Experiments in Art History

University art galleries have the potential to serve as science labs, whether through experiments in curating or experiments in art making. While some experiments in creativity yield cautionary tales, others reveal new methods that may be used to test and develop existing hypotheses. Unlike their white cube relatives, these galleries are sites where paradigms may be revealed and challenged—given the right conditions.

New Monuments—a new exhibition series at the University of Louisville’s Cressman Center for Visual Arts—attempts to revise the traditional “monuments” list that serves as the basis for art historical education, utilizing the university gallery setting as both laboratory and classroom. For each installment, New Monuments will feature a single artwork produced or completed in the past year that involves recent social, political, or aesthetic issues.

For its inaugural exhibition, New Monuments presents Sanford Biggers’s Laocoön (2015)—a ten-foot inflatable sculpture created in the likeness of the cartoon character Fat Albert. Instead of standing upright, Fat Albert is lying belly-down on the gallery floor; his head is turned to one side, his arms are unnaturally extended along his bulbous torso, and his palms are turned upward. A pump provides air that intermittently inflates and deflates his vinyl body, creating a sound that is mechanical (similar to a ventilator) and hauntingly human. Allusions to the death of Eric Garner—who died due to a combination of a New York Police officer’s chokehold, chest compression, and his own poor health—are not lost through this auditory experience.

Biggers is an established figure in the contemporary art scene, rendering New Monuments an important milestone in the Cressman Center’s exhibition history. His interdisciplinary practice takes inspiration from history, yet questions the process of historicizing. Many of his works depolarize perceived facts and fictions, revealing the power structures that have come to shape our collective consciousness. Biggers works to unearth the ways cultural symbols evolve over time, and his Fat Albert inflatable—although superficially caricatural—is a meditation on a classical emblem of pain, suffering, and fallen heroes. As the creator of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids is set to stand trial for sexual misconduct, the plastic Laocoön stands as a reminder that history and heroes are rarely set in stone.

Biggers references and updates the ancient marble sculpture Laocoön and His Sons—the perceived prototype that captures the intersection of suffering and beauty in Western art history. According to Greek and Roman mythology, the gods dispatched serpents to kill Laocoön for attempting to reveal the Greek threat concealed within the Trojan horse. Unearthed and placed in the Vatican in 1506, the sculpture has been the subject of analysis for centuries—its lengthy bibliography includes poets, critics, scientists, and philosophers: Pliny the Elder, J.J. Winckelmann, Charles Darwin, and Clement Greenberg, to name a few.[1]

In the Cressman Center, Laocoön once again becomes the subject of investigation, but is contextualized by large, sprawling wall quotations from books and essays that reference the marble version. According to the exhibition’s printout, these passages are intended to provide “points of departure” so viewers may situate the work, rather than look to descriptive object labels. This experiment may result in alienating its audience or, on the contrary, leave viewers with just enough information to embark on their own research; results may vary.

When Elaine Scarry wrote that bodily pain escapes language—that it “resists verbal objectification”—she also observed that physical suffering becomes wrapped up with political representation.[2] We hit an impasse when attempting to describe pain, and in turn, fail to translate its descriptors. Biggers’s Laocoön is recognition of this phenomenon, stripping the historical sculpture of its famous twisted face; Fat Albert updates these classical signifiers of pain, assisting viewers to confront the irony of apathy. The exhibition brochure prompts the question: “could there be a Black American version of the Laocoön? If so, whom would he depict, and why would he suffer?”

Laocoön is not a panacea to historical tensions, but rather a work that destabilizes a one-fits-all approach to the standard canon. We asked to consider how the spectrum of human suffering has been represented throughout history, and how art historical survey courses can fail to provide intersectional analysis. For its first installment, New Monuments is an experiment in education—one that has the potential to change outmoded pedagogy.

New Monuments: Sanford Biggers: Laocoön runs through July 2nd.

[1] Nigel Spivey, Enduring Creation: Art, Pain, and Fortitude (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 25-37.

[2] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 12.

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