibes as a “hillock of demons” that are sucking the other animals into their mouths.

Alonzo offers an interpretation of Swoon’s work by adding, “This demon really represents humanity’s need to devour, consume, and destroy.” But the installation is not entirely pessimistic. “On top of the demons sits a depiction of…one of the oldest living Aborigines…to have lived in her traditional lifestyle as a nomad in the [Austrialian] outback, and possibly one of the last people on Earth who actually lived in a society [who] lived in communion with their environment,” says Alonzo. The title of the piece comes from what scientists are call the new geologic era, according to Alonzo. “[For] the first time…humanity’s impact on the Earth is so vast that scientists are thinking, ‘Okay, well now we have to call this the Anthropocene,’” Alonzo said. “Our impact is just so huge.”

Swoon’s latest piece is neither street nor performance art, but still manages to relay a powerful message. Her artistic purpose and practice is one that is mobilizing the contemporary artistic community in a new direction and changes the game for artists who traditionally take a more passive approach to their artwork.

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