Somethin' Suite: Okayplayer Interview w/ Artist Sanford Biggers
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Judging by the glaring headline of Jerry Saltz’ New York Magazine cover story last month, you’d think that becoming successful in the realms of visual and performance arts was an effortless just-add-water algorithm. As if between its pages lie a golden talisman or step-by-step instruction manual to jettison even the most delusional SVA hopeful and moderately artistically inclined novice alike on the expressway to six figure endowments, wealthy patrons, and esteemed art museum solo shows. Upon closer inspection, Saltz’s piece is much more substantive than this. The only real pitfall, in fact, is when he manages to reduce one of his 19 bullet-pointed instructions to a mere footnote. “Be young, Post-Black, and From Chicago,” reads rule #4 before dropping a scant few sentences highlighting the work of Rashid Johnson and Theaster Gates.
The entry's stark brevity is startling. Yet even the tongue-in-cheek nature of Saltz’ rule misses the mark in defining or explaining interdisciplinary artist Sanford Biggers’ magnificent career trajectory. While he proudly claims Los Angeles as his city of origin, the nature of Biggers’ Post-Blackness would best be left to a multiple-choice questionnaire administered by Touré. Saltz’s rule withstanding, Biggers has little tolerance for pigeonholing. Thinking outside the box has always fueled the engine of his bountiful imagination. “Within the art industrial complex, they want to delineate it: painter, sculptor, installation artist, black artist, conceptual artist, blah, blah, blah,” he says dismissively. “I just say that I’m an interdisciplinary artist and leave it at that. If I wanted to fit into a box, I would have gotten a corporate gig.”
Walking into his marvel of a studio space nestled away in East Harlem is like entering an alternate universe--one where tufts of sculpted cotton clouds hang suspended in mid air, intricate tapestry-quilts tell stories along the walls, and boomboxes from a bygone era languish half-melted like the remains of Radio Raheem’s ghetto blaster recovered from the cinders of Sal’s Pizza. Sanford Biggers is a consummate renaissance man. Whether composing musical numbers on piano to perform with his band, showcasing visual art pieces at the Whitney Museum, or shaping future generation of artists in his professorship at Columbia University, it’s apparent that he takes maximum comfort from having a variety of creative outlets. With a habitat like that, its not surprising if Biggers himself is an artistic chameleon of sorts. “None of my work is ever as simple as it seems,” he laughs. “That’s one thing I can say that’s consistent about my work.”
Earlier this spring, Biggers sat down with Okayplayer to wax poetic on the glories of artistic schizophrenia, the impact of the internet on art and popular culture in the 21st century, mashing up Alice In Wonderland and Soul Train, and the anomalous genius of the late art rock star Jean-Michel Basquiat. Read more after the jump:
OKP: You were born in 1970, part of the first post civil rights generation as well as well as the first hip-hop generation. There’s a lot of hip-hop influence in your work, especially with your pieces “The Bridge Is Over” (2006) and “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” (2000). How do these factors shape your creative process?
Sanford Biggers: Exactly like you said, I’m a kid of post civil rights and hip-hop. I think my work is autobiographical, but it’s not directly a portrait of myself. To the extent that all artists’ work is autobiographical, I include aspects of hip-hop and song titles. Things that the music makes me think of a lot. So with “The Bridge Is Over,” you have the melted boombox. When I made that piece, I was thinking about hip-hop being dead. This was before Nas came out saying hip-hop was dead, so clearly I wasn't the only person thinking it. Because everything became sort of hip-pop as opposed to hip-hop. That was like a memorial, this melting boombox. It was sort of a memorial to hip-hop. But one of my favorite songs is “The Bridge Is Over” and the battle between MC Shan and KRS-One. Now the bridge is really over, because hip-hop is dead. With the Vaughan Mason song [“Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll”], I was grooving to all that stuff – the rollerskating jams and the pop lock jams – before the actual rapping started. That’s just one of my favorite cuts. So I did this piece that was actually riffing off of African memory boards from the Luba people. They get these plates of wood and they put these pegs in it. Then they put different colored beads and shards of glass on the board. The people who know how to read that can tell the history of the migration of a group of people. They can tell where the sacred watering hole is, the sacred caves are, where the moon hits at a certain time of the year – that was all right there on this little codex. So I used a piece of wood and all these roller skate wheels. When the wheels are taken off the roller skate and put onto the board, they look like big beads. So that was a reference to the Vaughan Mason song and the African memory boards.
OKP: Your piece “Cheshire” (2008) was perceivably a statement about minstrelsy. Earlier that decade, Spike Lee had released his film Bamboozled – which tackled the concept of contemporary minstrelsy in black popular art forms. Hip-hop group Little Brother released their sophomore album The Minstrel Show a few years after. Was there some kind of linked artistic consciousness facilitating a re-examination of the concept of minstrelsy during that period, or do you think it was just coincidence?
