Janet Biggs


Janet Biggs, Can’t Find My Way Home, 2015, four-channel HD video installation, color, sound, 8 minutes 35 seconds. Installation view, Blaffer Art Museum.

The work of Janet Biggs often finds the New York–based artist traveling to the ends of the earth to research and record extreme geographic landscapes and the people who inhabit them. For her latest exhibition, “Echo of the Unknown,” Biggs has created an installation of sculpture, three video works, and a sound piece, all of which explore the relationship between intense conditions found in the exterior world and those in our interior selves. Curated by Janet Phelps, the show runs at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston through March 21, 2015. Biggs will also present a related multidisciplinary performance at Project Row Houses on April 16, 2015, titled If Ever I Would Leave You. Here, Biggs discusses Can’t Find My Way Home, 2015, the largest work on view.

THIS IMMERSIVE FOUR-CHANNEL VIDEO piece is about the idea of focus and disappearance and how they can coexist in one place, one being. It stems from my memories of family members who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. I also wanted this work to stand outside of my personal experience and to allow people to read it however they want. Part of my process is like collage, which is how we experience the world now: We get disparate pieces of information all the time and construct a narrative out of them. I’m trying to understand how all of us maintain a sense of who we are—how fragile that is, and how it constantly changes.

My grandfather was an avid collector, especially of minerals. Long after he couldn’t recognize family members, he could still describe specific samples in his collection: where and how they were extracted, their scientific names. These moments of presence in a vast sea of loss allowed me to feel I still knew him, setting me on this path to learn what his experience was like. As this four-year project developed, it became a meandering meditation on loss, but also on hope.

I started by looking at samples from my grandfather’s collection and researching where in the world giant crystal formations exist. I came across a crystal cavern in Merkers, Germany, and knew I had to film there. The cavern’s interior is shaped like a hollow negative of the hippocampus, the seat of memory in the brain. The crystals that adhere to the cavern’s wall have an uncanny resemblance to the tau tangles and amyloid proteins in a brain with Alzheimer’s. I was also intrigued to put myself into a geode, inside a potential object of my grandfather’s collection. The cavern is half a mile underground; it’s extremely warm, and it’s particulate, so I had to wear a respirator. I was submerged for eight hours a day and became completely disoriented; I had to be helped to find my way out.

This footage is intercut with scenes shot at the University of Houston’s neuroscience department, where they are researching seizures. When the brain is in seizure, it is in a hyperactive state, which is surprisingly like what happens to the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s. The piece also includes footage of an elderly collector at a gem and mineral show who has an intense focus and clarity when looking at crystals but becomes lost when trying to make his way through the overwhelming space.

Sound is important to my work. Part of the sound track of this piece draws from the country singer Glen Campbell, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. With his family’s support, he continued touring for as long as he could. I found a video online of one of his last performances. He’s singing “Wichita Lineman.” It’s heartbreaking; when singing he’s so present, and then he wanders away from the mic and he’s completely lost. I’ve worked with musicians and composers over the years, so I contacted some and asked if they knew that song. I asked that they not to look up the music, but just play it from memory.

Collaboration across disciplines has been central to my work, but never more so than here. I’m fascinated by science. I thought its methodology was so seductive because it seemed sterile and quantifiable, while my process is not. But now I know that’s absolutely false! To keep going forward in either field, you don’t need an answer; an answer closes a door. You want to learn what the next question is you should ask. I make art for that next question.

— As told to Prudence Peiffer

Screen grab of the stretched 3-D scan of the first rock that was milled for Alice Channer's R o c k f a l l, 2015.

Bodies, absent but for the imprints they’ve left on sensitive materials—above all, clothing—have been a recurrent concern for the London-based sculptor Alice Channer, but lately the imprints have begun to take on architectural scale. For her first museum show in the United States, at the Aspen Art Museum from February 13 to May 31, 2015, she presents a single large outdoor piece, R o c k f a l l, which will then travel to New York this summer for a group show organized by the Public Art Fund. A smaller, indoor version of R o c k f a l l will be shown at Pied-ā-terre, San Francisco, February 15 to March 15, 2015.

FOR A FEW YEARS, I’ve been collecting lumps of concrete, dug up in the London streets outside my studio, by-products of the ongoing construction boom in the city. I’m interested in the relationship of these human-made rocks to weight and (de)materiality. For R o c k f a l l, which is at its simplest a sculptural work about weight, I made 3-D scans of some of these objects, none of them bigger than a human head (I had to be able to carry them back to the studio). I then stretched the 3-D scans until they were about six feet long. The stretched scans were then milled from foam, molds were taken from the foam, and I made casts from those in several very different materials: Corten steel, aluminum, and concrete—materials that I imagine as having different speeds, different weights, and different kinds of time.

