Crystals, brain scans, gems, abandoned swimming pools, and Antarctica are just a few things Janet Biggs grapples with in the upstairs gallery of the Blaffer Art Museum. Although there are a couple of crystalline sculptures (lit from within) and a hallway sound piece, the crux of Biggs’ exhibition Echo of the Unknown resides with three video works, Breathing Without Air (2014), The Persistence of Hope (2015), and Can’t Find My Way Home (2015).
Breathing Without Air jockeys between three scenes: an abandoned building with an empty swimming pool, an indoor swimming pool where a kayaker continuously dumps himself in and pulls himself out of the water, and Biggs’ grandfather at Denver’s Gem and Mineral show. At first, the relationship seems forced, as if Biggs was contriving a comparison between the detritus of the disused building to gems having been excavated from their natural habitat to be sold and traded, but when the young, athletic kayaker makes an appearance later in the piece, the work starts to feel strikingly more personal. The old man at the Gem and Mineral show at first reads as expertly—wearing an official lanyard and badge, he inspects the rocks with confidence and precision but, paired with the kayaker toppling, suffocating, and rescuing himself over and over again, Biggs’ grandfather seems lost, sheepishly wandering through the exhibit’s overwhelming hallways in a similarly claustrophobic social situation.
The Persistence of Hope is projected onto two screens in a corner. This piece is more cacophonous than Breathing: Biggs now intercuts shots of a hummingbird at a bird feeder, lab equipment, computer scans, and a woman squeezing ice tightly in her hand. Easily the most compelling part of the piece is the moment the woman picks ice up off the ground, willing it to melt by squeezing it. Her knuckles are bright white; the way she holds the ice feels desperate. We can see her hand start to turn red as melting water seeps through the cracks between her fingers. The biggest mistake of The Persistence of Hope is the dual projection—Biggs has paired the woman’s authentic, painful, absurd attempt at control with the hummingbird eagerly feeding amidst a lush, green mountainous landscape. The video’s soundtrack culminates in this moment with obvious, Disney-esque crescendos that practically shouts at us that we should all be so hopeful.
Biggs rectifies missteps in The Persistence of Hope with Can’t Find My Way Home, a quadruple-projection that is easily the most successful piece in the exhibition. Instead of being side-by-side on one flat wall, Biggs positions the four screens in a U-shape, encapsulating the viewer inside two-fifths of a dodecahedron. This arrangement complements the subject matter perfectly: in the video, Biggs traverses a crystalline cave. The light glittering off the sharp, giant blocks of salt in the cave’s walls and ceiling pings from screen to screen, requiring our eyes to dart rapidly back and forth. The salt crystals feel palatial yet sharp. As we journey with Biggs, we feel as though we are living out a fantasy and a fear, as if at any moment we could be impaled. Biggs’ grandfather reappears, again with gems in tow, this time reading as more desperate, sweetly eliciting our empathy. The relentless thudding of a brain scan creates monunting anxiety, a poignant yet simple sound that blows the musical scores of the other two pieces out of the water. The brain scan isn’t literally dictating to us how we should feel, like the other scores do; rather, the repetition ensnares us in an anxious situation.
Janet Biggs works best in extremes, by showing video work on either one screen or concurrently on many. Arguably, what is more important than the video work itself is how she sculpturally treats the space, and she addresses the space excellently with Can’t Find My Way Home.
Janet Biggs: Echo of the Unknown runs through March 21, 2015 at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston.
There will be a screening and conversation with Janet Phelps and Todd DeShields Smith at the Glassell School of Art’s Freed Auditorium on Thursday, March 12 from 6:30-8 p.m.