Marc Swanson’s "A Memorial To Ice At The Dead Deer Disco" is a daring and timely installation series currently on view in tandem exhibits at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site and MASS MoCA in North Adams.
At the famous painter's home in Catskill, Swanson’s exhibition is in dialogue with Cole’s landscapes and fondness for the natural environment, offering an update to Cole’s 19th century concerns and idealized mountain views, which were created to critique the exploitation of land for the benefit of industry. Swanson’s work presents us with an uncanny glimpse into an imaginary future-present in which we experience a nightmarish yet spectacular farewell to nature.
Using sculpture as a starting point, the work is infused with a sense of macabre, camp, mourning, foreboding, and a dark sense of humor. Installations are at times grand in scale and conceptual prowess, combining elements of diorama, stage design, taxidermy, and funeral service aesthetics to reflect on the disastrous effects of the climate crisis and its parallels with the AIDS crisis. For Swanson, the shrinking sublimity of the natural world recalls the nightclub scene of his youth, and with that the dwindling of spaces for which a feeling of belonging and where unchecked, wild self-expression is possible.
As a memorial to the irretrievable spaces we once knew, Swanson’s installations are cleverly integrated throughout Cole’s property, adding a theatrical quality to the otherwise historically preserved artist studio and family home. Cream-colored deer carcasses, monochromatic draped fabrics and paint-dipped chains, reflective surfaces, branches, antlers, vanity lights, and framed black and white photos are carefully arranged in clusters in wall-mounted displays, encased in glass, and as sculptures.
Swanson’s exhibition is included in the guided tour of the museum, delivered in part through quoted words lifted from Thomas Cole’s journals. In this context, one understands Cole through Swanson’s stirring critique and memorializing displays. A partial deer body covered in rhinestones rotates like a disco ball visible through the window of the bedroom Cole and his wife Maria shared. A lighted memorial comprised of glitzy framed photographs of glamorous but unknown people and dried flowers sits atop a chest of drawers in the family’s sitting room. On the opposite end, two life-size deer figurines encrusted in rhinestones look on with a dead gaze.
The contrast between Swanson’s aesthetic and Cole’s historic home is uncanny but affecting. As we ponder Cole’s life at the height of the Industrial Revolution, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that we’re currently living through an advanced stage of rapacious disregard for the natural environment. Feelings of hope have been replaced by acknowledgment of the inevitable.
Arranged as a kind of allegorical graveyard, Swanson’s installations allow time and space to grieve, but they also encourage reflection on the natural beauty that remains. Postcard-sized videos are embedded in a wall-mounted display on the second-floor landing of the home showing looped footage from Catskill Creek, an area Cole knew and loved.
Like the framed photographs, the videos signal a memorial to the past, but surrounded by heavily draped sheets resembling icicles, they also invoke a kind of mise-en-scène, literally setting the scene, or performing the future, as a kind of warning. This is in keeping with the overall tone of the exhibition, which emphasizes preservation and beauty over decay. We are reminded that this beauty won’t last, so we should embrace the feeling of belonging in nature while we still can and give in to the possibility for the unchecked, wild self-expression that it allows.
Marc Swanson’s A Memorial To Ice At The Dead Deer Disco is on view at Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, NY through November 27, 2022. A companion exhibition of this work is also on view at MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA through January 1, 2023. Selections from an interview with the artist will air on WGXC’s Ginger Radio Hour hosted by Justin Maiman on Tuesday, August 16, 2022 at 10 AM EST.
Natasha Chuk is an independent arts writer, curator, and scholar.