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Ninja, Please

In Trying To Wrap Hip-Hop Culture Up With East Asian Art, Sanford Biggers Shows He's a Couple Beats Behind

EAST MEETS WHAT: Despite Its Symbolic Language, Sanford Biggers' 'Sticky Fingers' Feels As Sexless As Walt Disney's World.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 11/17/2004


At the Contemporary Museum through Jan. 15

It’s not Sanford Biggers’ ideas that flounder in both/andnoteither/or at the Contemporary Museum, but what they produce. The 12 pieces exhibited, from video works and installations to mixed-media sculptures, continue Biggers’ interest in cultural convergence, specifically African-American and East Asian alloys. And yet the works fail to catch the eye much less draw it. As a whole the exhibit feels Ikea-antiseptic, and if Biggers’ goal was to turn the Contemporary into a prefab Zen garden, mission accomplished.

It’s the market element that casts everything here into a curious light. Biggers has used almost every idea here in some form or other—or wholesale—before, only in more visually interesting and intellectually arresting ways. These pieces are both artistically and mentally polished to such a high sheen that they feel like inoffensive showroom models, designed to sell an idea, cleansed of anything potentially debatable, dangerous, or otherwise engaging.

Take “Sticky Fingers.” This mixed-media installation is a bed with red satiny sheets and a faux-fur comforter on a modest shag rug, the headboard a fastidiously constructed, leather-covered pick comb topped with a clenched black fist. Overlook the fact that Biggers used the big leather pick-comb fist as a surface onto which he projected ethnographic slides in his disorientingly captivating “The Chronicle” in 2000, and this confluence of ideas still amounts to naught. The title borrowed from the Rolling Stones album with Andy Warhol art, the black-leather fist of 1968 African-American Olympians, the décor alluding to the hypersexual sets of pimp-daddy love-machine males of 1970s blaxploitation movies—these were all potent cultural chess pieces that sparked editorial-page ink in their day and humanities papers ever since, and yet “Sticky Fingers” feels as sexless as Walt Disney’s world.

The 1999 installation “ . . . a small world” continues the Magic Kingdom facade, a collaborative piece with Jennifer Zackin that Biggers has trotted out in various forms since its inclusion in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. A nook of the Contemporary is turned into a ’70s wood-paneled and wall-to-wall-carpeted recreation room. Projected against a wall are side-by-side Super 8 home movies from both artists’ families, documenting almost identical activities—birthday parties, family vacations, a trip to Disneyland—from the life of a Jewish girl and an African-American boy. It’s a work that tries to turn anthropological observations—that ethnic differences don’t result in different experiences for a certain time and class in America—into an artistic mantra, but after that connection is made the work has nothing else to say.

The remainder of the works shares this search for meaning after their surface mixings are plumbed. Biggers spent two years in Japan, and his sincere intertwining of Asian spirituality with Afrocentrism and hip-hop culture are still gestating, awaiting his decision of what he wants them to communicate. Two video projects—“Hip Hop Ni Sasagu (In Memory of Hip Hop)” and “Danpatsu” (three if the “Making of Hip Hop Ni Sasagu” is included)—intertwine Biggers’ earnest respect for both the artistry of hip-hop and Buddhism’s and Shinto’s symbolic reverence. For “Danpatsu,” Biggers films the cutting of his dreadlocks according to the ritualistic knot-cutting of a retiring sumo wrestler. Wearing a colorful kimono and sitting among colorful yellow and burnt orange leaves, Biggers sits wordlessly as a woman first cuts his dreadlocks and then shaves his head in a silent ritual. In “Ni Sasagu,” Biggers uses a ceremonial bowl bell he had made from melted hip-hop jewelry (chains, bracelets) in a ceremony at a Japanese temple to honor hip-hop’s ancestors—the “kind I grew up with, not the commodity-based type of today,” the accompanying text explains.

Biggers clarifies the hip-hop era that he’s honoring, but this distancing willfully ignores how the pop-culture market has already freely intertwined African-American and East Asian cultures, from hip-hop’s kung-fu movie fetish to the Japanese appropriation of hip-hop fashions that Biggers observed in Japan. The marketplace has done this remix much quicker, more thoroughly, and without regard to the politesse or consequences of racial or ethnic contexts, such that the Wu-Tang Clan has its Shaolin Style home video game, Nike runs highly stylized LeBron James anime advertisements modeled on the series of challenges found in fighter vids and Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, and Dave Chapelle can have Asia claim the Wu-Tang Clan for itself in his show’s infamous “Racial Draft” skit.

All this is exactly what Biggers’ works want to counter, but “Danpatsu” and “Hip Hop Ni Sasagu (In Memory of Hip Hop)” read like they were made in a world where these instances and products don’t exist. It’s a feeling that runs through his “Mandala of Co-Option,” five clear-plastic Buddha statuettes Biggers had fabricated in Mexico encasing foreign-made, inexpensive street trinkets such as sneaker laces, flags, and jewelry. It’s a highly literal and mannered visualization of the international passage of goods across borderless political boundaries, but it reads like jazz having to put on a black tie to clean up its bawdy gin-joint roots. “Mandala of Co-Option” is a street vendor’s cart wrapped up in an M.F.A.

And that’s the most disappointing mood permeating both/andnoteither/or, that suggestion that hip-hop’s street culture needs to be elevated, equated with the sanctity of Eastern religions to be worthy of the museum setting. Biggers’ whip-crack mind once included the scuff marks from break dancers’ shoes as a medium in previous works, and only one piece here feels sparked by that same creative flood. It’s also the most exquisitely economical work on view here. “Creation/Dissipation” is a single-channel video piece—one long, continuous overhead shot of five dancers. They stand circumscribed in five colored sand circles Biggers has painted on the ground. They start from a kneeled position and slowly upright themselves, moving t’ai chi gracefully through a series of gestures and postures. These movements quicken imperceptibly, until you realize that they’re all break dancing. Their twirling bodies and flying limbs sweep the sand circles into action-painting smears, lightly coating the all-white-clad dancers themselves. And then they slowly wind down and return to rest, the floor painting now a pile of colored sand in the center. “Creation/Dissipation” wryly uses a Busby Berkeley-style image to let the break dancers trace the free flow between hip-hop and the Far East, and it wordlessly stands on its own, either among a museum’s consecrated white walls or alongside a graf on the side of a building, without having to explain itself. The rest you can leave for Spencer Gifts.

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