Learning to Slow Down with Sanford Biggers (Part II)

Our latest Intersections project, Sanford Biggers: Mosaic, includes a site-specific floor installation made with sand. Five of the Phillips’s Museum Assistants—Rachel Cecelski, Jorge Vara Hernandez, Shawn Lindsay, Andreia Silva, and Emma Sweeney—were selected to help Biggers produce the work. Emma shares her impressions of the project.

Read Part I from Jorge and Rachel

Creating Sanford Biggers’s floor installation in Mosaic. Photo: Robin Bell

Emma Sweeney (@emma_sweeney_art_and_such), a graduate of the Corcoran College of Art and Design, works in drawing, painting, printmaking, and collage.

“After looking up images of Sanford Biggers’s previous sand installations, I was really excited to participate in creating this artwork. It was hard to imagine how such precise patterns could be created using a material as difficult to control as sand. What I learned over the course of the week that we spent creating Fool’s Folly is that you can get an incredible range of results from the simple act of pouring sand onto the floor.

We did not use any specialized tools, just quart-sized plastic containers and plastic putty knives from Home Depot. And yet with these simple means, I discovered that there were so many variables to experiment with: what height should you pour the sand from? Does tapping the container give you more control over how much sand comes out, or gently sifting it from side to side? What is the best way to hold the putty knife to minimize hand shaking? Each of us had to answer these questions for ourselves through trial and error to find which practices allowed us to uphold Sanford’s vision of the final piece.

Creating Sanford Biggers’s floor installation in Mosaic. Photo: Robin Bell

Our methods of working evolved over the course of several days as we all learned how to balance being precise with moving quickly enough to complete the installation on time. By the time it was complete I felt like I was only just beginning to get a handle on making the sand do exactly what I wanted it to, and a part of me wanted to keep going to see how much better at it I could get. Although my body, especially my knees, had definitely had enough by that point—my knees still aren’t talking to me after I put them through all that.

Overall, it was a very rewarding experience to see the artwork come together and to be a part of making it happen. It’s especially exciting to see the sand quilt in the gallery along with the Gee’s Bend quilts that inspired it, which have been some of my favorite pieces in The Phillips Collection since the museum acquired them.”

Learning to Slow Down with Sanford Biggers (Part I)

Our latest Intersections project, Sanford Biggers: Mosaic, includes a site-specific floor installation made with sand. Five of the Phillips’s Museum Assistants—Rachel Cecelski, Jorge Vara Hernandez, Shawn Lindsay, Andreia Silva, and Emma Sweeney—were selected to help Biggers produce the work. Jorge and Rachel share their impressions of the project.

Read Part II from Emma

Creating Sanford Biggers’s floor installation in Mosaic. Photo: Robin Bell

Jorge Vara Hernandez (@j.varah), a graduate of University of Maryland’s BA Film Studies program, is a painter.

“Initially my reason for wanting to help with the project was to gain more experience with the process of art installations, and to have a closer look at a curator’s duties within a museum setting. However, after doing more research on Sanford Biggers’s work before starting the project, my reason for participating changed dramatically. His sampling of other cultures into his own work really identified partly with my own philosophy on creating art. As a painter I felt that although the medium is not connected to my own work, it would definitely be an experience that I could learn from.

Communally working on this project with fellow artists was much more challenging than I expected. The process of pouring sand to realize Biggers’s design was unexpectedly painful—both mentally and physically. More than a few hours on your knees will start to take a toll on your body. A manic focus is needed to properly apply the sand while also ignoring the physical pain of your body. There is also a struggle with one’s ego as the learning curve of a new medium is experienced. Sand is not easy to control. The dispersive nature of the sand requires very intense, slow, and concentrated action. Working on this project forced me to slow down and enjoy that struggle again.

Creating Sanford Biggers’s floor installation in Mosaic. Photo: Robin Bell

While working, the ephemeral quality of the piece was mentioned; it will be “destroyed.” That part of this project really impacted me—the fact that with certainty the work that we put in will be reduced to our mere memory of it. Which is where I think the true worth of art actually lies; in the impact and remaining memory of said trauma. Which was very interesting considering a lot of Mr. Biggers’s work references historical traumas. Also there was something playful and humorous about putting in so much work for what some would consider to be “for nothing.” I think that irony is purposeful as the piece is titled Fool’s Folly. A title which I think is suggestive about the act of making art. One could consider the ephemeral quality of the sand quilt to cause the act of making it a fool’s folly. However, that ephemeral quality is exactly what gives it meaning and purpose, because of our will to create it.”

Creating Sanford Biggers’s floor installation in Mosaic. Photo: Robin Bell

Rachel L. Cecelski (@miss.rachel_studios), a graduate of the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design, is a freelance illustrator and art teacher.

