Sanford Biggers, artist, New York

with Robert Smith III

It goes without saying that the racist police killings of black women and men in recent years have breathed new life into movements for freedom, justice, and self-determination in the United States. Artists and activists have gathered in the streets and galleries of Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and many other cities, to declare time and time again that black lives matter. It should come as no surprise that artists have been on the front lines. From the role of portrait photography to advance abolitionism, to the photojournalism of the Civil Rights Movement, to the iconic images of ACT UP and Gran Fury, artists have shown us the world as it is while compelling us to imagine what it could be—if we dared to change it.

The recent art of Sanford Biggers reaches forward to the future and back into history, mining the little-known narratives of American history through the materials it has left behind. His work is urgent, yet its process slow. While so many have been compelled to action in recent days, “The unfortunate fact is that this work is not strictly a reply or response to what’s been happening in the news,” says Biggers. It sits in “a continuum of this type of violence against black Americans that’s been going on for more than 500 years.

Art historian David Joselit plied the art world with questions in his February 2015 article for ArtForum, “Material Witness: Visual Evidence and the Case of Eric Garner.”

“How can we account for the fact that the video of a police officer pressing his arm against Garner’s throat—a document that could not have been less ambiguous—did not ‘speak for itself’ before the members of a grand jury? If such a visual artifact can so blatantly fail in the task of representation before the law, both politically, as the proxy for an absent victim, and rhetorically, as evidence, doesn’t this present a challenge to how we define the politics of art?”

That challenge has been met with raised fists, loud voices, blocked traffic, group exhibitions, hashtags and graffiti tags to #BuildBlackFutures.

Where art might fail to bring back Eric, Sandra, Mike, Rekia, Renesha, Tamir, Treyvon, Oscar, and innumerably more, it may help us heal.

 

lilac double square

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Ago, 2013 Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery Chicago

SANFORD BIGGERS: My use of antique quilts came about from a show I did several years ago called Hidden City Philadelphia. I started researching the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, which was basically the northern hub of the Underground Railroad.[i] When most escaping slaves got there, they had several more options and sympathizers to help them travel further north or west or wherever their final destination might be. There’s been a contentious story throughout history about quilts being used as signposts along the Underground Railroad. I thought the story was very interesting and compelling, considering they were analyzing the pattern and the placement of quilts outside of safe houses as potentially giving directions on the way to escape or to signaling if the safe house was open and available for use. If there was code embedded in those quilts, I started thinking of myself as a late collaborator in the creation of these quilts, putting other codes directly into them. If these were to be read almost as time capsules, in the future you would see this intergenerational cross-century conversation and encoding of aspects of American history.

When I was doing that project in Philadelphia, it occurred to me that I started to perceive Harriet Tubman as an astronaut because she essentially was reading the cosmos and reading the stars to navigate the Underground Railroad. From ground zero of this project, it’s always been an acknowledgment of the power and contribution of women through this liberation movement and in terms of my own art, formally, I’ve always been interested in ‘low art’ and ‘vernacular art’ as well as “high art.” I think that the only difference between the two is usually the people critiquing or writing about it in the books, while the function can be very, very similar. In fact, the function of the quilt, as utilitarian objects as well as beautiful objects, almost gives it another edge, another layer of importance and gravitas. I am a black male considering myself a collaborator with women who potentially are unknown to me is sort of making that link. I don’t really have a gendered view of what is more important or less important and I never read quilts as low art or of any lesser quality than paintings that you see in world class museums. Testimony to that was when the Gee’s Bend quilts were at the Whitney Museum.[ii] That show, to me, was one of the best painting shows that I have ever seen. And it got me reinterested in painting, which I had turned away from for several years prior.