Although the piece is not site specific (I would describe it as stretchy to a degree: responsive but not a response), it won’t be finished until it’s installed across the Aspen Art Museum’s Roof Deck Sculpture Garden. And though the stretched rocks that make up R o c k f a l l are cast in hard materials, I realized as I started to see them take shape that their surfaces are pleated. I’ve often used fabrics that have been pleated by a company that usually pleats fabric for clothing. Pleating is useful to me because it multiplies a flat surface to give it volume and body, changing its dimension and making it stretchy.

Clothes are strange, in-between, awkward things, flat and empty when disembodied, and partially contingent but impossible to objectify when embodied. They exist somewhere between the object and the subject, and my works seek to exist there too. In R o c k f a l l, the pleats in the metal and concrete are made by a tool path. The tool path was designed horizontally, at my request, by the machine operator, who programmed the CNC router to cut the stretched rocks from foam, before I made molds from them. The pleats in R o c k f a l l bring out its relation to other works of mine that are more explicit attempts to make objects that have the same status as clothing. As the work repeats in different locations with some elasticity, it will change slightly, expanding and contracting, but will remain recognizable as itself. The piece is a horizontal layer that will be stretched across several other pre-existing objects: the museum roof, the epic mountains around and underneath it, the vast human-made geological/commercial/social/economical/biological/political mesh that is the twenty-first century. And the body wearing it will be much, much bigger than in my previous work.

I don’t understand size, but I do understand scale. My works attempt to include radically and awkwardly different kinds of scale at the same time. I think that this awkwardness threads through my work, and speaks to my experience of materiality in the twenty-first century. What are all these vast new buildings that the concrete is being dug up for, what builds them, and who are they for?

— As told to Barry Schwabsky

Barbara Kasten, Architectural Site 17, August 29, 1988, 1988, color photograph, 60 x 50". High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

Barbara Kasten’s photographs are often discussed in relationship to Bauhaus aesthetics, particularly the work of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who advocated for Gesamtwerk, or, for working in multiple mediums, which has always been a critical part of her practice. “Barbara Kasten: Stages,” the first major survey of the Chicago-based artist’s work, presents a broad view of her oeuvre, including her early fiber sculptures, a video installation, and a selection of photographic works spanning throughout her career. Curated by Alex Klein, the exhibition will be on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia from February 4 to August 16, 2015.

LIGHT IS THE ESSENCE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, but it is not what I am after. The important thing about light, to me, is not how it falls on an object, but how the shadow is created. I am photographing the shadow, and not the object that is creating the shadow. I am after another form—one that defines reality, but it is not reality. I am after a phenomenological encounter.

Currently, the sculptural aspect of what I do engages the large-scale involvement of the body in space. My collaboration with Margaret Jenkins Dance Company for “Exact Seeing,” my 1985 Capp Street Project, gave me the initial impetus to work on an even more dramatic scale for my “Architectural Sites,” 1986–90, a photographic series that was made in grandiose lobbies of postmodern buildings with a single exposure and no digital intervention. I included mirrors to generate multiple views in one image. We all have a personal relationship with architecture. Architecture is about creating an environment that we respond to, that we connect with, and that affects us in some emotional way. Axis, 2015, the new site-specific projection I made for this survey exhibition, incorporates the architecture of a thirty-foot-high corner in one of the ICA’s galleries. The architecture becomes an integral element of the video as it is displaced and transformed into other objects.

In the 1980s and ’90s, when I showed at the John Weber Gallery in New York, I wasn’t looking at photography for inspiration. I wasn’t trying to break any of the “rules” of photography. I was just looking for a way to combine my interests in sculpture and photography—photography not as way of documenting sculpture but as a way to make a new work. For me, these media function side by side, not as cause and effect.

These days several photographers in their thirties and forties are working outside of the specificity of the medium. I have been fortunate to still be active, so I am not a mentor only to them. I can be part of the dialogue and in discussion with younger artists at the same time. The dialogue is really important. I am not giving advice; it is about an exchange.

Multigenerational artistic exchange was an early part of my career. Working in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, I recognized that the art scene was male-dominated, and the women's movement was having an impact on female artists. Although I was not an activist per se, I produced a video with the art historian Deborah Irmas, High Heels and Ground Glass, which documents five women photographers, then all in their eighties—Lisette Model, Gisele Freund, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Eiko Yamazawa, and Maurine Loomis. This was my feminist gesture and took a decade to complete (1980–90).

The current show is an opportunity for the viewer to see that I have long worked in a variety of forms. It is a reevaluation of my output, especially with regard to the relationship of my work to the body and to space. My photographs are really all that have ever been published. No one knows about my focus on spatial environments, even though they have been components of my work for a long time.

