Street artist Swoon makes it look easy
It was pure coincidence on a recent Tuesday morning that as the street artist Swoon stood in the atrium of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and pondered a reporter’s questions, a tourist standing 10 feet away gazed at the artist’s newest massive work and commented to his companion, “This looks simple!’’
“This’’ was a 400-pound pyramid-shaped temple of bamboo, wood, and copper, on the bottom of which was the intricately carved face and yawing mouth of a demonesque figure, all bound together with hundreds of strips of rubber bicycle tires and suspended from the ceiling next to the museum’s glass-encased elevator.
And it begged the question, simple or not: How exactly does an art work like this come together?
“Anthropocene Extinction’’ is the name of the work that has the temple as its centerpiece, the title being the scientific name for arguably the first period in which humans have a significant impact on Earth’s ecosystems. And it made its debut yesterday as the newest installation of the ICA’s Sandra and Gerald Fineberg Art Wall.
From the temple, which Steven Spielberg should take note of if he really plans to go through with a fifth Indiana Jones movie, flows a “river’’ of paper cut-out animals that makes its way across the ICA atrium. It ends at the Art Wall, where an enormous mural of a smiling, Bhudda-like woman sits cross-legged as a symbolic sanctuary to the stream of animals.
The tourist, who declined to identify himself, sheepishly admitted moments later that by “simple’’ he meant the temple was “not fancy, not classic, but rather simple materials and such.’’
Swoon’s answer to a question about misconceptions people often have about her art was “that this doesn’t take a lot of work. I hear that and . . . ’’ - she paused to swallow her frustration - “I don’t think some people - people who say that kind of thing - really appreciate how much work goes into making it happen from the beginning.’’
Over the past several months, “Anthropocene Extinction’’ has evolved from a series of meetings between Swoon and ICA adjunct curator Pedro Alonzo, a two-week marathon of building the temple inside an old Braddock, Pa., church-turned-artist-commune-studio, and the packing and shipping of the temple to South Boston.
Thirteen days ago the crates arrived at the ICA via semi-trailer, and “Anthropocene Extinction’’ began to alter the museum’s landscape.
For nine consecutive days, 10 to 12 hours a day, Swoon (born Caledonia Curry to parents she describes as musician hippies), her full-time crew of five or so, and a half-dozen art student volunteers at any given time made it happen.
Day one saw the group hammering and crow-barring their way into the crates, gingerly unpacking the temple sculpture and hundreds of pounds of heavy-gauge paper drawings of demon faces to match those on the temple and the animals. Each item was wheeled or lugged to its place. Carpal tunnel jokes were plenty as the mounds of paper added up.
Day two was more lively, with Swoon and paper construct expert Alyssa glueing and tying the animals to the temple as quickly as they and volunteers could cut them out, while Christian - a former building construction consultant who has worked with Swoon since she created a giant sea goddess inside the New Orleans Museum of Art - supervised the placement of the temple.
Day three had the crew sidestepping tourists like running backs avoiding tackles, making their way between temple and cutting area, relaying messages and instructions, delivering freshly cut paper animals, and spelling each other on paint-rolling duty. The Art Wall slowly turned from flat white to a bronze sheen, the base color of the mural.
By day four, the crew had managed to lift the temple about 20 feet off the ground, as Swoon took turns riding scissor lift and elevator easily 50 times before the day was over. The artist studied the sculpture from top and bottom and made adjustments accordingly - a red stripe painted on the bottom of the art wall, blue stenciled animals painted in the middle, more animals.
A broken suspension hook for the temple gave the team fits overnight, but by day five, a week ago last Friday, they were in better spirits.
On day nine, after about 108-plus hours of work, the “simple’’ piece of art was finished. Or, as Swoon explained at a reception hosted by Louis Vuitton Thursday night, “finished means we just had to stop. It was that time. Sometimes that’s what dictates the end of a work.’’
Swoon has a work ethic that began when she was in grade school, growing up around folks she affectionately describes as “hippies and rednecks, and just good people.’’
“I was curious about art then, yes,’’ she says. “At the time though, art to me just meant painting.’’
It surprises some, Swoon says, that the art-equals-painting mentality followed her to art school as a young adult. She finally compelled herself to think outside the craft box upon observing street art in her Brooklyn neighborhood.
Alonzo, adjunct curator at the ICA, recalls a story of how Swoon began developing her ability to work with a team.
“It means she has no stereotypical artist’s ego,’’ Alonzo says. He describes how Swoon, who blushes when called by her street handle instead of “Callie,’’ recruited and organized her neighbors into teams to paint and decorate over intrusive illegal billboards in their community.
Swoon dismisses the effort as simply “getting people to work together, who were already willing to do so.’’
Between that rally project in Brooklyn more than 10 years ago and now, she has been busy, always with a team specially suited for a project - building artistic but functional boats of recycled materials and floating them down the Mississippi River, doing the same in Slovenia and sailing to Venice, leading an entire village in Haiti to build sturdy homes of recycled materials after the deadly 2010 earthquake - homes that were works of street art.
“It’s ‘street’ art, because it happens where we live and in the places we enjoy,’’ Swoon says of her varied projects. “So in that sense - this process? It’s always practical.’’