Women and Cities: Swoon

Twitter is emerging as another way of getting information about urban art and street artists (I’m on Twitter as @scotinoz), and it was through Twitter that I learned today that Swoon’s Swimming Cities of Serenissima has arrived in Venice. For those of you who don’t know Swoon’s work, she specializes in large (life-sized) block-printed paper cut-outs, which are then wheat-pasted onto surfaces, which might be the walls in a gallery or in the street. She is based in New York City, but her work appears in cities all over the world. Here’s a great video of Swoon giving a presentation about her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York:

While walking through Haight Ashbury with Russell Howze, veteran archivist of stencil art, I saw this piece by her:

swoon, lower haight.JPG

It’s a quintessential Swoon piece: a woman, rendered in intricate detail, beautifully drawn, and placed with care in a space in which she appears to be glimpsed by the passer-by while she is engaged in some quotidian activity.

While I was in San Francisco, Russell also took me to the Luggage Store Gallery. This gallery has featured in an earlier post on this blog  (see ‘On tagging’, January 2009), and the gallery is certainly worth visiting just for a look at the archive of tags provided by its stairwell, but on the day that I was there it was also the site of an exhibition of Swoon’s work.

Instead of simply being pasted onto walls, as happens when Swoon (or any other artist) puts up work in the streets, here she had pasted them onto cardboard or wood, or other found objects, which were then displayed in a manner which lent them depth, perspective, dimensionality. These photos will give you an idea of what the works looked like:

swoon at the luggage store6.JPG

swoon at the luggage store7.JPG

Swoon had made use of all the space available, even extending her work over the gallery’s windows:

swoon at the luggage store4.JPG

For the spectator, this provided the novel experience of standing inside and looking through an artwork to the street outside (a neat re-working of the constraints enforced on much urban art, in which the artwork can exist either in the street or in the gallery, but not in both places).

While one strand of Swoon’s work focuses on figures in the everyday, The Swimming Cities of Serenissima derives from what is emerging as another major interest, the built environment. As the website for The Swimming Cities of Serenissima states, the vessels are inspired by ‘dense urban cityscapes and thickly intertwined mangrove swamps from [Swoon’s] Florida youth’. It involves three vessels, ‘built from salvaged materials, including modified Mercedes car motors with long-tail propellers’, which have been sailed by a crew of 30 artists from Slovenia to Venice. The vessels resemble ships but also evoke the floating skyscrapers of Gotham or the counter-intuitive wonders of Venice itself.

This is the third floating sculpture made by Swoon (previously, she created the Miss Rockaway Armada which sailed down the Mississippi River, and The Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea, seven rafts which sailed from Troy, NY, to New York City). Reading about the remarkable floating cities created by Swoon made me remember another highlight from my visit to San Francisco, visiting CELLspace. This is a fantastic place combining studios and gallery space for at-risk youth and artists in the Mission District, to see Card Burg, a city being constructed from cardboard:

card burg1.JPG

card burg2.JPG

It was absolutely wonderful to wander among the towering skyscrapers and to see the small spaces of everyday lives within the metropolis – an incredible urban artwork about the nature of life in urban space.

I’m pretty sure that for anyone lucky enough to see one of Swoon’s swimming cities, the experience will be similar: wonder, awe and sheer pleasure. But I’ve also been thinking about these two separate strands in Swoon’s work: the individual and the urban. Individuals going about their business, sitting on the stoop, walking through the city. And cities: fantastic, miraculous spaces wrought by the imagination. It makes me wonder whether it’s possible for the two to be brought together: if the contemplative woman can be allowed to exist within the urban setting.

Of course, you could argue that this is exactly what Swoon’s street images do: the paste-up of a woman is placed in urban space. But I wonder if we need more than that. When I saw Card Burg, I realised that part of the pleasure in visiting that imaginary city was brought about by the exhilaration of – literally – walking tall among the city’s buildings. The altered dimensions of Card Burg meant that I stood almost as tall as the skyscrapers.

Similarly, Swoon’s swimming cities shift perspective and dimension: the city is produced in inevitable miniature, and is thus, somehow, tamed. To me, what’s important here is the transformation that’s brought about of the experience of being a woman in the city. For far too many women, city spaces are still the location for sensations such as anxiety, fear, intimidation. Is it possible for an artist to create an image of being a woman in the city that can acknowledge that reality and that can still seem beautiful? This isn’t a criticism of Swoon’s work, which I find inspiring and hopeful and lovely. But it’s important to note how difficult it is for art to do justice to the fact that, for many women, ‘walking tall’ in the city is fraught with risk as much as pleasure.

1 comment so far

  1. SPARCS on

    Once again I find that something I thought I had seen no one else do, someones else was doing. I have just put a paste up (not as nice as swoons) on tin to hang in a gallery to see what interest it might cause, and if there is a market for such a medium… it would see there is (well yet to see if mine generates it for itself).

    My mind moves right to the logistics and techniques…”I wonder what paper she uses?”, “does she use paint or ink?”, “does she put PVA in her paste mix?”… all of these will have to be sought…

    Thanks for alerting us to her.

    Oh yes and your point on a reversal of the “broken windows” theory seems a valid and sound one with respect to swoons work. Making one feel at ease and welcome, giving a sense of connectedness with a mere piece of paper stuck to a wall.

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