San Francisco

The Good, The Bad, and The Temporary

Paul Kos, Gargoyle VIII, 1985-2012. Wall installation, performance. Courtesy of San Francisco Art Institute.

“The temporary” might seem like a neutral concept, but in reality it is ideologically loaded. Depending on the context (and on the social class of the speaker), temporary work and temporary dwelling might mean either insecurity and precarity–or flexibility and dynamism. How are some of San Francisco’s city officials planning to lure young innovators and entrepreneurs, for instance? By allowing developers to build 220-square foot “micro-apartments” for rent, good only for temporary living, unfit for raising a family in. It is assumed that young “creatives” will not mind–they are supposed to be “dynamic and adaptable” by definition, after all.

It is useful to remember that the capitalism we have now, which touts creativity and flexibility as the be-all-end-all, has appropriated its talking points from 1960s anti-capitalism, anti-establishment critique (as the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello point out in their wonderful book, The New Spirit of Capitalism). The tension between monolithic ideologies, established hierarchies and traditions, on the one hand, and the liberating powers of fluidity and impermanence, on the other, was also what animated much of the adventurous art from that period and after. San Francisco Art Institute‘s newest exhibition, Temporary Structures (curated by Glen Helfand and Cydney M. Payton), continues this ongoing dialogue. It explores the concept of “the temporary” in relation to the built environment.

“Open the imaginary. Operate in illusion. Dislodge the immobile.” The architect Claude Parent wrote these words in 2001, but he might have easily had them in mind in 1970, when he transformed his house into an extravagant landscape of slopes. At that time, not only the house, but also the museum and the gallery were being reimagined as spaces for play. A vestige of that tradition at SFAI is Gargoyle VIII, a 1985 work by Paul Kos. It is a wall excision in the shape of a medieval stained-glass window, activated when the artist climbs it (this feat was performed at the opening). Another seminal Bay Area figure, David Ireland, sacrificed the functionality of the space for the sake of a poetic gesture, pouring concrete on the stairs that link the upper and lower galleries (this 1987 piece, Smithsonian Falls, Descending a Staircase for P.K., is presented only as a photograph). Younger artists, such as Amy M. Ho and Mungo Thomson, chose more ephemeral interventions, insisting on the validity of fleeting experiences.

Amy M. Ho, Up/Down, 2012. Video projection. Courtesy of San Francisco Art Instutute.

All those artists treat the gallery as a malleable space, not as a repository of heavyweight ideas destined for eternity. In general, the idea of “eternal values” does not seem appealing to the exhibition participants. Ray McMakin’s piece The bed I bought…¹, 2011, looks like a playful exorcism. The artist’s old bed, which may symbolize tradition and familial comfort, is transformed into an absurd object by having its frame bisected by a mirror. Michael Robinson’s insanely beautiful film Victory over the Sun, 2007, shows modernist structures built for 1960s world fairs, which have become monuments to those fairs’ ideology of internationalism. For that work the artist also appropriated morsels of “a VHS tape on self-hypnosis, laser tag video games, an obscure 1980s science fiction movie (Masters of the Universe, 1987), and text from Ayn Rand’s 1937 novella Anthem.” Most of those “ingredients” allude to “concepts of power and control” (also, the piece was named after a famous Russian avant-garde opera), but the nostalgic look of the film, as well as the humorous use of Masters of the Universe, makes visible our distance from the totalizing “futuristic” ideologies of the 20th century. The piece implies that even the most boisterous of them could not withstand the test of time. Or maybe they’re only dreaming…

David Gissen, The Mound of Vendôme, 2012. Wood, Xerox, Plexiglas, dirt. Courtesy of San Francisco Art Institute.

David Gissen’s brilliant project, The Mound of Vendôme, 2012, also takes up the theme of ideologies in flux. In 1871 the Vendôme Column in Paris, a symbol of Napoleonic imperialism, was destroyed by the Communards; the monument fell on a mound, build in order to protect the neighborhood from vibration. The column was later restored. Gessen proposes to restore the mound as well, so that it would serve as a monument to  urban care. It would also remind people that the ideology underpinning imperial might was (and is) not eternal.

All the aforementioned artists have one thing in common: they take what is considered static and settled (the art space, the ideological structures) and activate it, show it to be malleable and dynamic. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to call this tendency one of the most important ones in the art of the last fifty years. But let’s get back to what I said in the beginning of this text: the values that inform such art–the legitimacy of impermanence and flexibility–became part and parcel of the “new spirit of capitalism” in the age of networks. In other words, those values can be used to exploit people. What about the dark side of the concept of “the temporary”?

Ben Peterson, Ships Wake, 2011. Ink and graphite on paper. Courtesy of San Francisco Art Institute.

Some works in the show are clearly more paranoid than others. Ben Peterson’s awe-inspiring drawing Ships Wake, 2011, depicts a fantastic structure, part cruise liner, part airport, part resort. It is devoid of people and slightly unsettling, an abomination designed for a population that is doomed to being itinerant forever. Christian Nagler and Azin Seraj’s video Market Fitness, 2012, responds to the widespread anxiety about volatility in the financial markets, as well as the pressure to exercise and always look fit. What surprised me, though, was the lack of artworks about poverty, about a class of people whom global capitalism made “nomadic” and “dynamic” against their will. That class, after all, is probably the world’s largest builder of temporary structures. Not that I am demanding “slum porn,” but paying attention to that aspect of “the temporary” would have made the exhibition awesomely well-rounded, and allow it to pack a bigger emotional punch. Still, the show is subtle and intelligent, and is highly recommended for visit.

Temporary Structures runs at San Francisco Art Institute until December 15. Please check the event calendar for a schedule of special events, including film screenings, lectures by exhibiting artists, and a Guerrilla Café organized by Together We Can Defeat Capitalism.

¹The full title of Ray McMakin’s artwork is The bed I bought when I was a teenager that was later put in the creepy (maybe haunted) room in my parents’ basement where I had to sleep until Mike refused.