I think of history as context that can shape the meaning of a piece. There are times that a meaning of a work can go in one direction depending on what is happening culturally when you’re looking at that piece. Decades later a different meaning might emerge as society and culture changes around the work. In that sense history is a malleable material. Once again, I think the quilts are a perfect example. These quilts that I’m using are pre-1900, so there’s a considerable gap of time from when they may have been in their heyday and actually used adorning a home to when they wound up in my studio. That history also informs how I approach the quilt. I don’t really impose my direction onto a quilt. I have to spend time with the quilts to figure out exactly what I can do to enhance that quilt, so there is consideration and respect in that process. The context of where I show them adds another layer of meaning to the work which may have not been there before and I think that is the work of time.

 

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Installation view, courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery Chicago

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Installation view, courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery Chicago

ROBERT SMITH III: I want to go back to history one more time, since that’s a preoccupation of mine. I’m interested in if you have a theory of change, of how change happens over time since you spend a lot of time reflecting on history in your work.

SB: I think of these as time capsules. The full meaning of these pieces can’t be perceived right now at this moment. It’s something to be read about, talked about, contemplated years from now, especially since we’ve moved to a very digital and nontangible sense of perception. Dealing with handmade objects and feeling that sense of work and struggle resonates in a very different way that can’t be perceived through a television or smartphone screen and that usually provokes the viewer in a very visceral way to contemplate history and the layers of meaning and activity that goes into creating one of these works. That also applies to the figures that I am showing in Chicago. There’s a lot of time, historical transfer, and metaphorical transfer that happens in those works as well.

Each of the figures that I use in the BAM series was handpicked, by myself, based on what they looked like physically. There was a physical attraction to them and maybe bit of foresight of how I could sculpt them. Then taking the figures, brushing thick brown wax over the faces and parts of the body to make them more obscure, less identifiable, they almost all look the same. I think that comes from all the police reports when I hear descriptions of victims or suspects—6’1” wearing a brown shirt, black male—that’s, like, everyone walking around me in Harlem.

It makes it a lot easier to assault a person when you don’t see them as a person or as an individual, when you don’t have that one-to-one face recognition or personality recognition. I do that with the figures to get rid of some of their origin. The next part of the process is to literally set them up at a shooting range, set cameras around them, basically put them under the microscope before shooting them and carve them with ballistics. Using different caliber weapons—a .22 caliber shotgun to a 12-gauge shotgun, a Glock 9 mm or even a 40 mm bullet—and seeing what kind of impact that makes on a figure and how I can literally sculpt parts of it with those different tools. The next phase is to take those and make molds from them and cast them into bronze. There’s a lot of process that goes into making one of those figures. Even in bronze it captures a lot of that action. The two of them at Monique’s have a black patina on them. It’s almost hard to see them as bronze because they look like they could be carved out of ebony, and I like that play between materiality and process.

BAM (for Michael), 2015 video

SB: The unfortunate fact is that this work is not strictly a reply or response to what’s been happening in the news but more a continuum of this type of violence against black Americans that’s been going on for more than 500 years. This is just the latest culmination and the latest way of realizing that dynamic, but that dynamic is always there.

I don’t pull the trigger. I remove myself from that part of the process. Although I’m present, I feel somehow, personally, that I shouldn’t be the one to pull the trigger. It opens too many wormholes and it’s very problematic. Although I don’t pull the trigger when any of the bullets hit those figures, it’s such a visceral feeling not only is there an impact from the gun itself, but you can hear those chunks and bumps and loud noises as the bullet either embeds or shatters the figures. It reverberates through the body, and I find that that happens when people view the videos as well. You just get a physical sense and reaction when you see each hit and you can only extrapolate what it must feel like or look like going through flesh.

RS: How did you choose the person who did shoot the gun? Is this a colleague or someone who has good aim?

