Workshop – Detroit Writes

In September and October 2016, Essay’d partnered with the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit to facilitate Detroit Writes, our first art writing workshop.


Intended to promote and support critical writing about art in the wider Detroit community, the two-part workshop — which focused on Subjective Cosmology, MOCAD’s exhibition of new work by New York-based artist Sanford Biggers — introduced participants to Essay’d’s processes and best practices before turning to a group discussion and short writing exercise about the exhibition, the themes behind it, and the multitude of ideas and impressions it raised.

From there, participants were encouraged to write short articles about the show or other work in Biggers’ oeuvre, which were later edited by members of Essay’d before being peer-reviewed in person during an Essay’d-style group edit.

In the end, four hard-working writers turned in four very different essays, each well-written, engaging, and with its own distinctive take on Biggers’ work. Read them all below.

Subjective Cosmology: An Inclusionary, Multi-Layered Journey  Into the Universe of Sanford Biggers
by Heather Earnley

An airy, cloud-filled sky, printed on a vinyl mat, spans the threshold of Sanford Biggers’ solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. The words “Just Us” stand out in large, bold type, perhaps issuing a personalized invitation to step into the room. It’s plausible; the room is dark and displays an intimacy, despite the cavernous space the show occupies. Or is it a play on the word “justice”? It wouldn’t be the first time Biggers used imagery of clouds as a symbol of freedom. Or is it a simple reference to the famous Nike ad “Just Do It”? This reading is also within the realm of possibility, as Biggers uses language and nuance to imbue his art with levels of meaning and far flung influences both within the black community in the United States, and on a much larger global scale. Whichever it is, Just Us works as a catalyst to bring viewers immediately into direct contact with the artist’s ideas.

Just Us, 2016, vinyl. 12 x 24 ft.

Subjective Cosmology is the title of the exhibition and Biggers is anticipating that each viewer will bring their own histories to make personal connections with the work. In a recent TED talk, Biggers speaks of using his current work to create a safe space for people to engage with the art and discuss complex themes of race and identity. Subjective Cosmology is just that, a panoply of culture, threading together a meditation on race, specifically the present African-American experience. A variety of media is presented in which all facets—video, sculpture, assemblages, and found objects—are thoughtfully interconnected to create an immersive experience.

Gunshots crackle through the large room with eerie intensity as an unknown assailant shoots at an African sculpture projected on three separate surfaces throughout the gallery. The totem is split into numerous bits and pieces as a small cloud of sawdust forms in the air, forcibly expelled from the carved wood. The figure finally tumbles off its pedestal in languid slow motion. This work (a part of a larger series that is not a part of the show) is simply titled BAM (for Alesia) and effectively evokes a sense of unease. After a moment of silence, music starts up, and the three projection areas all split from each other to play three parts of an intertwining story. The three-channel video, Shuffle, Shake, and Shatter is by far the most ambitious work in the show, following one man’s cosmic journey-migration through time and space.

Laocoön, 2016, inflatable, dimensions variable. Image courtesy SuperTouch.

A gigantic, vinyl inflatable shaped like the once beloved cartoon character Fat Albert (created by comedian Bill Cosby in the 1970s) is a looming presence in the already sizable room. Bequeathed with the mythically complex moniker Laocoön, the name references a famous Roman sculpture with a complicated backstory of human suffering and punishment. It serves as an unsettling stand-in for overarching themes of police brutality and the tragic, fallen star of Cosby. The instantly recognizable silhouette of Fat Albert, wearing his iconic red-orange sweater and blue jeans is a proxy for the beleaguered Cosby. The bloated figure lies face down directly on the gallery floor, his eyes rolled back, in distress as the air shuts off and he slowly deflates.  Clearly this new version of the infamous big man is not comforting or funny. Viewing this work in context of current events such as violence towards men and women of color by the police, the Black Lives Matter movement, and all the lives that have been lost due to senseless acts of brutality make the prone Fat Albert all the more urgent and uncomfortably relevant.  A few minutes lapse, and Laocoön re-inflates, in constant flux; a never-ending cycle as the electric air pump continuously kicks in to breathe life back into the body.  The outsize scale and distinct sound of Laocoön make it a surprisingly effective metaphor.All of the three-dimensional work is either made from cheaply and readily available materials or already discarded objects that have been found on the streets of Detroit and reassembled inside the gallery to serve a loftier purpose. These humble origins are not surprising from an artist who has famously stated that “history and dialogue” are his two favorite materials. Subjective Cosmology is a bold name for a far-reaching show. Biggers is adept at linking disparate images together, e.g. Laocoön and BAM (for Alesia), to force insight and give life and vision to his view of the universe, as conjured, just for us.

