Not so Strange as “Stranger Fruit” by Natasha Cox
on Blossom by Sanford Biggers
The U.S. Mint Louisiana State Museum
Entitled Blossom, the Prospect.1 piece by Sanford Biggers was housed on the second floor landing of in The U.S. Mint Louisiana State Museum with no particular room or gallery to call its own: bathrooms to the right, elevators to the left. It stood at the crossroads of foot traffic, between the hallways and the entryways to other showrooms, seemingly an outcast, yet also somehow glorified in its solitude. Blossom, a piece of outlandish sculptural and musical presence, consisted of a baby-grand style player piano – a piano and all of the materials used in the crafting of a piano: plastic for the keys, polished wood for the smooth surfaces of the frame, the legs, and the lid, as well as tight ropes of metal cords stretched through the instrument’s belly.
As a whole, though, the piano was but a piece, a baseboard from which the truly culminant element was able to grow. And surely “grow” is the appropriate word to describe the sculpture of a mature, hearty tree “growing” up and through the piano, piercing the instrument, splintering the wood. The trunk of the tree (constructed with a steel frame and resin to form the meaty substance of the bark) shattered the piano’s inner organs, its soundboard and the frame for the bass and treble strings, and propped the lid askew against the trunk. But even after such a violent penetration and domination of nature, the piano still sang its clear and haunting melody – Biggers’ slowed down rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” which he named “Stranger Fruit” – and delicate, green silk leaves tipped the tree’s outstretched branches, spotlights fixed to the ceiling illuminating the earthy brown and green colors like a ray of sunshine pushing through a thick canopy of forest leaves.
But to relate Blossom to the intrusion of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans, as suggested by the museum tour guide, seems a tenuous interpretation based solely on the piece’s current location. Should it be moved to a different city, even one as geographically and culturally near as Lafayette or Baton Rouge, the people might believe it to represent growth, destruction, fate, hope, love, or any other abstraction that can be tacked to a piece of art. How many years went by before the country forgot about Hurricane Camille? But because the piece is here, in this city, on this day, only three years after the devastation of Katrina, people automatically label it with the same label attached to everything else around here – nature moving to reclaim the world of man. Whether such a label was intended by the artist or not is irrelevant. The insult resides in the automatic assumption of said label.
A native of New Orleans (and therefore a Katrina evacuee/refugee), my first thought did not land on Katrina, and I was taken aback by the tour guide’s suggestion. Instead, something more magical and whimsical occurred to me – something not of the world of man but a world of an entirely different kind – of mysticism and imagination. Blossom is a piece configured with a more magical than logical disposition, far better suited for a Tolkienian forest than a white-walled art-space. And should it find itself more at home in fantasy rather than disaster, more fitted to such a forest, it would become no longer a stolid sculpture but a living, thriving organism. The woods where all of the trees seem to breathe, to possess a life and consciousness of their own simply by the immensity of their great trunks and the intricate twisting of their branches – twisting like a briar patch and just as thick, to block all sun and keep the forest floor in a constant, green-tinted shadow, and the thin leaves, deep green in the light and almost golden at night, that brush against each other and stir up a low murmuring whisper in the air.
This vision first struck me as that of a fairy tale, somewhere between Peter Pan and “Snow White,” Alice in Wonderland and The Lord of the Rings – specifically that of The Lord of the Rings, as the name Tolkien has already been mentioned. So much of Tolkien’s work revolves around more arboreal elements. His creatures range from ents (ancient walking and talking trees) to elves (a race that lives amongst the trees). His elves sneak and sleep in the treetops with their green cloaks and long bows poised to defend their forest, speaking a language of their own – a soft, lyrical language – and in the blue-black of night the wind masks their whispers, a tune wafting lightly through the forest, barely reaching the elves’ keen ears. Somewhere through all the trees, through miles and miles of uninhabited woods, stands Blossom, the piano bench tipped carelessly over at the tree’s roots. But instead of appearing neglected and abandoned, as anything else left to rot in the wilderness, the piano shines, its lacquer smooth and polished as if just on a stage, glinting with the moonlight that barely makes it through the ceiling of leaves. Fantasy, just a stroke of the unreal in a very real world.
And Blossom’s piano did shine, even in the white-walled hallway.
Is it a strange argument, that Blossom, just as any other piece of art, doesn’t necessarily represent Katrina? Strange down here, at any rate, along the Gulf where the only thought seems to be of the storm, for good reasons certainly. Much of the population is still shell-shocked from the traumatic event. But the question is, how long is too long? As an artist I would be offended if so much baggage of so many people fell at my feet unrequested and, as I thought, unprovoked. Alas, I do not know Biggers or his motives for provocation. I only know that the world of art has to mean more than only Hurricane Katrina. . .