Sanford Biggers’ Chimeras series brings together the bodies of well-known Greco-Roman sculptures with over-sized heads formed by African masks. The mashups create a complex and tonally ambiguous effect – incongruous certainly, but not necessarily comic. Biggers has spoken about his interest in artwork that has an ‘unfamiliar’ tone; arguing that ‘a great artwork can make you cringe’, and this cue offers one way into the work. Largely theorised as a comic phenomenon, cringe describes an involuntary response of embarrassment or awkwardness – with the discomfort provoked by the mishandling of social protocols in The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm as key examples. There’s a similar disruption to social convention at work in Biggers’ composites, which fuse two idioms normally kept well apart.
The juxtaposition puts the very different gravitas of each typology at risk, making both vulnerable, and thus prompting embarrassment or awkwardness in the viewer. The notion of vicarious embarrassment about sculpture might seem perverse but becomes more reasonable once we consider the nature of the encounter with a ‘compact object in real space shared by the spectator’, an object, moreover, which leads ‘the same kind of independent existence in space as a human body’ (Jan Patočka cited in Novak p.52). Patrick Whorle argues that in cringe, awkwardness is mobilised in order to create ‘altered forms of spectatorship’, and here it is the instinctive feeling of reverence towards classical sculpture that is disrupted. Whorle is talking specifically about the documentary form, arguing that cringe provokes ‘a critical self-assessment of documentary’s taken-for-granted criteria – truth and authenticity’ (p.1), but we can also apply the insight to the ‘taken-for-granted criteria’ of classical sculpture – truth and beauty, perhaps. While both the Greco-Roman and the African idioms have gravitas, the former has a more comprehensive grip on our collective imaginary, something Biggers notes when he describes our kneejerk association of prestige with marble, and ‘all of the weight and gravity and sacredness that we project’ onto marble sculpture. ‘African sculpture… is equally as important—if not more’ but without that indelible link with the venerated material (Laster). If truth and beauty are the ‘taken-for-granted criteria’ of the classical idiom, what are the criteria for African masks? Mystery, otherness? Qualities of the margin, rather than the universalism asserted by the Greco-Roman idiom. By sculpting the masks (normally wooden, or perhaps bronze) in marble, Biggers makes a claim for that same universalism.
And while the masks may be the most prominent aspect of the sculptures, their stylised idiom made more pronounced both in size and in the contrast to the ‘naturalism’ of the Greco-Roman bodies, the juxtaposition also reveals the artificiality of that naturalism; the addition of the masks (and thus the removal of the original face) making them seem more exuberantly baroque, and emphasising the body language as a very particular, stylised vocabulary (the modest, fluttering hand of the Greek Slave for instance, and the mannered nonchalance of the Farnese Hercules).
Initially the idioms seem almost to cancel each other out, and the subsequent oscillation between the two doesn’t settle into anything stable, with first one uppermost and one kind of gravitas winning out – then the other. The size of the mask is a significant factor in the tussle for dominance; in Oracle, the large Chimera sculpture installed at the Rockefeller Center, for example, the mask dwarfs the seated body. But it’s not pure contrast, or purely arbitrary, or indeed purely alienating, and Biggers is also trying to find some communality or synthesis. Commenting on The Ascendant, whose ‘body is after Hiram Powers’s Greek Slave (1843), itself a copy of Praxiteles’s Aphrodite of Knidos, with the head of a Benin Queen Mother, symbolically known as “Mother of Africa,”’ he says, ‘I’m mixing and matching – in this case, historical ideals of feminine beauty.’ And in the case of Caniggula, whose body is from the Farnese Hercules ‘with a mask that fuses Punu and Chokwe Pwo African cultures’ Biggers describes a character who is ‘ribald, macho – he’s got a cocky attitude’ (Garden Castro).
These are prickly, newly alive sculptures, and our responses are complex and uncertain. In this moment when monuments are under scrutiny, as we examine the ways in which public art preserves and celebrates falsified, one-sided notions of beauty and value, the cringe of the Chimeras is invaluable.
Biggers, Sanford, MIT Talk, 16 September 2021
Garden Castro, Jan, ‘Dubious Origins: A Conversation with Sanford Biggers’, Sculpture Magazine, 4 May 2021, https://sculpturemagazine.art/dubious-origins-a-conversation-with-sanford-biggers/
Laster, Paul, ‘History Remixed: An Interview with Sanford Biggers’, Art & Object, 12 January 2021, https://www.artandobject.com/news/history-remixed-interview-sanford-biggers
Novák, Josef, ‘The Art of Sculpture: Jan Patočka’s Concept of Incarnate Being’, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 50:3 (2019) 171-188, DOI:10.1080/00071773.2018.1530156
Wöhrle, Patrick, ‘Two Shades of Cringe: Problems in Attributing Painful Laughter.’ Humanities 10: 99 (2021) https://doi.org/10.3390/h10030099