Janet Biggs – Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal
October 4, 2012 to January 6, 2013.
Brooklyn-based video artist Janet Biggs is known for creating thrilling, and sometimes terrifying, video portraits of lone individuals pursuing extreme activities in harsh environments. In her exhibition currently showing at the Musée de Art Contemporain de Montréal (MACM), Biggs stays true to form by transporting her viewers to the frozen landscape of the far North, and to a dioxide-billowing sulfur mine in Indonesia.
Each of Biggs’s four videos features a silent figure doggedly and stoically carrying out his or her work under extraordinary conditions. Three of these comprise The Arctic Trilogy, a series shot by Biggs while sailing near the Arctic Circle aboard the schooner the Noorderlicht. In the Cold Edge (2010) follows a spelunker into a crevasse within a glacier, his helmet lamp (and the light of Biggs’s camera) illuminating shimmering ice and rock formations. Fade to White (2011) portrays a rugged Arctic guide expertly gliding in his kayak through ink-black, frigid waters; these images are interspersed with shots of the performance artist John Kelly dressed in white, singing a mournful aria. Kelly’s hauntingly beautiful voice carries over into several of the scenes of the Arctic landscape, providing a stirring counterpoint to the raw sounds of wind and waves.
Brightness All Around (2010) also interweaves views of the stark Northern horizon with musical performance, this time featuring a young, female coal miner and the singer Bill Coleman. Initially accompanied by the noise of heavy industrial machinery, the miner descends into the subterranean labyrinth, her shape sometimes discernible only in silhouette cast by a truck’s headlights. In turns, the video cuts away to Coleman, dressed in black leather, who sings and dances frenetically in a performance worthy of a heavy metal show. His repetition of the lyric “there was blackness all around me” echoes in response to the dark, other worldly environment of the miner.
In the fourth and newest work, A Step on the Sun (2012), Biggs follows an Indonesian man who collects sulfur from Kawah Ijen, an active volcano in Indonesia. Amid clouds of dioxide gas, the man gingerly extracts rocks coated with yellow sulfur crystals from vents in the surface of the volcano, and then carries his heavy load across his shoulders for a 2-hour descent to a weigh station below. Like the scenes from The Arctic Trilogy, A Step on the Sun rivets the viewer with its push-and-pull between the visually compelling and the emotionally rending—the rugged, surreal beauty of the yellow-crusted mountainside and the electric blue waters surrounding the volcano is undercut by the horrifying reality of the individuals working in toxic conditions with no protection.
Biggs’s imagery is vivid, captivating, and quietly unsettling. Together, the portraits of individuals labouring alone at the frontier present a contemporary twist on the notion of the sublime: the overwhelming sense of awe and terror evoked by nature’s beauty and power. By portraying environments in tremendous flux due to human intervention, Biggs leaves the viewer with the creeping sensation that the possibility of the sublime may be eroding as quickly as the surrounding landscapes.
Janet Biggs’s exhibition was part of Montreal/Brooklyn, a collaborative multi-venue exhibition that recently concluded in Brooklyn.