Sweet Funk: An Introspective
On view September 23, 2011 to January 8, 2012
Sanford Biggers takes over the fifth floor galleries of the Brooklyn Museum in his first ever New York museum exhibition. Sweet Funk: An Introspective focuses on nine installation pieces with overlapping themes. A tree grows out from a grand piano; a wide mouth grins down through lingering branches. Biggers has identified culturally loaded symbols and, through different mediums, works to regenerate their meaning in a present day context. The symbols Biggers explores are tied to African American history and experience. He uses sculpture, video and photography to interweave these elements. The tree and piano are two symbols repeated within his work, first explored in Bittersweet the Fruit (2002) and then joined together in Blossom (2007).
The exhibition has been staged within the Brooklyn Museum’s fifth-floor Rotunda, known as the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Gallery. The Rotunda offers the perfect setting for the exhibition, providing ample natural lighting in vast space. Curated by Euenie Tsai, the focal point of the exhibition is the centrally-placed installation Blossom. The other eight installations are placed accordingly within the space, creating a map of Biggers’ themes and narratives. The layout allows viewers to move from piece to piece in any direction so that each person can create his or her own journey through the work. Each piece holds its own importance and each is given equal space. The exhibition commands the viewer’s attention and deals with serious issues while maintaining a sense of playfulness within the installations themselves.
My journey through Sweet Funk began with Blossom, a sculptural installation of an elevated grand piano that has a large tree growing out of it. The piano, which is programmed to play in intervals, exerts an eerie feeling throughout the gallery. Recently acquired by the Brooklyn Museum, Blossom is an example of Biggers’ “wish to see things in the dynamic, synthesizing terms of ‘both/and’ rather than the more straightforward categorical terms of ‘either/or.'” The piece was inspired by both the Jena 6 incident in 2006 and the story of Buddha finding enlightenment under a lotus tree. The tune drifting out from the piano is Biggers’arrangement of “Strange Fruit”; sung by Billie Holiday, the song is known for its references to the horrors of lynching.
It is interesting to note the role of the piano as it provides a stand-in for a body, an unseen character. The imagined piano player can be cast as a victim and a teacher, drawing back to the influence of Buddha. Within this one piece we find references to violence and death, knowledge and religion. By placing the piece in the heart of the exhibition, Blossom presides over the other installations—some created before it—by providing an introduction to Biggers and the show’s other works. Located towards the back of the gallery is Biggers’ video Cheshire (2007), which depicts African American men climbing trees.
During the last few minutes of the video’s duration the screen turns black, allowing the viewers to concentrate solely on the video’s audio; aother version of “Strange Fruit,” this time sung by Imani Uzuri. The music from Cheshire overlaps with the piano’s music in Blossom—Uzuri’s voice wails as the piano keys rise and fall. It is odd to see these men attempt to climb the trees, an act better suited for children. But, their exhibited labor and time of rest within the tree’s branches, paired with the song, creates a nice compliment to Blossom, which acknowledges the tree as a site for both suffering and re-growth.
The video Bittersweet the Fruit marks Biggers’ first attempt at pairing a tree and a piano. The video opens with footage of a piano placed in the woods. As it progresses, we are introduced to the pianist—Biggers in the nude. Scenes at the piano are edited together with shots of the surroundings. Everything moves quickly, including the music. The video is presented within a miniature installation. The headphones required to hear the video are imbedded in an artificial tree branch. They have been covered in rope to resemble a noose. The video was created in the summer of 1998, during which James Byrd, Jr. was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas. The violent act shocked the nation and inspired Biggers’ desire to recover the connection between African American men and nature, turning it from something historically negative and giving it new light. In the exhibition catalogue, Euenie Tsai notes how the act of reclaiming nature evolves from a single figure in Bittersweet the Fruit to various men in Cheshire.
Cheshire (2008) is also the name of a sculpture created by Biggers. Resembling a wide-mouthed grin with bright red lips and flashing lights standing in for teeth, the piece is hung behind Blossom. The grin can be seen peaking out through the tree’s branches, almost in reference to the lasting smile of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. The sculpture and the video preceding it are both named after the character and represent the stereotype of the smile worn by minstrel performers who wore blackface in their acts. In this exhibition the piece is presented without the context of another object, except for the tree that it is hanging from. By exaggerating the size of the smile, Biggers has transformed the symbol into an icon, a flashing neon sign. Here is another act of reclaiming a negative image; the smile now taunts us instead of the other way around.
In Kalimba II (2002) the artist cut an upright piano and its bench in half and faced the halves in opposite directions. A wall was added between the parts. Viewers can sit at one side of the piano and play a tune, not knowing if someone else is seated on the other side. A duet can be performed, uniting two unknown people in a conversation that could only take place in Biggers’ world.
Lotus (2007) is presented on a circular sheet of glass; etched into its surface are twenty-four patterned petals. Inside each petal is a rendering of a diagram depicting the layout of slaves placed within the cargo holds of ships. The rows and rows of bodies appear countless and overwhelming, but the arrangement of the petals lends itself to the shape of a mandala, a shape familiar in Buddhist and Hindu texts. Both references help create a stunning yet chilling sculpture. Biggers has a way of bringing the past into the present, and does so in this piece by placing the slave ship diagram inside of the petals. It acts as a silent reminder of how something ugly can hide within something beautiful.
Passage (2009) takes the “and/both” theme into consideration. A bust of Martin Luther King Jr. has been modified to cast a shadow of President Barack Obama. The silhouette/shadow-play draws connections to contemporary artist Kara Walker, but Biggers’ piece carries a different weight. Yes, the piece’s title does allude to the Middle Passage and the journey African slaves made but, according to the label for this piece, it was created during the time President Barack Obama first stepped into office; a positive change in the history of African Americans. The idea behind the sculpture is rooted more in the present than some of the other installations. While Blossom and Bittersweet the Fruit feel as if they were made to comment on issues, Passage is only aware of itself. It allows for a moment of reflection—a chance to think about how far we’ve come from some of the other issues addressed, but also what still needs to be done.
I circle back to the actual beginning of the exhibition, to a piece located just inside the doorway separating Sweet Funk from the fifth floor permanent collection. Resting on the floor in a corner is a dazzling disco ball, throwing shapes of light over the text introducing the exhibition. Footprints seen in dance-step diagrams spread outward from the disco ball and up on to the ceiling and walls. Calenda (Big Ass Bang!) (2004) resembles the burst of energy and matter present during the Big Bang, and it reads like a map viewers must follow, showing us where to step and turn. Calenda is a branch of martial arts that is practiced in the Caribbean and began in Africa. The form traveled with slaves to America, where it may have become a dance that involved codes hidden in its moves. Sweet Funk itself is full of concealed information that becomes apparent when given a second look. By allowing his sculptures and videos to hold more than one meaning, Sanford Biggers doesn’t close off interpretation of his work. His mixture of past and present create a landscape where things are in a state of change; his well-worked symbols are gaining new identities. Sweet Funk takes what we already know and gives us something new to think about.