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Janet Biggs: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape

The Barry Lopez Foundation for Art & Environment introduces its traveling exhibition program with an installation of three videos by Janet Biggs—Warning Shot, 2016, Brightness All Around, 2011, and Fade to White, 2010. Biggs’ work is a clarion call for a heroic landscape, one that will be completely transformed within our lifetimes. As the subject of centuries of exploration by Europe and the New World, the Arctic was once seen as indifferent to human enterprise, so vast and inhospitable as to be immune to any imposition. But the fossil fuel and mining industries established a firm hold in the twentieth century, and climate change is projected to leave Arctic summers ice-free within thirty years. Perhaps no other landscape that has figured so firmly in our imagination will disappear with so few of us having the opportunity to see it in person.

In 2009 and 2010, Biggs traveled to the high Arctic with a group of artists and scientists aboard the Noorderlict, a two-masted schooner built in 1910. Warning Shot is an alarm and an elegy. Filmed on Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago halfway between Europe and the North Pole, it memorializes a simple performative act in a vast landscape with few witnesses. Silhouetted by the profile of coastal mountains, a solitary figure enters the frozen landscape and fires a flare toward the horizon. Warning Shot is elegant, somber, and heartbreaking. It also allows for hope, honoring the importance of bearing witness to what will be lost and returning with not with an admonition, but rather the invitation to consider what, if any, action can be taken. 

Brightness All Around was also filmed on Svalbard, at the Sveagruva coal mine, run by Store Norske, a Norwegian mining company formed in 1916. Like Warning Shot, it trades on the tension between imagination and reality, quickly unseating our expectations about the Arctic as a pristine wilderness. The video focuses on Linda Norberg, a female coal miner working in inaccessible and dangerous surroundings. Norberg begins each day by descending miles beneath the frozen Arctic. Besieged by deafening machinery and relying on a small headlamp for light, she is seen drilling and bolting a newly excavated cave ceiling into place in freezing temperatures and suffocating darkness. Serving as a counterpoint to the terror of Norberg’s underground landscape is a vocal performance by New York music guru Bill Coleman. Sexual, seductive, and aggressive, his presence feels every bit as menacing as Norberg’s surroundings. Using lyrics taken from near-death experiences, Coleman becomes a witness to our struggle to maintain a sense of self, just as Norberg is challenged by the physical and emotional isolation of the mine. While there seems to be little connection between Norberg and Coleman at first, his appearance is every bit a shock to the system as the Sveagruva mine, a jarring imposition that shatters the mythology of an uninhabited Arctic, reminding us that even thousands of miles away, our footprint sits heavily upon the land.

Fade to White examines the impetus to explore and claim remote territory. Following a member of the Noorderlict’s crew as he navigates the ship through iceberg-filled seas and then paddles a solo kayak toward a featureless horizon, her video is laden with implicit danger. Biggs’s own will and endurance were tested during the voyage, and the visual tension in Fade to White captures the struggle to maintain balance and purpose in a landscape so vast it challenges not only one’s physical survival but their sense of individuality and identity. Fade to White also undoes the myth of the solitary white male explorer. Biggs explains, “The desire to hold onto the notion of the ‘great white north’ as a blank space awaiting our interpretation only reinforces the idea of the colonial polar hero. The ‘virgin’ north has now been mapped, surveyed, and mined, but increased knowledge has not replaced endless fantasies of discovery.” Loss and change are embedded in the video’s title, Fade to White, an editing technique used to evoke death or transcendence. Biggs integrated her imagery with sound and video footage of countertenor John Kelly, whose age, androgyny, and mournful voice parallel the vanishing Arctic landscape and signal the waning of our dominance over the land.

About the Artist

Janet Biggs was born in Harrisburg, PA, in 1959 and lives in Brooklyn, NY. She received her BFA from Moore College of Art, Philadelphia, and pursued graduate study at the Rhode Island School of Design. Biggs is recognized for her work in video, photography, and performance, which has been seen in hundreds of screenings, site-specific installations, and live performances around the world. Focusing on individuals in extreme landscapes or situations, her work navigates the territory between art and science, including capturing kayakers performing a synchronized ballet in Arctic waters, sulfur miners at work inside an active volcano, and scientists isolated in the Mars Desert Research Station. She has collaborated with Arctic explorers, neuroscientists, aerospace engineers, astrophysicists, Yemeni refugees, a gospel choir, and a robot.

In 2012, the Tampa Museum of Art published No Limits: Janet Biggs to accompany a mid-career survey of her work. Biggs has been awarded numerous grants and residencies, including La Napoule Art Foundation Riviera Residency; The Arctic Circle—High Arctic Expedition Residency, 2009 and 2010; Art Matters: Artist’s Project Grant; New York State Council on the Arts Grant; Anonymous Was a Woman Foundation Award; National Endowment for the Arts Painting Fellowship; and, in 2018, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

Excerpt from Warning Shot

Excerpt from Brightness All Around

Excerpt from Fade to White