— As told to Andrianna Campbell

Alec Soth


Alec Soth, Lil’ Jay J and the Spiritual Boys. Rochester, New York, 2015, black-and-white photograph, 30 x 40".

Alec Soth’s photographs capture an intimate vision of contemporary Americana. He begins 2015 with the release of Songbook (2015), now available from MACK, as well as accompanying exhibitions this winter and spring, beginning with Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, followed by Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, and Loock Galerie in Berlin. Here, he discusses the making of Songbook and its relationship to the music industry. His latest New York exhibition runs January 30 to March 14, 2015.

MY LAST PROJECT, Broken Manual, was about the desire to disengage from society and run away from the world. After that, along with doing some magazine assignments and collaborations with other photographers, I started self-publishing a newspaper called The LBM Dispatch with the writer Brad Zellar.

Songbook collects all of this work from the last few years, but the text has been removed. I actually found this process liberating. So much of editorial work is about making decisions in service of the story. In this case, I was relieved of that. From the thousands of pictures I had made over the past few years, I could untangle myself from the specific stories and just swim in the visual. It was a treat. Meanwhile, I started formulating what came to be Songbook. The book is a compilation of all of this quasi-journalistic work from the past three years. But unlike the Dispatches and other publications, the stories behind the pictures have been stripped away. My goal was to produce something lyrical rather than informational.

I often reference the music industry when talking about publishing. Most music is now obtained for free via digital download. Nevertheless, there’s been a boom in more expensive vinyl records, and live performance is just as vital as ever. In a similar way, as photography has also become free online, there seems to have been a surge of interest in photography books and exhibitions. People have a craving for physical objects and experiences. Just as I make an analogy between the photographic and music, Songbook is like a vinyl record. It’s a physical object that you can hold, and the pictures, like songs, are sequenced in a certain way to achieve an effect. With most pop records, there’s always been an understanding that there will be singles, removed from the album and experienced in a number of different ways. What’s different in the digital age is that every song has become a kind of single. It’s only those die-hard connoisseurs who buy an album and listen to its originally intended sequence.

This also holds true for photography, and Songbook is well suited to function in this universe. Broken Manual was like a concept album in that a lot of the pictures don’t make any sense outside of their original context. When you show photographs in a gallery, it’s often a struggle to try and translate the spirit of a book-length project onto the wall. But since so much of the emphasis of Songbook is on the lyrical power of decontextualized images rather than on the story, I found the curatorial process simpler. It was just a matter of doing more editing to carry the most impact in the space. The great thing about photography is that, like music, it translates into these various forms quite easily.

— As told to Gabriel H. Sanchez

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Edgar Thomson Plant and The Bottom, 2013, color photograph, 42 1/4 x 63 1/8”.

The photographs and text in LaToya Ruby Frazier’s first book, The Notion of Family (2014), depict the story of three generations of women—Frazier, her mother, and her grandmother—whose lives parallel the rise and decline of the steel industry in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Here, Frazier discusses her documentary photographs, which portray how the town’s industrial activities have left physical traces on the landscape and residents. Frazier’s latest exhibition “Riveted,” will be on view at the ISESE Gallery, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, at the University of Texas at Austin from February 6 to May 6, 2015.

GRANDMA RUBY (1925–2009) witnessed Braddock’s prosperous days of department stores, theaters, and restaurants. My mother, who was born in 1959, witnessed the closing of steel mills, white flight to suburban developments, and disinvestment in our community at the local, state, and federal levels. My birth in 1982 presented me with the task of witnessing as the war on drugs decimated my family and what remained of my community.

Across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, my grandmother, mother, and myself—a trio I perceive as one entity—are markers on a time line that represent the end of industrialization and the rise of environmental degradation, social isolation, and health care inequity—and, most recently, Rust Belt gentrification. Together we embody the shifting landscape and history of Braddock. My photographs are psychological portraits of the identity of the body and how the surrounding space shapes and forms it physically.

The underpinning element in my photographs is the collaborative process between my mother and myself. Mom is coauthor, artist, and subject. She turns the camera on me to document us. I am also the subject and content of the work. My decision to collaborate with my mother was based on a feminist viewpoint that experience should be a criterion for knowledge.

Theory becomes empty rhetoric unless it is applied to daily life and spoken in a language that people can understand. My mother did not have to read Camera Lucida to understand death in a photograph. In order to handle themes of industrialism, capitalism, environmental racism, and ecofeminism, the point of view and voice needed to come from my mother. I am dismissing the bias that only the elite and privileged can report, articulate, contextualize, and provide a creative solution for the disenfranchised subject.

