Bureau Phi

Art projects that make a difference

Janet Biggs

Hasse29, Osnabrück, Germany. November 11 – December 10, 2016

While watching these videos, some of them later included in the exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art, my thoughts turned to travel writing, particularly the accounts of a number of English women during the late nineteenth century, at the height of the British Empire. Although separated by more than a century, Biggs' videos and the travel writings I associate with them spring from a similar imagination. They reflect their authors' courage in venturing to distant situations and the desire to move their experiences into new stories, which include both personal experience and geographic record.

For Hase29 , Janet Biggs is presenting three video pieces venturing into places even more remote than some of her previous travels to places such as Ethiopia and Djibouti, where last spring she shot Afar . In the works shown here, she is metaphorically charting minds already altered by Alzheimer's Disease. Not singularly focused on scientific records, Biggs' urge to bring this subject into the artworld stems from a family story. Her grandfather, an avid mineral collector, after being diagnosed with the disease couldn't remember the names of his children, but never forgot the names and specific detailed information about the minerals in his collection. Biggs expanded on this personal story using information furnished by scientists and researchers, including neuroscientists who are conducting pioneering studies on memory.

The exhibition's plot line evolves from a four-channel video installation, Can't Find My Way Home . The video has two settings: a bio-chemical research laboratory and in the interior of a cavern, some 800 meters down and 26 kilometers into the earth. The determination to shoot inside a cavern was her desire to "figuratively as well as literally place myself within the minerals, as a way of burying myself in my grandfather's experience."

Biggs researched several caverns with crystal formations looking for the effect of stepping inside a geode. She decided to shoot at the Merkers crystal cavern in Thuringia, Germany for a number of reasons: not just the beauty of the crystal formations, but also the cavern's similarity to the human mind. She says: "The shape of the cavern is a negative of the shape of the hippocampus, the location of memory within a brain. Also, the crystal formations had an uncanny similarity to the shape of amyloid proteins and tau tangles in the brain of someone with Alzheimer's disease... not so astonishing as nature tends to repeat forms, but a pretty profound discovery for me."

She also anticipated that the conditions in the cavern, the extreme heat and the need to filter hazardous air particles with a respirator, might challenge her physically and cause disorientation - some of the same sensations that she imagines her grandfather experienced as his disease progressed. What was just a guess happened in reality. While filming, she felt disorientated and confused, so that at the final stage of the day she had trouble finding her path out of the cavern.

The last component in Can't Find My Way Home is the mineral collector. He is the link between the two other visual elements – Biggs in the crystal cavern and the neuroscientist recording sound. "He symbolizes a kind of presence, a sense of self, within the extremes... of loss, of a diagnosis like Alzheimer's, of overwhelming and impressive physical conditions."

Images: courtesy of Janet Biggs