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Janet Biggs' video installation "BuSpar" addresses the use of medication in our society. Biggs is the first artist to exhibit as part of a new 'Verge" gallery, dedicated to cutting-edge art.
Biggs' social video art installations jarring 

By Sarah Henning 
The Forum, August 12, 2001

Janet Biggs' art could jolt a dead man out of complacency. 

Her suspenseful pieces on display at the Plains Art Museum intentionally inject anxiety and disappointment into viewers, leading most to personal realizations about the social issues Biggs has chosen for her work. 

"I start with overarching ideas/concepts such as early female sexuality, desire and control, or how our society uses pharmacology to alter perceptions and actions," says the New York City artist. 

"Rather than try to illustrate these ideas, I mine my own autobiography to come up with images that allow one to enter the piece and provoke new thoughts and ideas." 

Her video installations (the second video display ever shown at the museum) may not have plots, but both tell stories. 

"Glacier Approach" places the viewer in the art by showing just the prow of a ship as it slowly navigates toward a crevice in a Norwegian glacier. 

Split-second images of young female swimmers are dramatically spliced into the film at a rapidly increasing pace. 

The juxtaposition of the calm scenery and hum of the boat disturbed by adolescent swimmers creates a goose-pimply sense of imminent danger and desire to reach the destination. 

"These underwater clips are both dreamlike and frightening in their portrayal of early female sexuality and the implied drowning or freezing of these desires," Biggs says. 

In her second piece, BuSpar, Biggs uses three wall-size screens to surround the viewer. 

The main screen studies Biggs' autistic aunt, Anne, as she sits in a rocking chair. Anne continually swivels her head to stare blankly at the viewer, creating a haunting image. She is medicated with BuSpar, a drug prescribed to treat compulsive behavior. Vets also use it to tranquilize horses. 

Screens on either side show restrained horses being guided in small, repetitive movements. 

Biggs says the piece's strength lies in the use of the horse as the antithesis of its usual symbolism -- power and freedom. 

"And while Anne appears to be trapped by her diagnosis and activity, the rocking actually allows a release," she says. "The two images invert societal expectations while engaging issues of power and control." 

Biggs' exhibit runs through Sept. 30. 


A new view of art
By Sarah Henning, shenning@forumcomm.com
The Forum - 08/12/2001

Plains Art Museum executive director Todd Smith 
stands near a video installment. Smith says the 
Plains has a new dedication to diversification in the 
work it shows and the audiences it reaches. 
Photo by Darren Gibbins / The Forum

After revamping its display philosophy, the Plains Art Museum’s comment book runneth over:

“Very disturbing.”

“I’m delighted that the museum is showing this work.”

“This is art??? You lost me on this one!”

The Plains’ new gallery for experimental art will leave some stunned with fascination and others with confusion.

That’s the point: No art genre speaks to everyone.

Plains executive director Todd Smith says a more organized approach to each gallery’s purpose, along with a strong dedication to innovative art, should broaden the museum’s appeal.

“We decided we need to be accessible on a number of levels and to a broad swath of the community … because we maintain that everyone should have understanding of the visual experience,” Smith says.

Video metamorphosis

Although radical is orthodox in the art world, visitors to the Plains’ new “Verge” gallery will definitely notice how the experimental work strays from Fargo-Moorhead’s current art scene blueprints.

The third floor William and Anna Jane Schlossman Gallery’s “Verge” series will hold eight one-person exhibitions over the next two years.

Dedicated solely to young artists and innovative contemporary art, the floor will appeal to those who don’t feel connected with traditional art or are looking for something fresh.

The first “Verge” display contains two jarring video installations by New York artist Janet Biggs. “Glacier Approach” addresses childhood sexuality on literal and metaphoric levels, interrupting scenery from a boat prow with split-second cuts of girls underwater.

“BuSpar” uses images of a restrained horse and Biggs’ autistic aunt to create anxiety and communicate ideas about an overmedicated society.

For those unfamiliar with video installation art, Biggs describes it as art using video images to create a complete environment for the viewer.

Biggs’ work contains multiple wall-size screens in black rooms to allow the viewer to be immersed in the work.

The Plains has designed pamphlets about video art to guide participants through the exhibit.

Biggs says the “Verge” concept truly allows viewers, the museum and artists to enter new territory.

“For the artist, there is a validation of the work that happens upon entering the museum arena,” Biggs says. “For the museum, it can engage its existing audience in a new way while possibly drawing a new audience.”

Smith says “Verge” shouldn’t be misconstrued as a shock tactic.

“We’re not actively seeking controversy, but not shying away from it, either,” he says. “We’re going for the artists we feel could bring emerging art and technology to our patrons.”

Like Impressionism and Surrealism were in the past, contemporary art is often dismissed as easy to do or not “arty” enough.

“Everyone has the right to their opinions,” Smith says. “Our role is to be Switzerland, as many people of our generation look at art differently.”

Arty enough for ya?

Changes to the museum’s other two galleries are more subtle.

The first floor’s Jane L. Stern Gallery will host traditional art of the last century, continuing to import exhibits like Dale Chihuly’s blown glass. Smith says this will ease newcomers into the museum-going experience.

“It will contain displays that most people agree are art, works that are beautiful, contemplative,” Smith says. “It’s art with a capital ‘A’ that the art-knowledgeable will also appreciate.”

The second floor’s Fred J. Donath Jr. Gallery is committed to local art by featuring one regional artist along with selections from the museum’s permanent collection.

Carolyn Swiszcz’s “Signs and Wonders: Urban Landscapes” exhibit will be displayed through Sept. 16

A Minneapolis artist, Swiszcz parades Fargo’s ordinary. She dramatically juxtaposes intricate signs with their accompanying bland architectural boxes.

In “White Uniforms,” for example, the artist shadows the usually lauded Fargo Theatre sign and instead lets the nearby White Banner Uniforms sign pop out.

Swiszcz chose pieces from the 2,500-item permanent collection that complemented her work.

“What we own is mostly regional, but we wanted to add something more lively to it,” Smith says.

“This is space artists from the region can show work. It also allows us to show our permanent collection in a way that gives it meaning as context.”

Youth on the ‘Verge’

To launch the new galleries and introduce “Verge,” the Plains has lined up local DJs David Sol and DJ Koi to spin Sept. 14. The happening will run from 8 p.m. to midnight, and also includes live performances by Low Key Fever and a sound lab with Noel.

Also, starting in September and ending in May, all students will be admitted to the museum free with an ID card.

“We take to heart seriously that Fargo-Moorhead needs to listen to youth more,” Smith says. “By us doing this programming geared toward generations X, Y and Z, hopefully we can make a difference with people in college deciding where they want to live.

“Hopefully they’ll think there is something to keep them here – an active downtown, an active art scene.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sarah Henning at (701) 241-5538

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