I’m never one to shy away from over-the-top art installations; in fact, falling down the rabbit hole of completely transportive environments is one of my most joyous pastimes. Given this predilection for immersive spaces, imagine my delight at coming across street artist Swoon‘s atrium-sized multimedia cacophony installed on the 5th floor of the Brooklyn Museum. Having visited the museum primarily to see Ai Wei Wei‘s exhibition According To What?, I wasn’t expecting to stumble upon Swoon’s show, but thrilled I did.

One of the foremost street artists in the world, Swoon (nee Caledonia Curry) is well-known for her large-scale pasted prints and paper cutouts adhered to urban exteriors. In the Brooklyn Museum installation, she has managed to maintain the impulsivity of her street-art roots, but with the elaborate, sanctuary-like  scale of an institutional space.

tree ocukus

Entitled Submerged Motherlandsthe inspiration for the show came from Hurricane Sandy’s devastating effect on Swoon’s Brooklyn neighbourhood of Red Hook. As a centrepiece in the rotunda, a massive tree rises from ground to the oculus of the roof 72 feet overhead; laboriously handmade from individually-dyed strips of cloth, it is a stunning sight to behold, casting intricate shadows with its protective canopy.

Tree Detail

 A detail of the tree’s fabric swaths, coloured with coffee grounds and other natural dyes

Swoon also drew inspiration from her own mother’s recent illness and subsequent death, and there are powerful images of motherhood and the human lifecycle to correlate to the themes of natural disaster and regeneration.

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hut interior

 The outside (top) and interior (bottom) of a “shelter” space in the form of biomorphic huts

Despite the extraordinary detail of Submerged Motherlands, there was a definite sense of improvisation and immediacy true to the artist’s graffiti practice. The walls of the space had been blasted with layers of paint using fire extinguishers, and junk collected from the streets formed one of the exhibition’s most stunning features: several towering structures that looked like makeshift boats from a movie set.

In fact, they were fully functional rafts that Swoon, in collaboration with over 100 people, assembled as part of the Swimming Cities initiatives, two separate art-adventure projects in 2008 and 2009. In both instances, the rafts were sailed across major bodies of water as part of performance pieces: first down the Hudson River, then across the Adriatic Sea, from Slovenia to Italy (right in time to arrive at Venice for that year’s Biennale).

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 One of the seafaring Swimming Cities 

The rafts serve as an interesting rumination on survival against the elements; utilizing junk and man-made garbage–the very things that threaten this planet’s ocean life–to traverse and live upon the water is an interesting commentary on climate change and finding a sustainable harbour in the havoc we have collectively created.

Brainy and beautiful, both Swoon and her thoughtful installation made for the perfect ending to an outerborough afternoon.