Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Sunday, March 6, 2011
L Magazine Review of show at Winkleman
Exploration Art: Janet Biggs and Duke Riley Scout Forgotten Islands and Dark Tunnels
by Benjamin Sutton
The artist as not just an aesthetic explorer, but an actual traveler discovering uncharted or unauthorized places, is a notion that by necessity involves not just performance but storytelling. We see this, for instance, in land art like Michael Heizer's 1969 desert incision "Double Negative," wherein the piece becomes inseparable from the artist's labor and subsequent visitors' pilgrimages to discover the work. Two young artists doing away with the artwork at the end of the journey, Janet Biggs and Duke Riley, turn the act of exploration and discovery into their medium. Biggs, in a trio of documentary videos on view at Winkleman Gallery, uses a very dramatic mode of presentation. Riley's two mock-historical installations at Magnan Metz Gallery, meanwhile, acknowledge the strange, nearly kitschy novelty of becoming an explorer at a time when Google Earth and similar tools let anyone travel to the farthest reaches of the globe. Both artists document enigmatic journeys in rarely-traversed waters towards obscure islands.
Biggs's first solo show at Winkleman Gallery, The Arctic Trilogy (through March 12), follows three different sorts of explorers in the little-known Svalbard islands in the Arctic Ocean. The shortest, "In the Cold Edge" (2010), shown in an appropriately cavernous rear alcove, follows a spelunker into a seemingly endless glacial cave. Though copiously edited, it's the least complex documentary of the trio. The two larger projections play in alternating loops in the main gallery. "Fade to White" (2010) follows an arctic explorer navigating a 100-year-old sailboat and his kayak through icy waters. Biggs edits the short so that it seem as though the explorer is the only person on the vessel, and conceals whatever research mission is behind this solitary, slightly insane excursion—despite the bearded man's calm demeanor, one can't help but worry for his safety when he's kayaking in icy rain and heavy snow, or near polar bears. This extreme flâneur's Arctic wanderings in majestic, serene landscapes beneath stunning mountains are intercut with countertenor John Kelly—dressed in white against a white backdrop—whose ethereal voice emphasizes the journey's metaphysic rather than scientific power. Not the conventional excursion into wilderness for the sake of self-discovery, "Fade to White," as the title implies, involves a kind of self-erasure.
Its companion piece, "Brightness All Around" (2011), is the best of this very good exhibition. Linda Norberg is a coal miner working several miles beneath the frozen tundra at reinforcing the ceiling of a newly excavated tunnel. She operates a heaving, clattering, buzzing machine in a science fiction setting barely lit by her headlamp, water gushing down all around her. Biggs cuts between the mining machinery's incredible clamor and vocalist Bill Coleman, all in black leather against a black backdrop, singing about near-death experiences over an über-masculine rock guitar instrumental. Biggs inverses the gendered dynamics of exploration in these two major videos, portraying a male traveler as a passive, vulnerable figure in an all-enveloping white landscape, while Norberg drills and transforms the black depths of the planet. The juxtaposition of pristine landscapes in the former and a moon-like mining operation in the later further complicate the exhibition's power dynamics by underlining its environmentalist resonances.
Unlike Biggs, who remains almost completely absent from the excursions she films—she appears at the end of "In the Cold Edge" firing a flare over a frozen lake—Duke Riley stars in his projects. The expeditions brought together in Two Riparian Tales of Undoing at Magnan Metz Gallery (through April 9) involve the cities in which they were first presented: Cleveland and Philadelphia. In the former installation, titled An Invitation to Lubberland and occupying the front half of the gallery, Riley explores the grid of tunnels beneath Cleveland to rediscover an ancient spring called Kingsbury Run, long ago buried beneath the city. Stylized videos of Riley's sub-urban exploration done in Chaplinesque costume and with silent movie title cards lead visitors through a circular hallway lined with mosaics made of glass, tile, coins and cigarettes portraying the homeless communities that inhabit the Run, and the string of murders that led it to be condemned. Part clowning explorer—filming his costumed companion sliding down the gushing tunnel on his belly and marching back upstream—Riley also does some earnest anthropology, rediscovering and dramatizing the practices of the displaced communities that lived along the Run.
Reclaiming the Lost Kingdom of Laird, first shown at the Philadelphia Historical Society, concerns the fate of a small island in the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Camden. An Irish immigrant named Ralston Laird occupied Petty's Island for the second half of the 19th century with his wife and ten children. They were eventually joined by several other immigrant families. He farmed and raised cattle until his home burned down mysteriously, forcing the Lairds and other families to leave the island, which was being eyed for industrial development. The Venezuelan oil company Citgo has occupied the island for decades, building large oil silos on its north end that are now abandoned; Hugo Chavez announced plans in 2009 to donate the island to New Jersey, though contamination clean-up issues have left the island in limbo and off-limits—Riley wrote Chavez an open letter in the Huffington Post demanding that the island be returned to the Laird family. In the meantime he and the Laird Kingdom Liberation Army made an expedition to the island by kayak, retrieving archaeological objects from the burned-down home and—as shown in an informative short documentary—painting a portrait of the forgotten king on the roof of an abandoned Citgo silo. Nearby hand-written charts and faux-historical drawings remind of Treasure Island, although here the island itself, and the curious story that lies buried within, are the treasure.
For both Biggs and Riley, then, these journeys are primarily about strange, little-explored places and the people who seek them out—Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World continually comes to mind, especially in the Arctic shorts. But both are also telling fascinating stories that conflict with official histories and dominant narratives. Linda Norberg, piercing her way through frozen rock in search of raw fuel, is the epitome of the phallic woman. Riley's fond rediscoveries of a homeless-inhabited waterway and immigrant-governed island reveal little-known havens that are both countercultural and profoundly American. Their solitary, enigmatic journeys document fascinating new frontiers of human endeavor.