Exploration Art: Janet Biggs and Duke Riley Scout Forgotten Islands and Dark Tunnels

02/28/2011 4:00 AM |

The artist as not just an aesthetic explorer, but an actual traveler discovering uncharted or unauthorized places, is a notion that by necessity involves not just performance but storytelling. We see this, for instance, in land art like Michael Heizer's 1969 desert incision "Double Negative," wherein the piece becomes inseparable from the artist's labor and subsequent visitors' pilgrimages to discover the work. Two young artists doing away with the artwork at the end of the journey, Janet Biggs and Duke Riley, turn the act of exploration and discovery into their medium. Biggs, in a trio of documentary videos on view at Winkleman Gallery, uses a very dramatic mode of presentation. Riley's two mock-historical installations at Magnan Metz Gallery, meanwhile, acknowledge the strange, nearly kitschy novelty of becoming an explorer at a time when Google Earth and similar tools let anyone travel to the farthest reaches of the globe. Both artists document enigmatic journeys in rarely-traversed waters towards obscure islands.

Biggs's first solo show at Winkleman Gallery, The Arctic Trilogy (through March 12), follows three different sorts of explorers in the little-known Svalbard islands in the Arctic Ocean. The shortest, "In the Cold Edge" (2010), shown in an appropriately cavernous rear alcove, follows a spelunker into a seemingly endless glacial cave. Though copiously edited, it's the least complex documentary of the trio. The two larger projections play in alternating loops in the main gallery. "Fade to White" (2010) follows an arctic explorer navigating a 100-year-old sailboat and his kayak through icy waters. Biggs edits the short so that it seem as though the explorer is the only person on the vessel, and conceals whatever research mission is behind this solitary, slightly insane excursion—despite the bearded man's calm demeanor, one can't help but worry for his safety when he's kayaking in icy rain and heavy snow, or near polar bears. This extreme flâneur's Arctic wanderings in majestic, serene landscapes beneath stunning mountains are intercut with countertenor John Kelly—dressed in white against a white backdrop—whose ethereal voice emphasizes the journey's metaphysic rather than scientific power. Not the conventional excursion into wilderness for the sake of self-discovery, "Fade to White," as the title implies, involves a kind of self-erasure.

Its companion piece, "Brightness All Around" (2011), is the best of this very good exhibition. Linda Norberg is a coal miner working several miles beneath the frozen tundra at reinforcing the ceiling of a newly excavated tunnel. She operates a heaving, clattering, buzzing machine in a science fiction setting barely lit by her headlamp, water gushing down all around her. Biggs cuts between the mining machinery's incredible clamor and vocalist Bill Coleman, all in black leather against a black backdrop, singing about near-death experiences over an über-masculine rock guitar instrumental. Biggs inverses the gendered dynamics of exploration in these two major videos, portraying a male traveler as a passive, vulnerable figure in an all-enveloping white landscape, while Norberg drills and transforms the black depths of the planet. The juxtaposition of pristine landscapes in the former and a moon-like mining operation in the later further complicate the exhibition's power dynamics by underlining its environmentalist resonances.