NORTH ADAMS – In the 1830s, Thomas Cole began painting the Catskill Mountains as a way to preserve the beauty of a land he was sure would disappear, never to be seen again.
Cole had already seen this happen in England, where the Industrial Revolution had engulfed the countryside with factories and pollution. His family, decorative artists, had fled to America to start over in 1818. But machinery and factories soon followed, even as he made his way through New York’s Hudson Valley. His diaries reflect his anger at the development along Catskill Creek – icehouses, flour mills, railroads, hotels, tanneries and quarries. He painted the land, as a way to preserve for future generations what he saw as potentially disappearing forever.
“I can only express my sadness that the beauty of such landscapes is fast disappearing – the ravages of the ax are increasing every day – the noblest scenes rendered desolate, and often with a wantonness and barbarism hardly believable in a civilized nation “, Cole writes in his 1841 essay, “American Scenery”.
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His greatest fears would not be fully realized, as the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains are now federally protected lands and have recovered, albeit scarred in places, from past development. If he could see it today, surely this first environmentalist would be satisfied with the current state of the land, until he learns of the greatest crisis at hand, our ongoing battle against climate change.
Artist Marc Swanson, who lives in Catskill, New York, on land that Cole once favored as a favorite place to paint, sees the land as a double memorial – a memorial of what the Industrial Revolution destroyed and a future monument to the land ravaged by climate change, writes curator Denise Markonish in an essay accompanying her two-part exhibition, “A Memorial to Ice at the Dead Deer Disco,” currently on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Its second part, at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, NY, opens July 13.
“The two spaces I’ve felt most comfortable in and spiritually connected to are the nightclubs of my youth in the woods today,” Swanson said of his inspiration for the show. However, these two places are sites threatened by crises, AIDS and climate change.
“We’re sort of obsessed with this weird knowledge that we know we’ll be nostalgic for ‘now.’ [in regards to climate change]we know that we will be nostalgic for this time, because things [we have now] can’t exist [in the future]“, he said during a virtual chat with Markonish hosted by the Thomas Colen National Historic Site in late January.
Knowing that our civilization, worldwide, has chosen to adapt to the current climate crisis, rather than a path of correction, Swanson said, raises questions similar to those that arose at the start of the AIDS crisis.
How can we live in this acceptance that it is here and not live with the fate of the future? Like the AIDS crisis, I had no idea what was going to happen, but I had to live,” he said. “How do you handle this? You live with it.”
Throughout the show, influences and inspirations from past and present – the nightclubs of his youth, the woods of today, the works of Thomas Cole, the impact of climate change, the similarities of no -the White House’s initial responses to AIDS and COVID-19 are ever-present, as they mix and mingle throughout “A Memorial to Ice at the Dead Deer Disco.”
“I’ve been a commercial sculptor for a long time and I can carve very realistically, but I’ve used a lot of found materials – and that has to do with things like coffee tables and furniture and light fixtures that I I. found. I don’t do recycling but there is a residue in the work. I also work a lot with plaster dressings, plaster and these water-based, plaster-based resins and other things There’s a lot of branches and a lot of forms of taxidermy. It’s a weird combination of things. The plaster bandage is a big part of this show,” Swanson said of the works during the Jan. 30 chat. .
“From the very beginning of the concept for this show, in my mind it has been a combination of memorial, cemetery, museum diorama and Cabela’s store. It’s a one part museum diorama, memorial/cemetery in one part, one part Busby Berkeley Ziegfeld Follies and disco in one part.”
In the second-floor galleries of the Mass MoCA, Swanson has created a futuristic frozen landscape of catastrophic beauty. The curtains, stiff white and still, are reminiscent of icicles, the 30-foot-tall icicles at Kaaterskill Falls, which Cole described as “giant towers of ice that are as silent as death.” There are collections of photos, of those lost to AIDS, grouped in memorials among the frozen spaces – each its own diorama filled with broken mirrors, chains, taxidermy dummies of cats, snakes and deer and plaster bandages. A stage floats above the memorials, candles lighting the way to a performance space, where a future collaboration with choreographer/dancer Jack Ferver will take place.
Proceed deeper, into a second gallery, where the stags – stark white taxidermy models, some with rhinestone antlers – are frozen in festive moments and rest under box-like lighting. by night. Here Swanson places a large sculpture, inspired by Michelangelo’s Pietà – a stag, in place of Christ and an invisible force draped in plaster bandages in place of his mother Mary – a wistful reminder of loss and guilt of survivors.
It is also a reminder for Swanson of the need to find a way to live in this unique space that we inhabit – a place that is not the present, which is not the past and which is not the future, but a place where we are aware of everything three times at once.
“There’s this special thing that happens in a place like Rome, where the past is so present. And I think that’s why Romans value their lives so much, because you’re constantly reminded that this city has been around for thousands of years. And that you, if you are lucky, have 100 [years] at best to enjoy it… I think we have to stay in this moment, to face all this [going on in the world]. But at the same time, we keep being propelled into this ruin of the future where we can’t even think.”