Magazine article Artforum International

Sanford Biggers

Magazine article Artforum International

Sanford Biggers

Article excerpt

BROOKLYN MUSEUM/SCULPTURECENTER

Sanford Biggers's art fixates on recurring symbols--trees, carnival, musicians, and a bodiless smile that is part minstrel, part Cheshire cat, and part logo for a conglomerate whose name might be "history." Two concurrent exhibitions with works spanning 2002 to the present explored these emblems vis-a-vis legacies of violence that constrain the powers and desires of black men. At times, Biggers's ruminations sit uneasily inside a glamorized stagecraft. At best, grim knowledge makes his magic potent.

Biggers framed his Brooklyn Museum show not quite as a retrospective--it is titled "Sweet Funk: An Introspective"--and the survey unfolds like a mind map for a time-traveling shaman-clown. In Cheshire, 2007, the era is the present and the protagonists are urban everymen. The video begins with a snatch of "Strange Fruit"--Billie Holiday's signature song, performed by singer Imani Uzuri over a blacked-out screen. Then the scene comes up: a big tree in a park. A casually dressed black man enters the frame, climbs the tree, and sits, quietly regal, looking out. Blackout. Seven times the cycle repeats: Another few bars of song, another tree, and another man climbs above it all, each in his own way as triumphant as Lewis Carroll's cat--except unproblematically embodied. Two more videos, Bittersweet the Fruit, 2002, and Shuffle (The Carnival Within), 2009, explore related ideas of freedom as the strange fruit of historical consciousness. In the former, a tiny screen is embedded in a faux tree-branch; headphones dangle from nooses. It's unnerving to put them on. Do so anyway, and you hear rollicking, distorted music. The camera moves through woods to come upon a naked man (Biggers himself) playing an upright piano. The vulnerable blucsman Pan is stalked, surveilled--or does he control the gaze as he does the sound? Similar issues of eerie self-display activate "Shuffle," which stars Brazilian choreographer Ricardo Castillo. Wearing a red-white-and-blue suit and, intermittently, whiteface makeup, he haunts a Baroque church and a commuter train; like some diasporic djinn, he break-dances, rides a unicycle, finds himself bound to a tree, and then, mysteriously, walks away. …

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