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Arts

Susan Soccoccia | 11/11/2009, 6:36 a.m.

A leafless tree stands in the Memorial Transept of Harvard’s Memorial Hall, erected a decade after the Civil War to honor Harvard men who died fighting for the Union cause. 

In contrast to the gothic structure’s gleaming marble corridor, ornate black walnut carvings and soaring, ruby-hued stained glass windows, the tree is a stark gray presence. Yet it exerts quiet power.

Its bare branches frame the white marble plaques that bear the names of the fallen men and where they died—places like Gettysburg, Lookout Mountain, and Bull Run.

The tree, and the temporary installation of which it is part, “Constellation (Stranger Fruit),” interrupts passersby. Usually, few pause to reflect on the historic significance of the transept, which functions as the lobby into Sanders Theater. The structure draws viewers into attentive contemplation of the tablets and the native silence of the memorial.

“The bare tree suits the quiet here, and the time of year we’re beginning now,” says Sanford Biggers, the artist who created the temporary installation, on view until Dec. 2. Wearing a navy blue sweater and jeans, Biggers exudes calm energy, perhaps reflecting his years of meditation, a practice he learned in Japan.

Biggers is the 2009 Marshall S. Cogan Artist in Residence through the Public Art Program at the Office for the Arts at Harvard, which commissioned his installation.

The fabricated tree, composed of steel, wire mesh and epoxy, introduces a natural form into the complex geometry of the hall, evoking the cycle of life associated with the change of seasons.

“It’s my third tree,” says Biggers, whose installations mine diverse cultural associations. In the East, a tree may suggest the life-giving Bodhi tree under which the Buddha finds enlightenment. Here, a tree can be laden with America’s history of lynching.

In an earlier installation, “Blossom” (2007), a player piano impaled by a tree trunk performs a dirge-like rendering of the American jazz standard “Strange Fruit.” Made famous by Billie Holiday, the Abel Meeropol ballad was inspired by the 1930 lynching of two black men. 

Biggers’ installation in the Memorial Transept evokes the history of Boston as a destination on the Underground Railroad. His installation suggests that its conductors were multi-media artists in their own right, using coded messages stitched in quilts, verses in African-American spirituals and stellar navigation to help slaves plan their escape. “Harriet Tubman was an astronaut,” said Biggers with a smile.

Biggers has draped a traditional American quilt among the branches of the tree. Based on the constellation Taurus, its Seven Stars pattern of diamond-shaped designs echoes the geometric inlays on the walls and floors of the transept.

The tree stands on a platform of interlocking panels, each sparkling with starry lights that suggest the routes followed by escaping slaves as they journeyed north to freedom.

Raised in Los Angeles, Biggers, 39, draws his cultural references from the Pacific Rim as much as from urban America.  He spent three years in Japan, where he learned the language and studied Soto Zen.

As a visual artist and musician, Biggers explores convergences among cultures, events, religions and eras. His wry, evocative installations often combine sculpture, video, music and live performance. He has had solo exhibitions at museums and galleries throughout the U.S. and overseas, including the Tate Modern in London, the Whitney Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago, where he received an MFA. In January, Biggers will begin an appointment as assistant professor at the Columbia University School of the Arts.