“I learned so much helping with the installation of Sanford Biggers’s Mosaic exhibition. I have used many mediums in my artwork, but never sand. Sandford taught me to slow down, learn the meditative state, trust yourself, trust the process of the installation. As always, I love watching an art come together and the thrill of the finished piece.”

On the wall, left to right: Aolar Mosely, Blocks, c. 1955; Malissia Pettway, Housetop, c. 1960; Sanford Biggers, Mosaic, 2021. On the floor: Sanford Biggers, Fool’s Folly, 2021. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

In Conversation with Los Carpinteros (Part II)

Los Carpinteros (Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodríguez) is an internationally acclaimed Cuban artist collective best known for merging architecture, sculpture, design, and drawing. Through two films and a group of sculptural portraits, Los Carpinteros’s exhibiton Cuba Va!, produces a social landscape of Cuba’s modern history that has been at once utopian and dystopian. As part of the Phillips’s Intersections series, the project is on view through January 12, 2020.

In this two-part series, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenović discusses Cuba Va! with the artists. Read Part I about the portraits.

Marco Castillo (left) in front of Comodato and Dagoberto Rodríguez (right) in front of Retráctil at The Phillips Collection. Photos: Carl Maynard

VESELA SRETENOVIĆ: When and how did you start to do film?

LOS CARPINTEROS: We started doing film not that long ago. Our first experience was Conga Irreverisble in 2013, an urban intervention in which performers sing and dance the Cuban traditional dance called conga but in reverse. In conga—which goes back to the festivities of black slaves—musicians lead the way while people march behind, following the rhythm of the drums. By reversing the direction and performing the dance backwards, conga became anti-conga, alluding to the concept of “(ir)reversibility” of truth practiced by many Cuban politicians and the press. We documented this performance by using a camera, and instead of making direct political commentary, we made a video that incited great fun for both the participants and the public, emphasizing joy and happiness over ideological critique.

But even before Conga, we talked a lot about doing a movie. We lived in Los Angeles for a while and learned a lot about movies. We also knew what we didn’t want—we didn’t want to do experimental movies or sound-based movies. Instead, we wanted to do a traditional linear narrative; we wanted to tell a history for people to see and to be seen. We were missing something in our art—a type of narrative that includes a human presence.

VS: But I think that all of your work has a human presence, implied through its absence. Your films are, in my opinion, not that much different than your other works—in fact, I think they are the cinematic version of them. They embody the same kind of poetic yet poignant nostalgia, but unfold differently through moving images so that the storytelling is more direct.

Stills from Comodato (2018). Courtesy of the artists.

LC: That’s good to know. These two films are for us travels in time. Retráctil is based on a true event from the early 1970s, the so-called “Padilla Affair,” when the book of poems by Heberto Padilla, Fuera del juego (Out of the Game) from 1968, was awarded the yearly poetry prize, only to be censored because of its so-called counterrevolutionary content. Consequently, Padilla was forced to renounce his views and publicly apologize. This was a very dramatic event; Padilla was our “Tropical Galileo,” punished in front of the public; his “apology” marked a turning or “irreversible” point in Cuban modern history—a firm disbelief in the ideals of the revolution. We edited down his four-hour speech to 17 minutes by taking some of the most important statements and hired a non-professional actor to play it. In this film, Padilla is presented as an anti-hero having to denounce everything he stood for.

The other film, Comodato, functions as the result of Retráctil—we, Cubans, didn’t become equal despite a large sacrifice. If Retráctil stands as the beginning of the end of the revolutionary ideals, Comodato bears witness to the disillusionment in so-called egalitarianism. For Comodato, we filmed at least 17 houses that detect the deep inequality, hypocrisy, and paradox of our society. It’s a silent, peopleless documentary, a monument to inequality. Cinematically speaking, both videos are rooted in a tradition of Cuban film from the 1950s and 1960s that pays respect to film noir, neorealism, and in particular to the 1964 film Soy Cuba which was done in a single shot and directed by Russian filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov. Retráctil is black and white and was taken as a continuous shot by a single camera; Comodato has a faded-color quality and long takes. This was intentional and pays homage to previous cinematic traditions.

Stills from Retráctil (2018). Courtesy of the artists.

VS: How do you see the portraits in relation to the films?

LC: Essentially, they are all monuments. Retráctil is a monument to a loss of freedom of expression, Comodato is a monument to inequality, and the portraits are monuments to anti-heroes. They are all reflections of our life in Cuba, embodying living contradictions we have experienced. On the other hand, by showing this body of work in Washington, DC—the city of national memorials—we wanted to grapple further with the notion of the monument and emphasize its dual or reversible character: grandeur, power, heroism, but also weakness, failure, and anti-heroism.

Read Part I of the interview about the LED portraits in the exhibition.

Read the full interview in the Los Carpinteros: Cuba Va! catalogue, available in museum shop.