Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch
“ I suspect that is what many of you are up to, practicing futures together, practicing justice together, living into new stories.” — Adrienne Maree Brown
On ViewThe Bronx Museum of the Arts
September 9, 2020 – January 24, 2021
In Codeswitch at the Bronx Museum, Sanford Biggers moves seamlessly between a myriad of media, sampling and reconfiguring remnants of history, both distant and recent, and creating concurrencies upon visual conversations forged by others. His sampling mashes disparate fragments in order to engender alternate narratives, novel blendings of varying cultures, and terrains free from tyrannies of hierarchy and ownership. More than 50 of Biggers’s quilt-based works are hung throughout the gallery space along with a video projected onto a platform raised inches from the floor. The work takes its cues from the lore around African American quilting as both a tool for communication and a topographical blueprint for escape. Although the syntactics of such quilts have been disputed, it is within the liminality between truth and fiction that Biggers so confidently moves.
This show is a culmination of Biggers’s years of tender investigations into heirloom quilts, work that feels like a catalyst for an as-yet-undetermined future while also cradling deep respect for a carefully woven past. In Reconstruction (2019), plywood forms fractalize out from the wall, requesting an oscillatory movement of the viewer in and around its geometric valleys and peaks. The familiar (and problematic) stars and stripes of the American flag are interrupted by embroidered botanical studies, organic plots of earth that stubbornly erupt through the banner’s stifling, hard-edged bars. Biggers’s disarming of what feels predetermined, fixed, and stagnant offers the viewer hope for both kinetic and futuristic landscapes. Similarly, in Incidental Geometry (2017), the squares of the quilt fold in on themselves with the aid of the plywood structure, insisting upon a constant movement that permits spaces for camouflaged narratives to exist. In Bonsai (2016) gold paint upon the quilt’s softness mimics pressed metallic sheets and yet cannot conceal an intricate network of stitching beneath, divulging the whispered suggestion of touch in its making. Striped patches float in to invade the lustrous landscape: visual ruptures that emphasize the multidimensionality of viewership—or of cultural traditions—that reside within the piece.
Biggers is both artist and careful choreographer, directing us to envision alternative futures and prompting us to encompass and perform that re-imagining. Encountering Biggers’s Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II (2000) projected onto the floor, I cannot help but find a linkage between the ephemerality of dance and the criticality of being completely present in the face of performance. Linoleum tiles hearkening back to scuffed gym floors across America assume mandalic weight as they are laid out in circles and diamonds and weave underneath the performances occurring on their surface. Standing above the projected video image, observing the crisscrossing, staccato movements of dancing students from Bronx Community College, I am subsumed into the fringe of digital onlookers. We act as both supportive scaffolding for the performer in the center and as protective shield against the flow of normative pedestrian thoroughfares. Not directly seen but imagined are the skid marks left behind on the linoleum stage, jubilant evidence of the dancers’ movements, and testament to how the human body affects the lived environment.
The semiotic and material sampling Biggers plays with reveals a fidelity to the movement of the body as expression of autonomy and to the repurposing of messaging as tools for creating new worlds. Both the vernacular of quilts and the ontology of dance embody these fleeting dispatches: carefully delineated calls to action. Codeswitch, faithful to its name, sees Biggers stepping with ease between and among vernacular and notated history, a skill that avoids easy reduction and co-option. On the contrary, Biggers calls upon the viewer to discern the signs of novel potentialities and be ready to move from mere spectator to performer of holistic reimagining.