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

02/28/2011 4:00 AM |

Unlike Biggs, who remains almost completely absent from the excursions she films—she appears at the end of "In the Cold Edge" firing a flare over a frozen lake—Duke Riley stars in his projects. The expeditions brought together in Two Riparian Tales of Undoing at Magnan Metz Gallery (through April 9) involve the cities in which they were first presented: Cleveland and Philadelphia. In the former installation, titled An Invitation to Lubberland and occupying the front half of the gallery, Riley explores the grid of tunnels beneath Cleveland to rediscover an ancient spring called Kingsbury Run, long ago buried beneath the city. Stylized videos of Riley's sub-urban exploration done in Chaplinesque costume and with silent movie title cards lead visitors through a circular hallway lined with mosaics made of glass, tile, coins and cigarettes portraying the homeless communities that inhabit the Run, and the string of murders that led it to be condemned. Part clowning explorer—filming his costumed companion sliding down the gushing tunnel on his belly and marching back upstream—Riley also does some earnest anthropology, rediscovering and dramatizing the practices of the displaced communities that lived along the Run.

Reclaiming the Lost Kingdom of Laird, first shown at the Philadelphia Historical Society, concerns the fate of a small island in the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Camden. An Irish immigrant named Ralston Laird occupied Petty's Island for the second half of the 19th century with his wife and ten children. They were eventually joined by several other immigrant families. He farmed and raised cattle until his home burned down mysteriously, forcing the Lairds and other families to leave the island, which was being eyed for industrial development. The Venezuelan oil company Citgo has occupied the island for decades, building large oil silos on its north end that are now abandoned; Hugo Chavez announced plans in 2009 to donate the island to New Jersey, though contamination clean-up issues have left the island in limbo and off-limits—Riley wrote Chavez an open letter in the Huffington Post demanding that the island be returned to the Laird family. In the meantime he and the Laird Kingdom Liberation Army made an expedition to the island by kayak, retrieving archaeological objects from the burned-down home and—as shown in an informative short documentary—painting a portrait of the forgotten king on the roof of an abandoned Citgo silo. Nearby hand-written charts and faux-historical drawings remind of Treasure Island, although here the island itself, and the curious story that lies buried within, are the treasure.

For both Biggs and Riley, then, these journeys are primarily about strange, little-explored places and the people who seek them out—Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World continually comes to mind, especially in the Arctic shorts. But both are also telling fascinating stories that conflict with official histories and dominant narratives. Linda Norberg, piercing her way through frozen rock in search of raw fuel, is the epitome of the phallic woman. Riley's fond rediscoveries of a homeless-inhabited waterway and immigrant-governed island reveal little-known havens that are both countercultural and profoundly American. Their solitary, enigmatic journeys document fascinating new frontiers of human endeavor.

(Images courtesy Janet Biggs, Winkleman Gallery; Duke Riley, Magnan Metz Gallery)