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At Mass MoCA, dead deer and disco lights elegize a dying world

Marc Swanson, "A Memorial to Ice at the Dead Deer Disco," at Mass MoCA, 2022.Tony Luong/Courtesy of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art

NORTH ADAMS, Mass., AND CATSKILL, N.Y. — Marc Swanson works on a rural property nestled in the Hudson River Valley that 200 years ago inspired a school of painters who found in its pristine waters and leafy glades the presence of the divine. Lately, for Swanson, it’s been as much a ringside seat to a climate apocalypse as a bucolic refuge. “A Memorial to Ice at the Dead Deer Disco,” his sprawling exhibition that spans a pair of large galleries at Mass MoCA in North Adams and the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, N.Y., is his response to it.


Dead deer are not a new medium for Swanson, who in the past has made sculpture of taxidermied trophy heads studded with rhinestones intended as a glam queering of the machismo symbol of a hunting prize. The disco is something else. At Mass MoCA, a second-floor gallery has the somber air of a tomb, enveloped in shadow and broken at intervals by floods of bright light. Pale animal figures either stalk the shadowy space or lie strewn throughout it, broken in pieces.

A pair of bobcats glares in a spotlight, as though caught in the act of something illicit. Their perch, on the skeletal remains of a tree bleached dead by who knows what, sets the tone: This is a future elegy to a dying world. Swanson has seen its convulsions with his own eyes in that valley, as summers have grown hotter, winters shorter, and where heavier and more violent storms now bookend a season of unrelenting drought. The scene projects a world where ice is but a memory, and all that remains of the vibrant life it once held are pallid spectres left to haunt it.

Marc Swanson, "A Memorial to Ice at the Dead Deer Disco," at Mass MoCA, 2022.Tony Luong/Courtesy of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art

At Mass MoCA, The whole scene is austerely, agonizingly beautiful — bright but stark, with an elegant formal richness that belies and embraces its homely materials. The animals, whole and parts, are standard taxidermy forms that are usually covered with real pelts for display. Here, they’re left naked and unadorned, with the sharp sinews carved in their plastic hides on full view — zombies, turned loose in a dead world.


Swanson imbues his scenes with a theatrical air. In one of them, a disembodied deer haunch lies on a platform rimmed with stage lights; in another, a pair of headless deer torsos lean into one another on a makeshift stage in what I imagine to be exhausted resignation. In a pool of light, a deer is cradled in the arms of a faceless wraith, whose body takes shape only in the extravagant drape of icy-white fabric; it suggested to me an invocation of last rites.

There are no individual pieces or titles; everything, all together, here and across the state line in Catskill, is one sprawling work. Its reference points commingle in a pair of doomsday notions that evoke what the Victorian philosopher Edmund Burke described as the shared terrain of terror and the sublime. Both are “productive of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling,” Burke wrote. At their apex, the sensations have a shared intensity that make the two of them one.

Marc Swanson, "A Memorial to Ice at the Dead Deer Disco," at Mass MoCA, 2022.Sofia Taylor

For Swanson, the terror is twofold, and the camp theatricality of the scene is a conflation of the climate crisis with a crisis of his youth, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. As a gay man in New York, Swanson recalls the competing forces on every night out back then — the exhilaration of community found in the city’s club scene, and the fear of death as the virus proliferated. Climate anxiety rekindled that familiar feeling of elation and dread, with the salve of every walk in the woods stalked by the fear of their inevitable destruction. For all its broad implication, the Dead Deer Disco is an autobiographical space where the artist paces alongside a pair of calamities with joy and dread intertwined.


Camp elements are surely present, but even so, feel like lament. Their presence is subtle and in the background, subsumed by a sense of remembrance and loss. A disjointed mirror throws fractured pools of light on the floor, like a disco ball.

The world Swanson imagines is very much the one Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, fretted about some two centuries ago. Cole was a vigorous opponent of industrial development along the river, where mills and tanneries were springing up at an alarming rate. He and his cohorts devoted themselves to painting an unspoiled wilderness as much to warn about what stood to be lost as to celebrate what was.

Marc Swanson, "A Memorial to Ice at the Dead Deer Disco," installation view in the sitting room of the 1815 Main House at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Peter Aaron/OTTO

The very epitome of painterly melodrama, Cole’s canvases, with their beatific shafts of golden light cascading through thick forest canopies to rivers and streams below, read now as a strident scold: A violation of nature is also an affront to God’s plan. Swanson has seen what Cole imagined, and directly: His own property in the Catskills bumps up against Catskill Creek, where Cole himself often went to paint. With several of Swanson’s pieces installed throughout Cole’s house — bleak, undead creatures in residence amid the tony antiques and block-printed wallpaper — the artists feel like bookends to ecological disaster.


Swanson’s pieces have another reference: The diorama, a dusty old convention still very much in use at natural history museums all over the country. You know the ones: The red fox, flash frozen squirrel-hunting; a pair of moose forever stooping to drink from the pool of shiny plastic resin at their feet, a mountain landscape painted in the background. Swanson’s dioramas are what happens next, when the illusion crumbles and the dead skin turns to dust. It’s not too late, if only just. And so the words of Thomas Cole still mean something for a little longer: “We are still in Eden,” he once wrote. “Shall we turn from it?”


Through August 2023, Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, 413-662-2111, massmoca.org; and through Nov. 27, Thomas Cole National Historic Site, 218 Spring St., Catskill, N.Y., 518-943-7465, https://thomascole.org

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.