5A Cheshire grin
SB: There’s way more to it than that. The “Cheshire” piece is a tricky piece, because I made that for a show in Germany. The sculpture was made to hang in a tree. The lights come on and blink--it’s like the Cheshire Cat from Alice In Wonderland disappearing and reappearing. In that context in Germany, when they saw it that’s all they thought of: Lewis Carroll and Alice In Wonderland. Or maybe they thought of a funhouse or a carnival. But when you show that same piece in Virginia, Atlanta, or DC, it becomes about blackface minstrelsy. Because that’s the gravity of our history. Because when it’s hanging in a tree, it’s being lynched. It makes us see a smiley face, red lips and teeth as blackface minstrelsy. But for cultures that haven’t been inundated by or exposed to that, they see it as just a smile. I thought it was deceivingly convenient that this thing could live two different lives, depending on who’s viewing it. The real intent is if [a black person] is sitting there looking at this piece and a kid from China or Malaysia is there looking at it, there’s two different perspectives. And there’s that conversation where you’re both right. It was intended for black viewers to question how weighed down we are by images of the past. Are we at a point where we can get past it? Are we always going to see a smiling black face as black minstrelsy? Does black face minstrelsy exist today in other forms? We talk about hip-hop, there’s the whole gangsta archetype with cats that weren’t gangstas trying to play gangstas. It’s one thing if you’re gangsta and you’re rapping. It’s another thing if you’re not gangsta and you’re rapping like you’re gangsta. That’s minstrelsy to me. So it’s working on many different levels.
OKP: You tend to play with that fine line a lot in your work. “Lotus” (2007) was part of your 2011 Brooklyn Museum retrospective and the walking exhibition tour that you guided. Many of the people in your audience seemed to have been oblivious to its reference to the trans-atlantic slave trade.
SB: I call it “Lotus” because it’s like a lotus blossom in Buddhism, which is about harmony, peace, and being whole. So on some level, it’s also trying to transcend that past of tribulation and trial. So, once again, we can look past the way that we looked at that image. Let’s face it: as fucked up the trans-atlantic slave trade was, we’re here because of it. So there’s beauty that came from that. Just like the lotus coming from the muck and the mire to be this beautiful blossom. So it’s really about playing the opposite: yes it’s fucked up. So what? What are you going to do with that? Where are you going to take that? That’s my charge as an artist and as a black man. The challenge I’m putting to other black folks, or brown folks, is to reinterpret those symbols. Not even to turn them into a positive, but to digest them, get through them, and keep going. We don’t have to forget the stuff, but we don’t have to be weighed down by it.
OKP: Have you ever found yourself—as Spike Lee was at one point—being charged with making race a too-prominent factor in your art?
SB: It’s a double-edged sword. Part of the reason Spike did those films was because he was creating a new black identity outside of blaxploitation films. It was important to have images of black people representing us in all of our complexities: the good, the bad, and the ugly. With the same type of pathos that somebody like Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese would do. Even Woody Allen. That's what [Spike] was doing: positing black people in those types of complicated roles. Yes, there was a lot of race stuff because there’s a lot of race stuff to deal with. Also, it was just one man’s voice. If there were five people doing it, he wouldn’t have gotten all that stuff put on him. Because it would have been five different voices. But the problem is with history, somebody’s got to be that dude or that woman. Somebody’s got to be the first to open it up so that you can have six or seven other people doing their thing. With me, I make work that doesn’t even have to be talked about on a racial plane. The problem is, particularly in the US, when people find out that I’m the one who made it – it automatically goes into that dialogue. Sometimes I dodge that; sometimes I embrace that. It’s a catch-22. I don’t want to be ghettoized as a black artist. But at the same time, I’m proud to be a black artist. With that being said, my messages can range from horrific to hilarious to complicated to trite. That’s just the complexity of the individual. “Cheshire” is talking about race, but it’s not talking about race. Same thing with “Lotus.”
OKP: Speaking of being weighed down, do you feel there’s a de facto responsibility the black artist has that other artists aren’t burdened with?
SB: I thought that, but I don’t think it anymore. History acts like gravity. If we're all talking about this responsibility to represent that black experience, then we never get beyond the black experience. The black experience is almost like a branding thing in and of itself. My black experience is different than another black person’s black experience. It’s different than the mulatto kid growing up in Paris, who is black. It’s different than the queer brother growing up in San Francisco. You have the experience of the suburban bourgie kid versus the urban hood kid. They’re all black experiences.
OKP: Your work covers a lot of disciplines. Some artists chose to stick to one medium, but you consistently walk different paths to express your creativity and ideas. Do you find there’s a kind of inherent artistic schizophrenia with that?