My mother’s courage, strength, and creativity enabled her to make intuitive decisions about how she chose to direct shoots and document her own health and illness. Essentially, my cameras, lights, and tripods became a platform for her to exercise agency and to document our plight within the health care system. Our portraits are a visual document of health, illness, medicine, and healing, and they are buttressed by camaraderie and a will to survive. The photographs on their own have not salvaged our relationship or cured our illnesses. We do these things outside of the frame. What would be exciting would be to actually use our portraits to advocate for policy and legislation that fights discrimination against black women’s bodies, health, and illness.

The true essence and power of documentary work is its ability to reveal answers to a generation that has yet to come, or yet to ask the right questions. My relationship to the future of Braddock is best described by a line in James Baldwin’s 1962 essay “The Creative Process”: “The state of birth, suffering, love, and death are extreme states—extreme, universal, and inescapable. We all know this, but we would rather not know it. The artist is present to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge.”

As a child in the 1980s and ’90s living on Washington Avenue, a shrinking residential street close to the Monongahela River and the Edgar Thomson plant, I always wanted to know why my grandmother and I lived at the bottom of the street and under the shadow of the steel mill—in pollution near railroad tracks and heavy truck traffic. A few years ago, the great documentary filmmaker Tony Buba, who grew up in Braddock in the ’40s and ’50s, gave me a DVD of his documentary films from the past forty years. When I watched Struggles in Steel: A Story of African-American Steelworkers (1996), I cried. The interviews and stories of black men and women, recounting their years working hard with unequal pay, which in turn affected their families financially for generations to come, was the exact answer to my question and frustration as a youth. This film explained my plight, displacement, and poverty. It helped me understand why I had been making these photographs since I was a teenager.

— As told to Chelsea Weathers

Helmut Lang


View of “Helmut Lang,” 2015. Sperone Westwater, New York.

Helmut Lang’s stealth apparel upended fashion, violating basic principles of design and reshaping the silhouette of the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2005, Lang retired from fashion entirely, retreating to his property on Long Island where for the past decade he has created artwork that have been shown in exhibitions worldwide. Here, Lang talks about his New York solo debut at Sperone Westwater, which is on view through February 21, 2015.

I NEVER WANTED TO BE A DESIGNER. I wanted to be an artist but happened to land in fashion. Most of my friends in Vienna, where I spent the majority of my twenties, from the mid-1970s to mid-'80s, were artists—Martin Kippenberger, Kurt Kocherscheidt—and I watched their practices develop; I observed how they approached and built things. Fashion is a different medium, but I don’t think artists think that differently—before, it was about building around the body. Now, it’s more about building the body.

When I began Helmut Lang, I wanted to add a new dimension to the field, to create a different kind of practice—something, I learned, you can’t actually do with clothes. My work was a reaction to the opulence of the time, and it was part of what in hindsight became an essentialist antimovement. A designer is ultimately confined by the body because an item of clothing has to function, it has to move, and it has to do something physical for a person. I was working around bodies, and now I’m actually creating bodies in alternate physical forms with my new work, so it’s a completely different set of circumstances.

The largest series of works exhibited at Sperone Westwater are made of shredded fragments from my former archive. In 2010, as a result of a fire in my former studio, we ended up shredding thousands of pieces and used the raw material as a source for the pillar-like sculptures. This series consists of two hundred unique columns, each measuring between ten and twelve feet high and approximately four inches in diameter. What makes these works so interesting for me is that I still see things and consider aspects I hadn’t before, scars and memories from a former purpose. When all this—what was an archive of thirty years—gets shifted into a different environment, into a different context, it takes on a different kind of life. I am not sure how the pieces take shape; I am very much driven by instinct and the works make sense to me only at the end, and it seems then that I knew all along where I was going. I guess it’s some kind of amnesia, forgetting how complicated and difficult the process can be. It takes me a long time to transform an idea into reality.

I don’t have classical training, so I am less concerned with traditional prescriptions or notions of medium. What I am interested in are “replacement forms” that break conventional frames. This can also be seen in my cardboard wall reliefs, where I also repurpose manufactured supplies. Regardless of their original usage, these works become charged with emotions and the dynamics change.

During my career as a designer, I collaborated with artists I met through projects and exhibitions, most notably with Jenny Holzer and Louise Bourgeois on a joint exhibition at the Kunsthalle Wien. We became very close friends. Louise once told me, “Materials are just materials; they’re here to serve you.” That quote continues to resonate with me

After I left my company in 2005, I planned to take six months off to clear my head completely, as I wanted to change my way of thinking. This ended up being nearly a year, because it takes much longer than one imagines to reprogram—to try to return to a state of innocence, to erase any ingrained approach or methodology. After the first year, I started to make art in my studio and have devoted myself to my artistic practice for the past ten years. There is no reason to be blocked by material.

— As told to Allese Thomson