SB: It’s a good friend of mine. He’s my director of photography and his name is Raoul Germain, and we’ve worked on my last four video pieces. We shot a piece together in Stuttgart, Germany; Salvador da Bahia in Brazil; and, most recently in Ethiopia between Addis Ababa and the Afar region in the northeast part of the country. We have a lot of experience working with each other. He knows about all of my work so he knows all of the ideas over the years. We have garnered a similar aesthetic, so I have a lot of faith in him delivering on my ideas. It just so happens that he is a good shot with a gun. I’ve known him over twenty years. We were reacquainted a few years ago, but we went to high school together, so we have a long history of knowing each other. Part of that lends itself to kind of the projects that we do together because there’s a knowledge of each other and an intuitiveness that makes my job as a director very easy to communicate.

click here to watch video at TED site

SB: I’ve always been interested in notions of history and interested in notions of future, too because by knowing your history you can affect change in your future. Different labels and titles have been thrown around the work for the last decade or so but my work was never made with any of these titles in mind.

Right now I’m interested in the power of an artwork to transcend notions of time both conceptually as well as formally. I’m borrowing from a good 100 or 200 years of modern and contemporary art to make the work, but I’m also borrowing from 500 years of American and black American interaction to make the work. I think I’m just somewhere along the trajectory of expressions of that milieu of history.

RS: Since this is a journal about arts administrative practice, as an artist, what makes for a healthy relationship between an arts administrator or curator?

SB: What makes a good relationship is open and consistent communication of ideas, bouncing ideas back and forth so you create a timeline but also a content line to see what’s feasible, what’s practical, what’s realistic.

I also consider my artwork to be a platform to have deeper discussion beyond just art and to do that it does take a collaborative effort between the programmers, the administrators, the educators at the museum, or whatever venue you’re working with so you can achieve all of those goals.

I like to consider each venue and the specifics of that venue. When I was younger and working with some of the smaller organizations, I found that, for both of us, it was a learning experience each time because the needs are different and the logistics are different with each project. That was also the time when I was super flexible and could go to a space and stay there for days and nights on end and figure it out in that space with the staff. If they don’t have a large staff or large facilities, it is very much grassroots. Sometimes the curator is with you that last night hanging paintings (laughs), marking things off, and spray painting, but I found that if you have a good relationship then almost anything is possible. People who are working in organizations like that, they’re in it for the love, so they’re willing to put in the time or the care to make a project work. As we always say: You’re only as good as your last project. This prepared me very well for dealing with larger places that are very well endowed and staffed.

It’s important that the communication isn’t top down from the administration at the venue down to the artist. I think it needs to be an equal conversation so that the artist doesn’t feel pressured to make certain types of decisions that are against that artist’s vision. Of course, there has to be communication to make it work. I think when artists are pressured to make something fit into a venue’s program or venue’s vision, it stunts the growth of the artists and usually stunts the project.

RS: I’m thinking about the dollars and cents of the art world and the art market—my mom always told me to never talk about money—but increasingly artists are organizing about and talking about money, today with W.A.G.E. How does money work in relationships with museums and galleries? How could it better serve artists?

SB: I think it should be a transparent relationship. A lot of times a lot of artists are very well connected and have collector bases that are willing to do more than just buy pieces but support projects. If that conversation is to happen the artist should be given some credit or appreciate for that kind of networking that type of connecting. It shouldn’t be assumed that the artist doesn’t want to know or doesn’t want to be part of [conversations about money]. I think artists, if we are anything, are great problem solvers and have to survive, so we usually have resources that might surprise a lot of people. When pressed to do that, it creates a sense of responsibility for the artist and artists know how to manage themselves. While there is so much money and so many ways to fund projects, it’s important that artists find what their position is in that dialogue.


NOTES:

[i] Hidden City Philadelphia, http://hiddencityphila.org/mother-bethel-a-m-e/

[ii] ‘The Quilts of Gee’s Bend’ http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=970364

[iii] Sanford Biggers Subjective Cosmology, http://www.mocadetroit.org/upcomingexhibitions.html

  • with Robert Smith III

    Sanford Biggers:
    http://sanfordbiggers.com/

    Robert Smith III:
    http://americanstudies.umn.edu/people/staffprofile.php?UID=smit7169