Janet Biggs

Over the last ten years, Janet Biggs has traveled to some of the most extreme environments in the world, including the remote arctic Norwegian archipelago Svalbard, the Taklamakan Desert in western China, and, most recently, a contested territory in northern Ethiopia known as the Danakil Depression. Through moving image, photography, and performance, Biggs studies the human response to physical and psychological demands. Her Riley CAP Gallery exhibition grapples with this theme through the lens of three video works that examine how individuals push themselves to the limit and the body’s remarkable ability to adapt when confronted with adversity.

For her 2012 video A Step on the Sun, Biggs trekked to Kawah Ijen, a volcano in Java, Indonesia, known for its stunning turquoise lakes and rich sulfur stores. The video follows a miner tasked with harvesting sulfur crystals, a dangerous endeavor that requires enduring the poisonous sulfur-dioxide gas streaming out of fissures in the volcano’s walls. Pitting these harsh working conditions against a pristine landscape, Biggs offers startling, and often haunting, visual juxtapositions. As with all of her work, audio is an essential component of A Step on the Sun. Pairing the sounds of the mine — hissing gas, the miners’ coughs and moans, creaking baskets weighted down with crystals — with forlorn Javanese vocal music and a melodic string composition, the disjointed soundtrack enhances the eerie, otherworldly quality of the video’s setting.

In Written on Wax, made in 2015, Biggs turns the camera on herself. Stemming from her ongoing research of Alzheimer’s, this two-channel video focuses on how memories are formed, retained, and morph over time. On one screen, we watch as Biggs submits herself to electric shock therapy, while the other screen cycles through a variety of moving images — a synchronized swimmer, ocean kayakers, a young girl ice skating. With the appearance of one particular image — a close-up of horses' hooves as they rhythmically beat against pavement — the artist receives a shock, causing her face and hands to momentarily spasm. Through this process, Biggs learns to associate horses with negative emotions, even though she has happy memories of years spent riding during her youth. At the end of Written on Wax, we see the artist mounting a horse, tentatively at first, and then with confidence, as she attempts to reclaim her positive associations with the animal.

What's pictured: Janet Biggs (American, born 1959), Vanishing Point, 2009, single-channel HD video, 16:9 format, 10:32 minutes, edition of 5 + 2 AP. Courtesy the artist and Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York.

Exhibition-Related Events & Programs

Thursday, September 7 @ 6 pm (cash bar @ 5 pm)
An Evening with the Artist

The Karen and Doug Riley Contemporary Artists Project Gallery

A 500-square-foot space in the Scott Pavilion suite of galleries, the Riley CAP Gallery showcases nationally- and internationally-recognized artists, as well as emerging talent, selected by Joslyn curators. A rotating schedule of intimate, carefully focused exhibitions will examine how artists engage with the world and respond to the issues that challenge them creatively, bringing new perspectives on contemporary art to Nebraska.

Riley CAP Gallery artists will be invited to Joslyn for lectures and other public programs, giving audiences the opportunity to gain insight into creative processes and contribute to an expanded dialogue about new art. The first Joslyn gallery dedicated exclusively to living artists, the Riley CAP Gallery represents an important step in making contemporary art an even more integral component of the Museum’s exhibition programming.