Great Wings Beating in Heather B. Swann

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For close to three decades, artist Heather B. Swann has been obsessed with myths, museums and haberdashery. Maintaining a prolific practice spanning drawing, sculpture and installation, Swann’s work is exquisitely hand-crafted, symbolically poetic and steeped in intense emotion. A dark yet graceful elegance streams through her work, with each piece encapsulating the push and pull of pleasure and pain, and strength and vulnerability.

Well known for creating monochromatic sculptural objects stylistically recalling leather furniture, animals and opera costumes, a key feature of Swann’s work is storytelling. Building on an already established love of Greek mythology, for the past three years Swann has been unravelling the story of Leda and the Swan, creatively reinterpreting it through a contemporary lens.

The original myth follows the Greek god Zeus as he shapeshifts into a swan to pursue Leda, a beautiful earth-bound girl whom he eventually rapes. It is a myth that artists have repeatedly portrayed, often depicting Zeus’s act as one of seduction rather than violation. Swann challenges this legacy by taking her cue from the opening lines of W.B. Yeats’s 1933 poem Leda and the Swan: “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still/Above the staggering girl . . . ” The result is a collection of painting, ink drawing and sculpture; three embodiments of woman and bird, each prompting contemplation of force and consent.

For this project Swann visited Greece in 2019 in pursuit of the story. Thinking about how to approach the act of violence at the heart of the myth, Swann realised she wanted to “honour women and girls by making the figures strong and powerful,” intuiting that, “if we keep telling these stories over and over, there will be a shift and things will change.” Constructed from plywood and clay, pigment and marble dust, Swann has created Leda figures that are polished smooth to recall korai, Archaic Greek statues of female figures standing tall and straight with arms by their sides. Studying the korai in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Swann was able to explore their connection to ancient Egyptian depictions of pharaohs and deities; figures of strength, power and mystery.

Parallel to the Leda sculptures is a trio of swans. Historically the Zeus swan is white. Here, the swans are black. “The swan is black, we are antipodean,” Swann explains. “The black swan is the trouble maker. It also harks back to a line written by the fictional poet Ern Malley: ‘I am still the black swan of trespass on alien waters.’”

Heather B. Swann, Leda, 2021, plywood, paper, modelling clay, pigment, glue, marble dust, 178 x 42 x 30 cm. Photograph: Peter Whyte. Courtesy of the artist and STATION, Melbourne and Sydney.

 

Faced with the looming darkness of the swans, the Leda figures stand strong and unwavering. The tallest stands over two metres in height and has dozens of eyes embedded in her right forearm, described by Swann as an “ever-watchful shield”. Recalling the Eye of Horus, an ancient Egyptian symbol of healing and protection, the eye is a recurrent motif in Swann’s oeuvre, and it appears again in Nemesis, 2021 as a giant silk blanket covered with 19th-century glass eyes sewn into heavy black lids, and placed inside one of the swans.

Alongside the figurative Leda and swan sculptures are references to rocks, waterfalls and plants. Rock is alluded to in a giant vertical form mirroring the straight stance of the Leda figures, while the waterfall appears as a flowing sheath of black threads. Sourced from an old silk weaving factory in Athens, the threads hang from the serpentine form of a black swan neck mounted high on the wall like a hook. The waterfall is made up of three delicate, hand-knotted cloaks destined to eventually be used as “sculpture performance tools”.

The prickly pear, an invasive cactus that proliferates in sun-beaten landscapes, makes up the plant element of Swann’s Leda series and is the subject of a huge multi-panelled ink drawing. After travelling by ferry from Athens to the island of Hydra, Swann was fascinated by the visual contrast between the Aegean Sea and the harsh, rocky terrain. “The beauty of the island is distilled in the brilliant blue of the water that surrounds it. The land itself is just rocky hills and goats and the prickly pear cactus.” Created by rhythmically applying thousands of lines or “pricks” of green ink onto watercolour paper, the juxtaposition of the prickly pear against the smooth sculptures captures the brute pain of force.

Swann continues to create work that mines the recesses of the human condition. Speaking about her recent exhibition Oh lover, hold me close at STATION gallery in Melbourne, Swann revealed the enduring theme underpinning her work: “The recognition that we are mysterious to ourselves is the driving force for me as an artist. I just let myself fall. When it is ambiguous or enigmatic, anyone can fall in.”

Leda and the Swan
Heather B. Swann
TarraWarra Museum of Art
20 November—6 March 2022

This article was originally published in the November/December 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Briony Downes