No Mud, No Lotus
by Rita Heidtman

Most people are afraid of suffering. But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Mud represents the suffering that human beings experience every day of their lives. African-American men have experienced a lot of that mud in their lifetimes. With his seven-and-a-half-foot glass piece, Lotus (2007), Sanford Biggers sheds light on the continued struggles of African-American men

Lotus, 2007, steel, etched glass, colored LED’s. 7 ft. diameter. Image courtesy of the artist.
Lotus, 2007, steel, etched glass, colored LED’s. 7 ft. diameter. Image courtesy of the artist.

The etched panel hangs from the ceiling at Grand Arts in Kansas City.

The lotus flower floats with a single, black ring around it. The ring itself is a symbol of unity. At first glance, the symmetrical flower in the center is nothing more than a simple, clear, beautiful image.

But upon taking a closer view, the viewer can see that each flower petal contains sections of an 18th century slave vessel. Lotus tells us that even within beauty, there’s a darkness that’s impossible to avoid. It stares at us like a giant human eye. It urges us to move forward, away from our disturbing past and bloom toward the future.

Detail, Lotus, 2007. Credit: Sanford Biggers at The Rubin Museum.
Detail, Lotus, 2007. Credit: Sanford Biggers at The Rubin Museum.

6,000 identical figures of slaves were etched into the glass. Each face, each body, is a single being that most people wouldn’t notice unless they were really looking. Perhaps Biggers made the figures identical to suggest that the human beings they represent were easy to ignore or disregard.

The use of identical figures is evident in his other works as well. Biggers’ video series Bam, one iteration of which is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MoCAD), embodies a similar tendency. According to an interview in Paper, Biggers collected wooden African figures and dipped them in wax to eradicate their features before having each one shot – with both a camera and, repeatedly, a gun. (Because this work was so emotionally charged for him, he had his videographer actually pull the trigger). The result is a slow motion killing spree captured and displayed. After recording the video, Biggers cast the figures’ broken fragments in bronze to memorialize them. Each one is a symbolic victim of gun violence.

Biggers’ work makes profound statements about slavery and modern day institutionalized racism. With Lotus and BAM, he reminds us that mud, or African-American suffering, is still present today. Through mass media, we’ve seen countless killings of African-American men. It seems like America is repeating a history that’s so saturated with mud that we can’t see a possible transcendence. It’s Biggers’ goal to make that transcendence a reality.

During his TED Talk, Biggers spoke about his intentions for Lotus: “By using this Buddhist symbol, I hope to universalize and transcend the history and trauma of black America and encourage discussions about our shared past.”

Lotus represents a growth beyond suffering. However, it’s clear that in modern American culture, we haven’t reduced the suffering of African-American men. We’ve only perpetuated it. In Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, she explained how institutionalized racism evolved:

“Arguably the most important parallel between mass incarceration and Jim Crow is that both have served to define the meaning and significance of race in America. Indeed, a primary function of any racial caste system is to define the meaning of race in its time. Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.”

Humans can’t truly be free unless they feel like individuals – people who can walk the street without the fear of being labeled a slave, second-class citizen or criminal. The figures in Lotus and the statues shot in BAM haven’t experienced freedom. They’re chained to faces that we can’t identify with. It’s up to us to reduce their suffering.

