September 23, 2008

Back to Nature

Print More

[img_assist|nid=32001|title=Marc Swanson’s “Hurry on Sundown”|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Most of us are familiar with dioramas from grade school field trips to natural history museums: the frozen three-dimensional scenes of flora and fauna carefully arranged to resemble natural habitats. The diorama, as a miniature theater onto another world, creates a zone that is presented not so much as a replica of nature than as an illusion of looking on nature itself, captured in an iconic moment of time. Yet, even as the diorama obscures its own artificiality, the ideological assumptions implicit in diorama construction make the medium an intriguing one to contemporary artists.
“Hurry on Sundown,” an exhibit of Marc Swanson’s recent multimedia work at the Johnson Museum through October 19th, makes apt and ironic use of the tension in the media of dioramas by foregrounding fabulously artificial, fantastically constructed objects within illusionistic and naturalized framing devices. During an artist talk, Swanson regaled the audience with an anecdote about a recent diorama exhibit, since changed, in which a lioness was portrayed protecting cubs while the lion hunted game. Since this goes against the biological facts, it shows how easily we project distorted human gender stereotypes onto the natural world.
Even as Swanson’s work raises questions about the personal values we project onto nature, his work also seeks to regain a sense of the primitive nobility of the indigenous experience, in spite of an awareness that such experience could be a mythical backformation. This longing to hear a preternatural call of the wild may be nothing more than a historical fiction, yet Swanson’s work argues that such a fiction may well be necessary for understanding our own identities.
His most striking diorama is Killing Moon: Self-Portrait as a Yeti, in which a slightly smaller-than-human, sasquatch-like Himalayan snowman hunches over with a string of rabbit carcasses in its hands. One ruby-colored sequin-adorned deer antler swings in his path. The scene is framed by three large black rectangles that resemble doorways into a void: the one behind the creature has an eerie circular cut-out, filtering a kind of negative moonlight across the imagined glacial tundra. The landscape, while barren and grim, is rife with cultural and personal allusions, from Dorothy’s wish-fulfilling ruby slippers to Ad Reinhardt’s “Ultimate” series (all-black paintings in subtle gradients that take on different shades depending on the viewer’s perspective).
The work is infused with personal significance, as well. When Swanson originally displayed the piece in the boiler room at P.S. 1 in Queens, he stayed inside and around the museum space, rummaging for garbage to make art and acting like a yeti. He has also said that the works — specifically the string of dead rabbits — deal with break-ups occurring in his life at that time. However, his work is self-referential without imposing on its viewers, allowing them the freedom to interact personally with the diorama in ways that may reveal surprises about their own values and histories.
Always and Nothing, another diorama installation in the exhibit, consists of eight slim tree trunks posted like pillars throughout a room. Hanging above the viewer is a network of branches that interlace between the tree trunks with a few dense, nest-like clusters. Birdcages, containing different colored beer bottles, hang down from the branches; in the middle is a paint-splattered peacock.
Summer camp flags are strung along the perimeter. Like Killing Moon, the references seem both high and low, personal and cultural: Swanson found the birdcages and beer bottles when he scavenged Queens dumpsters in the summer, while the peacock seems a sly allusion to Rauschenberg’s Monogram, in which a car tire wraps the belly of a paint-besmirched taxidermic goat.
The exhibit evokes a sense of innocence, as if the objects above the viewer’s head represent a boyhood tree house. The delicate furniture of an adolescent mind is suspended above, out of reach, a knowing construction of nostalgia.
At the same time, the diorama offers a primal encounter, if not really with nature itself, than at least with its fabrication. From a deer-head bedazzled in black rhinestones to a replica of a rawhide composed of old t-shirts, Swanson’s work challenges its viewers to reconsider the need for “Nature” even as it simultaneously impels them to deconstruct naturalizing discourses. In this way, the artwork transcends theory by provoking us to look at the world, natural or otherwise, in ways that categories cannot wholly contain.