University of Wisconsin: High tech, new perspective inform scrutiny of museum works

Renowned contemporary artist Sanford Biggers has launched an innovative collaboration with the Chazen Museum of Art focused on creating a response to an historic work of art in the Chazen’s permanent collection that has come under renewed scrutiny in recent years.

Biggers, a New York-based multi-disciplinary artist, uses narrative, perspective, and history to speak to current social, political, and economic happenings while also examining the con

texts in which they arose. Biggers’ public art project “Oracle” recently took over the entire campus of Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Biggers first came to the Chazen in 2019 for the exhibition of his “BAM!” series. During a visit to Madison, he encountered “Emancipation Group,” an 1873 sculpture by Thomas Ball depicting Abraham Lincoln and an emancipated enslaved person. “Emancipation Group” is one of several smaller versions of the monumental Freedmen’s Memorial in Washington DC. Another version of the monument, in Boston, was recently removed from view amid concerns that it perpetuates harmful prejudices and obscures the role of Black Americans in shaping America’s freedoms.

“It came to light that the university had one of the Thomas Ball ‘Lincoln sculptures’ and our eyes sort of just got big with the potential of what we can do with that because it’s one of those works that in small circles, we’ve talked about for years,” says Biggers. “Here was an opportunity. What if we came here and scanned that piece and made a response piece to it?”

That idea has now blossomed into what will be more than a year-long project led by Biggers and the MASK Consortium, whose mission is to develop and promote a more complete understanding of human history and culture through the digital preservation of art and other cultural artifacts via 3D, 360-degree, virtual reality capture. The project will culminate with an exhibition in spring 2023.

“The result will certainly be artistic objects,” says Amy Gilman, director of the Chazen. “It will also be a website and a documentary and curriculum and collaborations across the university.”

Over the last several years the Chazen has developed a reputation for activating innovative new approaches to its collection, exhibition programming and outreach. One of the key elements of this approach is to partner with contemporary artists to better illuminate and understand, in new context, historical works in its collection and to address issues of equity and justice. This project will be the most significant realization of this approach to date.

“We’re in a moment when Confederate monuments are getting torn down and put in storage or taken down or vandalized and I don’t necessarily have the answer for what is supposed to happen with all those monuments,” Biggers says. “But through this project, I want to work with the university and the faculty and with MASK Consortium to find other options and ways of dealing with that problematic history – problematic objects – so that we don’t forget the past but learn to grow from it.”

During the week of July 12, Biggers, MASK Consortium and Chazen staff worked to research and scan the Ball sculpture and about two dozen other objects in the Chazen collection and to plan other elements of the project. With terrabytes of 3-D data, MASK and Biggers returned to their studios to work on the elements of the project: a website, a documentary, and the artwork itself.

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