In his book, The Heart of Buddha’s Teachings, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “People suffer because they are caught in their views. As soon as we release those views, we are free and we don’t suffer anymore.” If we listen to Thich Nhat Hanh, we must let go of our views and our stereotypes to be free. Perhaps racism enslaves us all.

Biggers urges his audience to look deeper and talk about the issues that make us uncomfortable. While no one enjoys talking about slavery or institutionalized racism, these are issues that have surrounded us for over 500 years. It’s time to start talking so the lotus can rise fully above the mud. How much more suffering must we endure?

A Review of Subjective Cosmology
by K.A. Letts

It’s dark.

As we enter the gallery we see a wheel, rusty and slightly misshapen, a Giacometti-esque found object of unknown age,  provenance and use. In the middle distance lies a fallen giant, an Ozymandias composed of trash, books, albums, papers –the plentiful detritus of Detroit coalescing into some kind of discarded idol.  A tiny paper horse rests on its rusty pedestal in the far corner of the gallery. Each object and image appears to be found rather than created, and loaded with implied, but never clearly stated, meaning.

Sleeping Giant, 2016, mixed media assemblage (detail). Photo by KA Letts.

Sanford Biggers’s Subjective Cosmology, on view until January 1, 2017 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, is an idiosyncratic, multi-disciplinary installation by a contemporary African American artist well known for his eclectic use of media.  This inventively curated collection shows him engaged in the creation of his own personal system of belief through installation, musical performance, video and objects both found and fabricated.  As he cobbles together a provisional metaphysics from reclaimed history, destroyed cultures and found artifacts, Biggers also invites our imaginative participation in making a shared subjective cosmology peculiar to this time and place.

The central content of Subjective Cosmology is provided by Shuffle/Shake/Shatter, a video that plays across three walls of the gallery and provides most of the intermittent light. It traces the journey of an unnamed main character as he attempts to discover what, if anything, he believes and where, if anywhere, he belongs.

Shatter, 2015, production still

Looping and repeating video images appear at random intervals throughout the installation.  A shrouded man makes a pilgrimage across the windy salt flats of Ethiopia, camels in the distance. A mysterious, smiling figure beckons us down into an ancient tomb where we see a book of Coptic icons. In a related video, BAM (for Alesia), a tribal figure is destroyed by gunshots.   The images rattle off each other, creating a suggestive resonance that leaves ample room for interpretation.

This open-endedness is the stated intention of Sanford Biggers.

“I think of history as a material because I can use different aspects of it from different sources and it changes the context or meaning of the piece,” he explains.

The artist visually connects these disparate elements to imply a metaphysical whole determined partly by his intended meaning, and partly by the audience’s perception of it. Biggers believes that reality and history are shaped by subjective factors that are in a constant state of flux. “Historical facts that we have grown to trust get debunked every few years so it also seems like history is malleable,” he says.

He continues, “Presently I am very open to other peoples’ interpretation …  Even when I’ve tried to put my opinion in the work, it is still going through everybody else’s filter and the experience they bring …  The interesting thing about that is sometimes the work takes on a new meaning to even me.”

Giving the audience leeway to draw their own conclusions from his work may be necessary to Biggers’s open-ended art practice, but it is not sufficient. He seems to say he rejects exhausted or discredited social and religious beliefs, but won’t—or can’t—say what might convincingly replace them.  And if Biggers doesn’t know where he’s coming from, it’s difficult for us to say where he is going.

Grimace or Grin? A Close Reading of Sanford Biggers’ Cheshire Works
by Allegra Rosenbaum

“We’re all mad here,” said the Cheshire Cat as he laughed and disappeared into darkness, his smile the last visible thing before darkness. A Cheshire Cat’s smile is both whimsical and sinister, a tension explored by Sanford Biggers in his Cheshire series, which includes sculptures and billboards that depict a blood red mouth, smiling with white light bulb teeth, all of this against a black background.

