Queer Elegies and Climate Mourning: Marc Swanson’s Memorial to Ice at the Dead Deer Disco:
Winner of the 2022 Toni Beauchamp Prize in Critical Art Writing

Lauren Levato Coyne

In the small, conservative town where I grew up, the only place to kiss queerly was the old cemetery. This is where 15-year-old me and my first girlfriend were guaranteed our alone time. We were also guaranteed a certain amount of safety as well. We lived in Indiana, home to the Klan’s “once mightiest chapter.” Our high school was rank with nationalist skinheads, neo-Nazis, and white supremacist jocks. Our social group of “freaks,” a moniker we wore with pride in that stifling wet gym sock of a place, were routinely mocked and punched resulting in one or the entire lot of us in a fist fight with our antagonizers. But here among the dead? Peace. We were safe under the cover of burr oak and flowering crabapple trees, shielded by monument stones.

In 1992, while we sheltered and swooned in the cemetery, HIV infection became the number one cause of death among men aged 25-44 years. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 154 nations signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which, “upon ratification committed signatories' governments to reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases with the goal of ‘preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth's climate system’.” 

This 30-year-old memory was pulled forward by artist Marc Swanson’s queer climate elegy Memorial to Ice at the Dead Deer Disco. In it, Swanson personalizes the ecological gaze by anchoring concurrent global catastrophes against his own lived history. The artist hosts a sweeping set of parameters: climate change, the AIDS crisis and the friends he’s lost to it, the Industrial Revolution, the Hudson River School, sublime landscapes, and backyard gardens. Swanson began this project after moving to Catskill, NY from Brooklyn. By looking at the artist’s paintings of Catskill Creek, Swanson and his partner realized they purchased property that was once a favorite painting site of Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School. Swanson began researching Cole and discovered the two are linked across time by a shared love for a specific landscape and also by the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

Cole emigrated to the US from the UK in 1818, at 17 years old, to escape the increasingly toxic industrialization of his homeland. We would recognize him today as a climate migrant. By the time Cole moved to Catskill in 1825, the same industrial schemes that prompted his flight from England were ramping up in the US. Through study of Cole’s own essays and lectures, it became evident that Cole’s work as a painter was partially an effort to warn where he knew this development would lead, an attempt to galvanize citizens to eschew humanity’s perceived progress at the cost of nature. Cole’s much-feared apocalyptic scenario for his beloved Catskill Creek never came to fruition. Instead we now know his harbinger is playing out on a global scale. The effects of climate disaster have not yet come for the (nearly 70% white) people of Upstate New York, home of Catskill Creek. By some projections Upstate may not feel the impact of climate change for some time. Instead, it’s coming for the non-white global majority. It’s also coming for billions of plants and animals.

Where Cole had the active Industrial Revolution, Swanson and the rest of us live in the wake of it. Cole’s unheeded warning is not a good sign for any contemporary artists hoping to somehow turn the tide with their work. The many artists I speak to each day, myself included, constantly question art and object making in our current epoch.

We don’t need any more objects in the world.
What’s the point/need/desire/function/reality of art making anymore?
Who even cares?

I argue it’s worthy enough just to bear witness. In Memorial to Ice at the Dead Deer Disco Swanson builds both a proscenium and altar space in which to look upon what history has wrought, lament oncoming horrors and also, crucially, to celebrate what beauty and joy is still with us. Here. Now.

The exhibition is a dual-location immersion. The first installation site at MASS MoCA is in one of the museum’s warehouse-style galleries, complete with soaring ceilings and exposed girders. Situated throughout are dozens of figural sculptures assembled from deer, snake, and other small taxidermy forms. Each work is an independent tableau containing photographs, videos, flickering lanterns, and/or dried flowers to complete the narrative scene. The forms collide and lose their heads or their bodies respectively. Each is a haunting diorama. Some deer forms entirely disappear under expertly draped plaster gauze veils. They strike ghostly silhouettes and speak the dramatic, symbolic language of funerary monuments: this body has given its spirit to the ether, remember this veil between worlds is thin (subtext: hey there buddy, you’re next). The spatial arrangements of these sculptures evoke the small-town New England cemeteries that dot the landscape here. It’s quite common to stumble upon the ruins of 19th c. cemeteries while deep in a forest hike or even a stroll through a typical neighborhood.

Moving through the museum space, the figures melt and mutate. The light fades to a deepening dark. Chards of mirrors make sparkling mosaic frames for photos of people in drag, dancing, holding each other, gazing back at the camera. In the furthest, darkest corner, colored spotlights reflect from slowly spinning rhinestone covered antlers. The parallels between the nightclub, the forest, and the cemetery are clear. Each experience centers bodies, it’s intimate yet can still remain anonymous. I can’t help but think about the ruins aspect of it. All bodies eventually fall. This is what queer and camp circles have always innately understood about nature, the inherent queerity of the place. We might all be destined to die but until then it’s crowns out, feathers on, time to dance, to sing.

At the exhibition’s second location, Thomas Cole Historic Site in Catskill, NY, the intimacy is domestic and familiar. In the butter-yellow home of the Cole family, Swanson’s work hangs next to a four-post bed, stands atop a dresser, and flanks a sitting room fireplace. The interior is compact but stately with brightly-colored and patterned walls, some hand-painted by Cole himself (these designs have been contemporarily restored). Swanson’s figures continue as they did at the museum—draped, sparkling, surrounded by flowers, etc. But here, the work adds a contemporary opulence and splendor that enhances and enlivens the Cole Site. Where the museum felt akin to a mausoleum, the Cole Site feels alive, despite being an active memorial site to a long-dead family of American art. Somehow, Swanson’s glittering things belong here. Placing Swanson’s contemporary Romantic sculptures and Cole’s 19th c. Romantic landscape paintings in such close proximity to each other highlights the messy entanglements we continue to struggle with today: which nature/which culture? Whose history/whose progress? Which bodies—human, animal, vegetal, geographical—have been marked and how will they survive?

Outside, high above our heads, Swanson has strung white chain between two trees that frame the path toward the house. It unsettles me; I’m reluctant to walk toward this industrial material draped like a diamond necklace. It’s a sort of peak anthropo action, to tether and ornament two organic beings who have spent a lifetime developing their unique, underground network of supporting connections. It’s redundant, potentially a form of graffiti, and certainly drives home the ways humans feel compelled to mark our landscapes.

Nearby, bumblebees and hummingbirds are busy in the “Pollinator Pavilion” made by collaborating artists Mark Dion and Dana Sherwood. In a 2016 Brooklyn Rail interview, Dion ends by saying “mourning is a legitimate mode of thinking.” When grieving we weep and deny, rage and flail, consumed by the depth of our traumatic loss. But we also decorate ourselves for rites, embellish time, and adorn our spaces. I think of Peter Hujar’s photo Candy Darling on her Death Bed; the more than 60 million flowers laid at Kensington Palace upon Princess Diana’s death; the silk blooms and photos that cover ghost bikes in urban settings across the nation; the colorful banners, candles, and signs offered at the Pulse nightclub vigils. I think of the two sleeves of tattoos I have gotten since my own father’s passing. This process of embellishment is what leads us out of the passive stage of grief and into the active process of mourning. Mourning can go on for years, if it ever ends at all. In our collective climate grief, Swanson shows us what it might look like to live our lives in a state of constant climate mourning.