Arts exhibit review

Art, and the age of man

Swoon’s Anthropocene Extinction installation balances power with fragility

Anthropocene Extinction


Institute of Contemporary Art

Through Dec. 30, 2012

Free with MIT ID

If you have not yet been to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, now is the time to go. Thanks to street artist Swoon (Caledonia Curry), the ICA, or at least part of it, is temporarily festive. Swoon installed Anthropocene Extinction in its lobby just over a year ago, and the effect is still as refreshing as ever.

Shimmering bronze covers the Fineberg Art Wall at the building’s entrance. Anthropocene Extinction is about humanity’s impact on the environment, but while it warns of extinction, it also celebrates life. The installation is full of simmering energy, and has an air of pan-religiosity about it. Cutouts of fierce Tibetan deity masks form the beginnings of a black, red, and white semicircular border at the base of the wall. On top of this makeshift circle of life, a smiling, Buddha-like woman sits cross-legged. She’s the last of the nomads, an Aboriginal woman known simply as Ms. Bennett, but as the sky-blue halo of paper cutouts behind her explodes into butterflies, fish, and other creatures, she could very well be Mother Earth.

Streams of more paper cutouts lead us further into the ICA, where a 400-pound bamboo structure hangs from the ceiling. The temple-like creation is fascinating enough from below; a ride up in the enormous glass elevator next to it gives an even better, more holistic view. Seen from above, the effect is a curious one: While the bamboo skeleton is solid (it’s built with the same techniques that the Chinese used to make scaffolding), its entirety is draped with lacy cutouts of honeycomb and netting, twisted brown paper, and white tissue — delicate pieces that seem like they would break free at the slightest hint of a breeze.

The air-conditioned interior of the ICA is a far cry from the city walls where Swoon’s works generally go, but the result is no less powerful. Here, where the focus is not on the juxtaposition of poetically decaying scraps of paper with graffiti-covered walls, we can concentrate more on her meticulous attention to detail. The clean exhibition space makes it impossible to ignore the incredible amount of work that went into each piece.

Pedro Alonzo, adjunct curator at the ICA, compared Swoon’s craftsmanship to building a pyramid. And yet, unlike a pyramid’s hulking form, the physical reality of Anthropocene Extinction is all too ephemeral. The sheets of carved linoleum that Swoon had used to print her images may remain, but the paper on which the images are printed will eventually decay, and the cutouts of beetles, frogs, and sea horses that so boldly take their places in the installation can easily be crushed by a single hand. Altogether, Anthropocene Extinction is an exercise in large-scale fragility. In this, Swoon has created its true power.