DETROIT — Let me begin by saying: I want to believe. Belief systems — be they based in religious, astrological, metaphysical, or deeply personal rituals — are coping mechanisms, helping to guide us through a world that feels, at times, full of forces beyond our control or comprehension. As the title of his installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) — Subjective Cosmology — would suggest, artist Sanford Biggers also subscribes to the power of belief. His immersive, multimedia installations are animated and governed by a set of rules that connect existing belief systems and personal opinion, with different degrees of fluidity. The resulting tapestries of media and association quickly become overwhelming spectacles.
Biggers spun out some of these rules and regulations during an artist talk delivered on September 10, following opening night festivities — part of the kickoff for MOCAD’s fall programming lineup, which also includes experimental sculpture by Matthew Angelo Harrison. “Going back to the notion of power objects,” said Biggers, during his lecture, in reference to his early B-Bodhisattva work, “the more powerful the object, the more it can also be obscured.” He makes declarations of this nature with such complete assurance, it takes a moment to realize that they are a set of imposed — rather than objective — truths.
In dealing with Subjective Cosmology, the implication is that the viewer is invited to take what they will from the mélange of subject matter being presented. Mining source material so rife with preexisting meaning provides fertile ground for this process. When Biggers speaks about his work, he presents a reasoned line of thinking, albeit one that is punctuated by these highly subjective moments of “truth” uttered with ultimate confidence. And yet, despite being someone who is inclined to believe — who very much subscribes to turning oneself over to the experience being presented by an artist — I find my gut reaction to Biggers’s work to be one of suspicion and wariness.
The most immediate reason may be that this work is not trying to speak to me, or at least, tapping a lexicon of references that are not core to my navigation of the world. Biggers directly presents work that explores the woeful history of slave trade, and the ravages and embedded pain (as well as the celebration and heritage) of contemporary African American experiences. As a citizen of this country, I retain culpability and agency within the state of race relations, but I can still look more or less dispassionately at “Laocoön” — at the MOCAD, there is a triple-sized version of the piece presented by Biggers at Art Basel Miami Beach last year — whereas others clearly cannot. Because Fat Albert was not a formative cartoon of my childhood, “Laocoön”’s possible presentation of this character as a proxy for victims of police violence — the labored breathing of Eric Garner’s final moments, the iconic position of Michael Brown’s body — does not trigger the same compounding of personal meaning for me as, for example, Nick Cave’s more direct representation of Trayvon Martin in “TM13.” It would be a misstep as an arts writer to assume that because something does not speak to me, it isn’t saying something — and it is worth noting that the turnout for Biggers’s opening drew a crowd with a greater concentration of black Detroiters than some of the MOCAD’s other fare.
A second reason, also worth unpacking for racial bias, is a sense of mistrust I experience when presented with the “trickster” persona. There is merit to presenting work that leaves room for interpretation, but ultimately the relationship between artist and viewer involves trust-building and requires vulnerability from both parties. Just like any other relationship, aloofness, ambiguity, or a lack of assurance might translate to a sense in the viewer of being deceived or manipulated; aside from Biggers’s artist talk, Subjective Cosmology gives the viewer few handholds— not even a gallery guide. Though vinyl letters on the threshold welcome visitors with the sentiment, “Just Us,” there is a feeling of being somewhat loose and unsupported in the space. Towering projections depict process videos of new works, including “BAM (FOR MICHAEL),” made by shooting wax-dipped figurines (or “ethnographic objects,” as he calls them) — a process Biggers referred to in his artist talk as “ballistic sculpting” — juxtaposed with a figure of indeterminate identity wandering the desert in a kind of vague pilgrimage. Without having attended the artist talk, it would be difficult to know that Biggers’s subject is retracing the North Atlantic slave trade route in reverse. Similarly, a freestanding coatrack holds a quartet of robes, topped by masks with exaggerated features and crowned with backwards baseball caps. Those who missed the opening night performance by Biggers’s band, Moon Medicin, might not be aware that these were costumes, employed by the band over the last two years and retired at the end of their performance to make way for a new aesthetic chapter. To encounter the hanging costumes as a sculptural work lacking the context of their active use radically changes their implications. In a sense, Biggers creates tremendously powerful objects, but then sets them loose in ways that feel somewhat reckless.
None of this is inherently bad, but the bread crumbs Biggers leaves as clues to his degree of intentionality are subtle. An object sculpture based on a large-scale industrial spool is displayed in one corner, but the same found object appears in some of the video footage, being rolled around by figures wearing the same feature-obscuring masks donned by the members of Moon Medicin. This proves premeditation and, in turn, earns some trust, but there is a bait-and-switch feel to many of the works that makes relaxation into openness with respect to Biggers’s objects difficult. One of the largest works, and one original to the MOCAD installation, “Sleeping Giant,” is comprised entirely of found materials scavenged during the show’s installation period. There is an authenticity to that effort, but also a kind of forced voyeurism when, for example, you look into the blacklit interior of the prone sculptural body and find an erotic portrait of black lovers on velvet.
So many of our social interactions are built on trust — trust in systems, in our friends, and in strangers — and Biggers’s world undermines that trust, but in ways that are readily identifiable to those who exist on the historically losing side of racial supremacy and class warfare. As I want to believe, it is tempting to seize upon the notion that this dismantling of trust in an environment is an intentional unraveling, one which defrays the very privilege inherent in being able to trust a system or give yourself over to someone else. In adopting a belief that this is precisely Biggers’s aim, I may buy myself some security within the experience — faith is alluring, as any believer will tell you, for its ability to reassure us in times of confusion. But again, as the disciples of Heaven’s Gate can attest, there is always risk involved in drinking the Kool Aid.
Sanford Biggers: Subjective Cosmology runs at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (4454 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Michigan) through January 1, 2017.