SB: (laughs) Yeah. Maybe I have commitment issues. That’s another story. But I came to visual art through music. I was learning to play piano when I was a kid. I got sick of taking lessons, so I just started playing by ear. My brother’s nine years older than me and was in a band. So I started listening to them, trying to play what they were playing. It was sort of beyond my skill set, but it had me open. Then when I started to try and play jazz by ear, I couldn’t. So I started to paint pictures of jazz musicians: Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Nina Simone. That was a way of sort of identifying with the music, because I couldn’t play it. Then when I’d show those things to my friends, they’d be like, “Who’s that?” So I felt like the artwork was a platform for conversation and dialogue. And that’s obviously something that still carries over to today. But in terms of that approach, the first real painting I did was an oil painting. I was also sneaking out of my parents’ house to do graffiti at the same time. I was embracing every aspect of hip-hop when it came out. I grew up in LA, so we were looking at the books from New York and movies like Wild Style and Krush Groove – emulating what we saw. Then by the time I got to Morehouse, I thought I was a painter until I got introduced to sculpture. My professor really saw something in me. He put me in contests that were totally unrelated to school. I was competing with grad students. I was working for a white guy that lived on the other side of town who was teaching me how to work metal. He just opened up some doors. So at that point, I knew I could paint, do sculpture, and play a little bit. He told me, “You got to make a decision. You can’t do all that.” But I already knew that it didn’t work that way. It’s all the same thing. It doesn’t matter what form it is, it’s all a language. It’s about how you say what you want to say. Sometimes it’s musical; sometimes it’s an object; sometimes it’s an image.
OKP: Do you feel that you draw the maximum amount of people in that way? Meaning, the message you convey in a sculpture piece may attract an audience that a painting might not…(?)
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SB: I think so. I think things have a different speed to them. A speed of comprehension from the viewer. Paintings get read a certain way. Photographs get read a certain way, because we’re used to seeing photographs all the time. Music gets consumed very differently, as does sculpture. The thing that sculpture does have in installation is that your body is in it, so you become a part of it. You become enveloped in it. With a painting, there’s a distance with the relationship. With music, it permeates you. So I play with those things. I’ve been doing a lot of multidisciplinary performances. With The Somethin’ Suite (2007), to me that’s like the culmination of all the stuff that’s in the quilts, the “Cheshire,” and a sonic thing on top of it. But of course, only certain people can experience that at any given time.
OKP:The Somethin’ Suite is probably the best example of Sanford Biggers utilizing his varied mediums in a sort of synthesis. There are a lot of things at play visually. You’ve also got a great roster of people involved like Esthero, Saul Williams, CX Kidtronix, Martin Luther, and Imani Uzuri. How did you actually pull all that together?
SB: When I first moved to New York City around 1997, I was performing with Saul Williams, Martin Luther, Imani Uzuri, Swiss Chris, and Akim Funk Buddha on the CBGBs gallery scene. We even recorded a Martin Luther segment for The Chris Rock Show. So I was really gigging a lot at that time. But I was in grad school in Chicago at the time. My sister lived here, so all I had to do was get a ticket and I could sleep on her floor. My friends would be playing at different venues and I would come and sit in. I would be like, “I’m an artist.” But no one believed me. They only knew me as a musician. Then I was in the Whitney Biennial and did a big party at the Whitney. I invited all these people from the music scene and they were like, “Oh. You’re like really an artist.” But a lot of the stuff I was doing in visual arts was influenced by Imani, Martin Luther, and all those people anyway. The Somethin’ Suite came about because they have this performance art biennial that happens in New York every two years. So in 2007, I was commissioned to do a piece. I wanted to do a revisionist minstrel show. So I called it a post minstrel cycle. With the flyer, I recreated the old handbills that used to circulate with the old minstrel shows. I have the two black face minstrels: one with a turntable, one with a banjo and Adidas with fat laces. So it was definitely playing off of hip-hop and the minstrel show. But it was also playing off of the music industry as a whole and the history of American musical theater, which started with minstrel shows. Then I called on my friends who I’d worked with for years: Esthero, Jahi Sundance, Saul Williams. These were people who I’d already worked with. Now I can invite them to perform in one of my pieces and play up the idea of rock opera and theater. Because they’re all performers on that level and can stretch in that direction. So I had them all costumed. I had Esthero wearing a Southern belle outfit. I had Saul wearing the “Ghettobird Tunic” (2006) doing his whole “Niggy Tardust” thing. It was powerful. It was one of my favorite experiences as an artist or a musician. When I perform on that level, I typically use a different name because it’s a different persona. It just makes it a little more fun.
OKP: Talk a little about the central theme of your recent live music performance piece Moon Medicine.
