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Ties That Bind

Artist Sanford Biggers creates a fascinating common ground

According to Sanford Biggers, Buddhist monks and graffiti artists aren't as different as you might think. Take O.M., for instance, the floor installation for "Afrotemple," his first Texas exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum. Rendered in pop colors of turquoise and orange, and stylized beyond decipherability, the letter shapes on the ground have a dynamic swoosh to them. The text is actually Sanskrit for the all-purpose meditation "om," but it's rendered in wild-style graffiti. Look closer and you realize that the painting's dense, tactile pigment is sand. Buddhist monks create sand paintings as meditational acts, spending countless hours executing intricate designs only to sweep them away at the finish. In the same way, graffiti artists create spectacular designs with the knowledge that they'll exist only until the transit authority or building maintenance sandblasts them off. Biggers notes that graffiti is more about individual ego and expression than sand-painting, but the two art forms each provide a kind of in-the-moment pleasure in the Sisyphean act of creating what will be immediately undone.

Of course, the commonalities between monks and spray-paint artists aren't the only ones Biggers sees. He was included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial for a small world... (1999), the collaborative film he created with Jennifer Zackin. The two artists took the Super 8 home movies from their two middle-class childhoods and showed them side-by-side -- piano practice, birthday parties, barbecues, vacations at Disneyland. At a certain point in the video, the images change sides, and it takes the viewer a moment to realize that the Jewish family and the African-American family have traded places on the screen. But rather than simply making the case that we're all the same, this video changes the criteria for distinction. While racism is in no way a thing of the past, in contemporary American culture, economics is more of a uniting and dividing factor than ethnicity. People participating in middle-class consumer culture occupy more common ground than those who might share a racial heritage but live in worlds of radically different economic opportunities.

Biggers spent two years on a fellowship in Nagoya, Japan, where he was engaged by Buddhist concepts and aesthetics. At the same time he noticed how African-American hip-hop culture was being adopted by Japanese youths. His series of mandalas explores ideas of sacred geometry executed in brightly colored linoleum, the flooring of choice for school cafeterias and other institutional spaces. The works are executed on panels placed on the ground and function as horizontal paintings-cum-dance floors. A video in the CAM's education room documents hip-hop dancers performing on Biggers's large-scale B-Bodhisattva #2 (2000) for the Battle of the Boroughs, an annual Bronx breakdance competition. Shot from overhead, the video shows the dynamic angularity of the dancers' bodies as they break and spin over the geometry of Biggers's floor. For the opening of the CAM show, Houston's Fly Dance Company performed over Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva I (1999). The floor, with its circles and overlaid grids of color, was silk-screened with images of a multiple-armed Mr. Freeze as a kind of breakdancing Shiva. It bears the scratches and scuff marks that record the dancers' performance.

Peer down into Poteau Mitan and it feels like you could pitch forward into infinity; look up and it's as if you could ascend through the ceiling.
Contemporary Arts Museum
Peer down into Poteau Mitan and it feels like you could pitch forward into infinity; look up and it's as if you could ascend through the ceiling.

In Poteau Mitan (2002), the viewers are the performers. It continues the artist's series of linoleum geometries, but this time with a nod to disco and vodun. The poteau-mitan is the center post in a vodun worship house that represents the center of all things, hell at the bottom, heaven at the top. In Biggers's work, two circles of mirror are embedded into the center of opposing panels of linoleum -- one on the floor, the other suspended from above. Curving forms of linoleum flecked with blue, orange and green radiate out from the mirror on the floor. Overhead, the mirror is surrounded by concentric and divided circles. Peer down and you'll feel like you could pitch forward into infinity; look up and it's as if you could ascend through the ceiling and beyond. Pretty amazing what two mirrors can do.

Performance is a key component in Kalimba II (2002) as well. Biggers has bisected a working piano at about middle C -- the high range on one side of a wall, the low range on the other. Participants can collaborate, both playing half of a whole, influencing each other even as they sit unseen on the other side of the wall. Kalimba refers to the African percussive instrument that is the forerunner to the piano. Again there's a sense of interconnectedness: The African kalimba leads to an instrument that becomes fundamental to European composers. The piano is reintroduced to African-Americans and plays a crucial role in the development of black music, which in turn radically influences Western as well as world music.

The hopeful strains of personal and cultural connection dissipate and leave a bleak mournfulness in Bittersweet the Fruit (2002). The title alludes to "Strange Fruit," the Billie Holiday song about lynching. A tree grows up from the CAM's concrete floor, encircled by brown glass beer bottles. Random branches protrude from the trunk, dangling Spanish moss and the rope-wrapped cords of two headphones. A tiny video monitor is embedded in the trunk, and on the screen the artist sits naked, playing the piano in the woods. Brief snippets of the video were shot on the Jasper road where James Byrd was dragged to death by racists. Don the headphones to listen to the eerie, digitally distorted samples of blues and gospel music, and you realize that you are tethered to the branches by their cords. The empty bottles evoke bottle trees, the Southern yard-art tradition believed to catch evil spirits. But the beer bottles gathered round the tree also call to mind vintage photos of lynchings: a battered body dangling from a rope, surrounded by a sickly festive drunken crowd that turns to smile for the camera.

Biggers's work reminds us of not only our connections to each other but what can happen when we sever them.

 
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