Janet Biggs' mid-career retrospective at the Tampa Museum of Art is a first for this area (in my memory at least), a comprehensive look at a single artist's career in the video medium. It's important for two reasons. Like any good retrospective, it gives us an in-depth look at the artist's development so we can better measure the work. Even more important, the exhibition becomes a tool to better understand the medium itself.
Video is a material just as watercolor, clay and paint are. How the artist uses the material puts a personal brand on the art.
Video art isn't cinema. It can and usually does have a narrative of sorts but rarely in the same way or with the same goals as a movie. The development of an idea is foremost rather than the development of a character or a plot. Because video art generally is about realistic images, we can instead appreciate video more if we consider it as part of the long tradition of figurative art, a moving form of it rather than a static one. In that context, I see Biggs as a portrait artist, a label she uses, too. Recently she has also placed more emphasis on landscape.
One of her earliest works in video, when she decided she was "a terrible painter" and switched media, and the earliest one in this show, is BuSpar from 1999. It bears the hallmarks of much of her later work, pairing images of animals, especially horses, and humans in activities or situations that seem mutually exclusive but become linked as the scenes play out. In the two-channel work (meaning there are two screens), we see a galloping horse in closeup and an elderly woman staring vacantly, sometimes at something off-camera, sometimes at the camera. The horse's actions seem to have purpose, though we don't know where it's going, but she doesn't. The only audio component is the sound of the horse's labored breathing. The wall label explains that the woman is Biggs' autistic aunt and the work's title references buspirone - sometimes called Buspar - which is an antianxiety drug. The video can be interpreted as a statement about the mind-numbing effect of such drugs, but it raises a more general question about self-awareness: If it is a defining characteristic of being human, does losing that sense make one more animal than human? Biggs "paints" a double portrait that suggests the horse and woman have more in common than not.
Also from 1999, Biggs' Flight is a more realized work. Three screens show elderly female synchronized swimmers performing, and a fourth has a horse reclining on the ground, its head and legs twitching occasionally. The swimmers are beautiful in their disciplined, balletic movements, and Biggs does a remarkably effective thing in inverting their images. I was confused at first because it appeared that they were swimming at the bottom of the pool with their feet in what looked to be a separate pool of water. But the bottom in the video is the surface of the pool in reality. The viewer gets to see what is happening out of sight of the aquatic audience, a metaphor for how much we can know about one another. The horse is another mysterious presence; it could be in its death throes, but Biggs says in wall text that it's just sleeping. Maybe dreaming.
Three single-channel videos from 2003 and 2004 continue raising questions about how we define ourselves as humans. Carpe Diem juxtaposes high school football players in drills that require them to run on all fours through an obstacle course. Biggs brings her camera in close so the young men seem like well-rehearsed mice running through a maze. At the same time, a hawk on a second screen is tethered to an unseen human arm, stretching its wings. The players and the bird are both controlled by someone else. The surrender is voluntary in the first case, not in the second. And we ask, seeing the hawk strain to take flight, why we, who have a choice, so readily give up that freedom. The title - "seize the day" - is ironic. The one distracting note for me is inclusion of Pachelbel's Canon in D Major, which has become a musical cliche.
Like Tears in Rain, 2006, is Biggs' crossroads piece in which she takes the themes and imagery of earlier years and blends them into a cohesive whole. On two large screens, polar bears swim in their zoo pool, a blind rider and her horse go through dressage paces in a ring, and cadets at a military school march in a tightly choreographed drill. Each scene illustrates the tension and blurs the boundaries between being controlled and being in control.
Biggs is incapable of framing a shot that isn't visually beautiful, which could have become a serious flaw, especially when she has turned more to landscapes, which risk becoming travelogues or the closing nature shots for Sunday Morning on CBS because they're so gorgeous.
Fade to White is a perfect case study of this potential weakness and Biggs' reconciliation of the sometimes contradictory demands of truth and beauty. To film it, she joined an expedition to the Arctic on a steel-hulled schooner that could withstand a sail through ice-filled seas. The resulting video has a to-the-ends-of-the-earth drama as it follows one crew member on his exploration by kayak around the glaciers. The solitary figure kayaks through the floes and hikes up ice cliffs, pausing to take in the austere grandeur around him. Biggs' long shots of the landscape reference the romanticism of 19th century painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner, who imbued their landscapes with spirituality and emotion. And, in Friedrich's case especially, man's isolation in them, surroundings in which one can find oneself or become lost. Footage of John Kelly singing in his haunting countertenor is spliced in as a counterpoint.
For all the scope and ambition of Fade to White and two other videos that form the Arctic Trilogy, the work I can't get out of my head is another from 2010, Duet. Though it seems more modest in its aspirations, I think it's Biggs' best so far. A NASCAR race is the subject with all the anticipatory buildup and excitement you expect from a high-speed race. Little of it involves the driver who is in life the high-profile glamor quotient. Biggs' story is about the anonymous pit crews who swoop in, changing tires and replenishing gas in seconds. Their appeal to Biggs is obvious: They work in tightly scripted unison, part of a single organism rather than individuals, and they are taught to follow the script, not to think.
We see them both at the race and in practice sessions, and Biggs captures the elegance of their moves, much like a dance that has no wasted gesture or motion.
Cutting in and out of the race footage is a performance of the famous Flower Duet from the opera Lakme. Rather than having the usual two female singers, this rendition utilizes a soprano and a female violinist. It, too, demands harmony in close quarters. Like much of Biggs' editing, the two narratives act contrapuntally. Here, the revved up scenes of controlled chaos and the ordered serenity of the music achieve a balanced interplay.
Biggs, who lives in New York City, is in her early 50s, so a lot of fine work is ahead of her. This show makes me hope another one is sooner not later.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.
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No Limits: Janet Biggs
The exhibition is at the Tampa Museum of Art, 120 Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa, through Jan. 8. Hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $10 adults, $7.50 seniors and $5 students over 6. Pay what you will from 4 to 8 p.m. every Friday. (813) 274-8130 or tampamuseum.org.