SB: It goes back to what you asked about multiple disciplines. With this situation, a lot of people who knew me as a standard visual artist--are a little bit more conservative and can’t understand how all these things can mix--were like, “What are you doing?” A lot of them weren’t schooled in that. I couldn’t explain it to them. You just got to be there. It starts with a 10-minute montage of video footage I’ve complied over the years. It has clips from Sun Ra, Busby Berkeley films, Alice In Wonderland, Schoolhouse Rock, David LaChappelle’smovie Rise, Good Times, Werner Herzog interviewing the Dalai Lama, and Japanese bootlegs of 1970s Soul Train episodes with all the subtitles at the bottom. There’s so many layers there. It’s all mixed and mashed up out of context so that it creates this weird, non-linear narrative. As the video and audio fades out from that, me and the band start playing “Riding High” by Faze-O. Then we go into “Fly Like An Eagle” by Steve Miller Band with the Biz Markie “Nobody Beats The Biz” intro. But we change the lyrics to “Fly like a negro, let my spirit set me free.” The video fades into some footage that I shot in Salvador de Bahia with a dude emerging out of the water, which is dedicated to Yemanja – goddess of the sea. Then it goes into the music of “Controversy” by Prince with the lyrics of the black national anthem “Lift Every Voice And Sing.” We did a song by the Black Keys too.
The Bridge is Over (biddybyebye), 2006
OKP: The career trajectory of Jean-Michel Basquiat seems to be the inspiration for young visual artists of the 21st century, especially young black visual artists—do you think his success story has proved to be a gift and a curse in a way?
SB: I love Basquiat. Thank God he gets as much attention as he does. They’re still trying to make it really hard to give him his full props in the academy and the art world – outside of the more commercial things. I’m talking in terms of the history books. The canonical shit. Yet generations after him, black, white, you name it, have all been influenced and will continue to be influenced. Because he represents many things. He was a rebel, an iconoclast, a non-white boy, the first brother to get any kind of runs. Whether he knew that or set out to do that or not, it’s all about timing. Just like Spike Lee’s timing with all those movies, Basquiat in the 80s when hip-hop and punk were merging on the downtown scene. Counterculture had already changed. The previous counterculture was hippies. But this was a grittier, industrialized, pre-crack Reaganomic youth. That’s just a weird cauldron of stuff that allows a Basquiat to emerge. No one’s going to be another Basquiat. That moment’s done. The next moment is whatever weird thing is happening and this figure emerges. Who knows what that’s going to be? Jeremy Lin, who knows? I think Basquiat’s a great role model for people to just get out there, get raw, and just do their thing. But to expect to be him and get what he got? I mean look, that shit killed him before he was 28. I have a theory that he was getting as fucked up as he was just to maintain. That’s a lot of pressure. You’ve got money that you’d never even thought of making. There are stories of him doing those 24-48 hour coke binges, knocking out a couple of pieces. Not even finishing them. He’d go home to sleep for a day or two and dealers would come in and buy them. He hadn’t even finished them. Is it possible to sustain that? You sort of wish he’d had a coach to slow him down and keep him healthy and alive.
OKP: It begs the question of why his legacy and genius had only began to be celebrated and commodified only over the past decade. Reebok starts making sneakers, Swatch makes watches, all the documentaries. He suddenly becomes a part of the cultural fabric for a generation that wasn’t alive during his tenure in the art world.
SB: Well, he died at the mythological age of 27. The Hendrix year, the Joplin year. Amy Winehouse as well. Plus he was the epitome of the iconoclast in the art world. Now let’s face it: the art world has had a lot of bad boys and bad girls before and after Basquiat. But like I said, it was just that timing and him being black. He had attitude, he had swag. He’s wearing $1,000 suits barefoot and painting in them. He was all over the place. It’s complicated. I don’t know if I can answer the question of ‘why now’. I think it’s going to get more and more, though. At some point, [the history books] are just going to have to bow down. Because the persistence of somebody’s work and persona for that long, it’s going to make them look overly possessive if they don’t give it up soon. Because there are people who they’re claiming are geniuses that I think [Basquiat’s] work is better than. And those artists have cited him. But the cannon hasn’t embraced him on that level yet. That’s changing every year. There’s a bigger retrospective at a bigger museum every year. It’s just traveling all around. I heard there was one in Paris last year that was bigger than the one at the Brooklyn Museum.
OKP: Considering the breadth of your career, what would you most like to be remembered for or as?
SB: Always putting the work first and never getting comfortable with the work I’ve made. I’m always changing my stuff up. Some people have problems with that, because they say there’s no signature Sanford Biggers work. But you’re looking at this in the micro. I look at this as chess, not checkers. This is something you look at 20 years out and say, “Oh…all his stuff actually makes sense.” Give yourself some time. I’ve always looked at this as a long-term thing. I’ve had goals in mind and benchmarks that I wanted to get to. But none of them made me speed my work up. I work thorough whatever series of works I need to work through. And that defines itself.