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Janet Biggs with Nancy Princenthal for the Brooklyn Rail

novembre 15, 2017

©Janet Biggs

Breathtakingly beautiful, like all of Janet Biggs’s work, A Step on the Sun (2012) is also—again characteristically—a haunting account of several kinds of mortal danger. This wordless, five-screen video projection was mostly shot at a sulfur mine inside an active volcano in East Java, where unsupervised miners labor in unspeakable conditions. As always, Biggs was the principle cameraperson, and assumed some of the same risks her subjects did. We see a lone miner ascend the forbiddingly steep, rocky interior of the crater, bearing more than his body weight in sulfur crystals. Clouds of gas provide a poisonous, intoxicating yellow glow. Bookending the roughly ten-minute loop is footage taken by a camera attached to a weather balloon, along with documentation of the meteorological station the balloon serves: a note of buoyancy, however fragile. Music, a significant element throughout Biggs’s work, consists here of a cello composition written and played by William Martina.

Biggs’s videos, which she began exhibiting in the early 1990s, have lately taken her to the Taklamakan Desert in China; the Afar Triangle of East Africa; and the Norwegian Arctic. Most recently she has been a resident at a simulation site designed to prepare for manned travel to Mars. Her sensibility evokes Jules Verne and Joseph Conrad, and also such conflict-zone photojournalists as Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, with this difference: Biggs’s geography is skewed not just to remote and dangerous areas, but to instability more generally, to places where sand whips up, lakes boil and oceans freeze. She likes going underground, and also diving deep into the mechanisms of consciousness and its vulnerabilities, as in individuals suffering from autism or Alzheimer’s. In short, Biggs’s subject is anything that could be called shaky ground.

Janet Biggs and Nancy Princenthal met at the Neuberger on October 4 for a public conversation about A Step on the Sun. The following is an edited version of that discussion.

Nancy Princenthal (Rail): One place where we could start is where you started—how did you get to Ijen? How do you make your first contacts, how do you establish relationships, how do you choose the sites where you’re going to be doing your work?

Janet Biggs: Sure. I think I first learned that there was an active volcano where people were mining sulfur in East Java, Indonesia from the pages of National Geographic. I was intrigued and then obsessed. I continued researching Kawah Ijen and came across Michael Glawogger’s film Workingman’s Death (2002)—which is an extraordinary documentary film that presents different segments of unimaginable labor, the mining at Kawah Ijen being one of the segments. I became absolutely committed to going there, but needed to figure out how that would happen. How that happened was a process. Eventually, I found someone online who self-promoted as a guide in the Ijen plateau region. So, I hired this man, Aan, as my guide and translator—having no real idea what that actually meant— and somehow convinced my husband, who occasionally backs me up with a second camera, to join me. We got on a plane. After twenty-six hours, we got off the plane. At the airport I saw someone that I vaguely recognized from a JPEG on Facebook as our guide, got in a van with him, and drove for the next twelve hours—on a road that had no defining traffic lines. Donkeys, ox carts, motorcycles, cars, vans, and big trucks were all going as fast as they possibly could. We arrived at the Kawah Ijen plateau, which is this beautiful, verdant landscape, but still had to figure out how to get inside the volcano, how to meet miners, and how to convince the miners to allow us to film them. I’ve learned that no matter how much research and preparation goes into a project, as soon my feet hit the ground I realize how little I know or understand about the place where I’m standing. It is impossible to be prepared. One of the first things that shocked me was: it’s a really tall volcano, kind of like an isosceles triangle, which means a forty-five-degree angle of ascent. When you finally get to the rim and look down into the volcano there is a brilliant turquoise lake at the base of the caldera. It is stunningly beautiful. The lake is the largest sulfuric acid lake in the world. There are sulfur dioxide fumes billowing up out of it, and the miners move like dancers under the weight of the sulfur they are carrying.

©Janet Biggs


Rail: We talked earlier about the surprise of the mining operation being self-regulated—there’s not a mining company, per se. Miners instead organize themselves, to the extent that there is organization.

Biggs: Which is very minimal, but there is some organization.

Rail: Was that something you knew going in, or was that one of those things that became a point of interest when you got there?

Biggs: It wasn’t something I knew going in, but something I needed to grasp quickly to be able to navigate in that area. I knew that the volcano itself was owned by the Ministry of Forestry. I also knew that there was no overarching organization or structure that oversaw the miners. I learned that Indonesia is a culture of consensus. It’s a norm that you have to adhere to and I was grateful that Aan skillfully guided me through this process. We met with the military police, we met with the Ministry of Forestry, we also met with students from the University in Surabaya. All these meetings gave me a fuller understanding of the local dynamics, the history of mining in Ijen, and why there is no mechanization in place for extracting the sulfur. I also learned that a culture of consensus means sitting in rooms for hours, having long discussions about why and how access should be granted. Often, these long conversations ultimately ended in a consensus on how much bribery I would pay. I learned the necessity of buying as many loose cigarettes, as much chocolate, and getting as many small bills as possible every morning. This was how I made my way through roadblocks, paying officials, and the miners too. You know, gaining access to places and people around the world is a fascinating art unto itself.

To read the rest of the interview, please click here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Janet Biggs permalink
    novembre 15, 2017 12:06

    I love that you posted this!!! Thank you!!! xoxoxo

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