Sanford Biggers new exhibition, Cosmic Voodoo Circus, is currently on view at the Sculpture Center in Long Island City. Curated by Mary Ceruti, the executive director and chief curator of the institution, the exhibition is a polite — if not enigmatic — tableau. The work is visually striking, but stiff like Nicole Kidman’s face. The sum is not greater than its parts.
The name “Cosmic Voodoo Circus” (which I happen to love) suggests unbridled exuberance, a freewheeling psychedelic affair of truly intergalactic proportions. If you are looking for this type of experience, do not come to this show. This is an afternoon tea affair.
According to the exhibition statement, “Biggers exploits the carnival aesthetic to address profound issues of identity, the power of objects, as well as spiritual and cultural transmigration.” His glancing nod to familiar carnival props — trapeze, circus tent, roving spotlight — is perfunctory, not inspired. To me, he squandered his chance to maximize the rich visual language of carnivals.
The exhibition is not bad, far from it. The installation is a beguiling mix of large-scale fabrications, moving objects and video. Each work is engaging on its own.
In “Cheshire (On Tilt),”a gigantic billboard dangles from the ceiling, with a toothy, blackface grin emblazoned across its surface.
In “A Jóia Do Orixá,” a bare-breasted red woman wears a hula skirt. Standing two-stories high, she is encased in a shimmering circus tent. A veil of raffia obscures her face. Her chrome dome shines bright in the overhead lights.
In “Backend Trick,” he rigs a trapeze set from the ceiling. On occasion, the bars swing herky-jerky. Adjacent to each bar is an aluminum ladder.
There is no discernible relationship between the objects. The coy references to minstrel shows and African fetish objects are too inscrutable to provoke insight. If he wants to get the conversation going, he’s got to jump in head first like Kara Walker or James Andrew Brown.
At the center of the installation is a freestanding video titled “Shift.” The video follows Ricardo Castillo (choreographer, clown, stuntman) on a “transformative” journey through a seaside shantytown in Brazil. At the start, he emerges from the surf as a dandyish Elton John-type figure, with itchy feet. At some point during his walkabout, Castillo becomes Gene Simmons from the rock group Kiss, circa 1977, with platform shoes and silver face paint.
If I want to watch a video about transformation, I’ll stick to Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry. These women know how to exploit the power of the carnival.
The cavernous exhibition space is the biggest obstacle in the show. If anything, the space reduced the work to forlorn theater props in a warehouse. Each object appeared isolated, alone and static. To fill the void, fill the void. It’s supposed to be a carnival after all, not a morgue. Have some fun.
At points, the work is dazzling. To me, the key to the future lies in hands of the giant red woman. Why? She’s bold, beautiful, and strange. Her torpedo tits claim space and demand attention. Beyond the hit-you-in-face-aesthetic is a lovely combination of iridescent tulle, LED lighting, and raffia. She could be an omen from the collective unconscious or a bootleg religious deity. He should use her as a talisman for new work.
Cosmic Voodoo Circus continues at Sculpture Center until November 28.
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