Cheshire billarod, 2010, Nike Undefeated Billboard installed in Los Angeles, CA.
Cheshire billarod, 2010, Nike Undefeated Billboard installed in Los Angeles, CA.

It is easy to say the theme of race floats at the surface of Biggers’ works, but how that theme is explored each time is different. A smile does not stay forever on anyone’s face, much like the attention to the problems of race in the United States does not stay in the public consciousness. It appears at an event and then disappears. In the Cheshire series, the smile is a permanent criticism of the attention not paid to race in the United States.

The choices of material and color are resonant. The color red is the color of blood, a representative color of the violent history African Americans have faced in this country, from the Antebellum South to Ferguson, Missouri.

As the viewer stares into the heated red past, she will notice that the teeth of the Cheshire works are made of lights, some bright, blinking, going out, or extinguished. Each smile has a distinct set. It’s not just that the white teeth contrast with the red lips to exaggerate the spectacle of minstrelsy, it’s also that the white teeth could be white people. They have benefited most from control of other peoples throughout history. They control the body from the inside out, forcing a smile. In his interview with Mary Ceruti from SculptureCenter in 2012, Biggers explains that his vision for the Cheshire works begins with the idea of minstrel shows.

While the color of the light is white, the glow of the light could very much be the energy white people consciously or subconsciously spent years suppressing from African Americans. Sometimes it worked, and the bulb was extinguished; sometimes the bulb would only work harder to glow.

Contrasted by the bright lights and the red lips is this black background. The absence of color, the rejection of the minstrel red and white is everywhere around the mouth. The background could also be interpreted as black skin, the skin that wears the smile, the pressures of society to be a certain perception.

Biggers created a new Chesire grin as part of Subjective Cosmology, his solo show running at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit through January 1st, 2017. Interestingly, this new work is neither a sculpture nor a billboard, but an addition to an existing work, a bright and colorful mural painted on the side of the building. The mural is Andrew Kuo’s In Staying/Faces (2015). Kuo was interviewed by The New York Times writer Ann Binlot about his mural. In the article, titled “In Detroit, a 100-Foot Graphic Mural that Distills the Urban Experience” (2015), Binlot writes, “The first time Kuo stopped in Detroit, a city in the midst of what some have called a renaissance, it was for a quick eight hours in 2009… When he returned this past summer, the city captured his heart. ‘I really fell in love with it,’ he says.” For Subjective Cosmology, Biggers painted another one of his enigmatic smiles on top of the mural. Here, the lips are black. The choice to paint the lips black could be a play on Detroit’s 82.7% African American population or it may be because the mural in the background would have wiped out the red lips.

Cheshire mural on top of Andrew Kuo's mural
Cheshire mural on top of Andrew Kuo’s mural. Photo by Allegra Rosenbaum.

Biggers’ smile sits right between Garfield Street and Woodward Avenue, bisected by the corner of the museum. On the Garfield Street side of the mural, Kuo has painted “self portraits.” The mural is bright, with abstract shapes and colors as well as horizontal letter “J”s. Commenting on the mural for Binlot, Kuo says, “‘All my things have an emotional beginning and attachment, but this one in particular, I really wanted to humanize this chart, and it’s about growing up in New York and traveling to other places and thinking about friends that don’t live here or live anymore at all.’” It is difficult not to wonder why Biggers chose to paint over some of this mural with its bright love of the “new Detroit.” In Detroit, where gentrification is happening in “nicer” neighborhoods quickly and “dangerous” neighborhoods less quickly, the mural is warm and happy, but the lips smile as families who have lived in the neighborhood for decades are forced out due to climbing rents.

In Midtown Detroit, where the museum sits, it is easy not to think about race while white faces sit in bars drinking craft cocktails and talking about revitalizing Detroit. Meanwhile, the black smile perched at the top of the museum’s smile asks, “But at what cost?” Some might see and listen, others may not even notice the smile in the darkness.