Going Underground: Biggers’ New Exhibition Explores Slavery

“This piece is...a little more surreal in context and performance,” Sanford Biggers, the 2009 Marshall S. Cogan Visiting Artist, says of his most recent exhibition which opens in Memorial Hall today. An imaginative artist who experiments in many types of media, Biggers’ innovative and bizarre work has been shown in museums around the world, including the Tate Modern in London and the Whitney in New York. His 2007 piece, “Blossom,” is a 15-foot tall reconstruction of a tree whose trunk penetrates and supports a life-size piano; this oddity is characteristic of Biggers’ large installation pieces, which have touched on subjects ranging from the state of hip-hop to Eastern mysticism.

According to Biggers, his newest exhibition—comprised of “Constellation,” an installation on view until December 2, and “Stranger Fruit,” a performance piece which will be shown only once on November 18—was influenced by a combination of Chinese calligraphic painting, Japanese cherry blossom festivals, the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, Negro spirituals, and cosmology. This creation was commissioned by the Public Art Program, a sector of the Harvard Office for the Arts.

“Constellation” features a bare tree draped with an antebellum American quilt, surrounded by a representation of the night sky. “Stranger Fruit,” a performance set at the installation, will function in three parts: rock/alternative vocalist Imani Uzuri will sing excerpts of Rumi’s poetry in the style of Negro spirituals; the Harvard KeyChange will perform an a cappella remix of “Strange Fruit,” a song condemning lynching that was popularized by Billie Holiday; and members of KeyChange will hold a call-and-response with Uzuri. “The viewership and interaction [of ‘Stranger Fruit’] will sprinkle on and marinate [‘Constellation’] long after the performance is done,” Biggers claims.

“Constellation” is the piece that most directly addresses the phenomenon of the Underground Railroad. According to the artist, the starkly bare tree and surrounding night sky are meant to reference the experiences slaves had escaping during cold and dark nights. Biggers incorporated the quilt in order to reference the historical controversy over whether coded messages were stitched into blankets by abolitionists. He points out that it is unclear whether the quilts present historically salient evidence of communication or if they have no importance outside of their aesthetic value. “History is largely conjecture. It is guesses and estimations,” he says. “So much of what we hear about the Underground Railroad is from quilts, but it all might be hearsay.” For Biggers, this ambiguity is a metaphor for his exhibition as a whole.

The centerpiece of “Constellation”—the tree—alludes to a recurring symbol in Biggers’ work. The artist refers to the tree as a “primordial form” and compares its use in his art to a jazz standard, in that it serves as a basis on which he can expand in different artistic directions. For Biggers, a tree can recall the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. However, while the lush and fully grown tree in “Blossom” exudes vivacity, the bareness of the tree in “Constellation” implies death. For Biggers, then, the tree is an “axis mundi...beyond life, fourth-dimensional.”


Biggers explains that “Constellation” incorporates diverse cultural influences in an attempt to challenge the way individuals examine the history of the Underground Railroad and the field of history as a whole. Biggers uses Rumi’s poetry to this end and finds that it reveals slavery as a global, rather than an individual, issue. “The world has indulged in [slavery] in various forms throughout time,” he says. For Biggers, this is just one instance of how American history should be examined in a larger, international context; more connections should be drawn between historical events to highlight a shared cultural heritage. “We need to take [history] out of the binary and make it three-dimensional,” he says.


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