With fresh crises rocking the world daily, economic and political instability would seem to be our new growth industries. Against that backdrop, Temporary Structures, an exhibit focused on architecture, is well timed. It examines not only physical structures, but also the social, political, economic and aesthetic ideals those structures embody.
Structures, of course, needn’t be physical; they can be ideologies or systems of commerce, like capitalism. Defined this way, Temporary Structures is an ambitious undertaking that promises a lot, delivers most of what it promises, and with notable shortcomings, hints at the contours of what an exhibition like this might assume were it to be recreated at a larger scale.
Roughly half the show is devoted to its own highly mutable environs: the Walter and McBean Galleries. It’s a landmark institution whose art-historic significance is palpable from the moment you walk though its doors.
Yet for all the great art that’s passed through them, the space often feels like Plato’s Cave – an irony compounded by the fact that outside, on a wrap-around terrace, there’s a stunning panoramic view of San Francisco Bay.
Curators Glen Helfand and Cydney M. Payton apparently agree. They’ve opened the skylights of the 1969 Brutalist structure; exposed an oft-darkened upstairs picture window; knocked out part of a wall to reveal Paul Kos’ medieval-styled crest (Gargoyle VIII, 1985); and installed a “wall” of 2 x 4s on the bottom floor on which hang altered blueprints from Jonathan Runcio showing proposed additions to the gallery that were nixed.
David Ireland’s concrete pour, Smithsonian Falls Descending a Staircase for P.K. (1987), is recalled in a photo mounted over those same stairs, while below them, a light projection from Amy M. Ho casts such interventions in less intrusive terms, indicating where those steps might lead if they were re-routed.
Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt brighten the room’s normally glum entrance with a table set against a brightly painted backdrop that extends out of the gallery and around a corner. The design, the artists say, is supposed to evoke the futuristic style of Oscar Niemeyer, the architect of Brasilia, but to my eye, it more closely resembles the repetitive, computer-based work of Amy Ellingson. Which is no quibble. The combined effect of these alterations feels like a makeover, and it’s a good one.
The remainder of the show cuts closer to the show’s more serious intentions, but with mixed results. Ben Peterson’s epic architectural drawing, Ship’s Wake, posits a makeshift community built of shipping containers perched on a cruise ship with walls built of lost luggage; hanging from the ship are rowboats, repurposed as planters, ready to be cut loose in case of emergency. Opposite the ship, stands a tower surrounded by scaffolding. In it, are “apartments” exposed to the elements, each outfitted with hip furnishings. Home and community, once symbols of stability, are, in this pre-apocalyptic view, provisional, movable and modular. Mungo Thomson’s Yoga Brick Wall (black), a structure built from the lightweight foam supports used in yoga, deals with the same idea. The wall looks solid and weighs little – but an errant nudge could send the whole thing tumbling.
Christian Nagler and Azin Seraj’s trio of videos, collectively titled Market Fitness, examine fragile economic structures. Set to a soundtrack of electronic dance beats, they show Nagler exercising before farms, factories, for-sale homes and the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange building (now a gym). While they purport, half seriously, to equate physical fitness with financial health, what they really do is shake a fist at market forces we can’t control, echoing, in style, intent and tone, the videos of Richard T. Walker who, in a notable series last year at YBCA, poetically raged against the machine by singing to the open desert.
Michael Robinson’s film, Victory Over the Sun and David Gissen’s installation of a scale model of the Vendome Column in Paris speak to the temporal nature of architecture. Robinson’s 16mm film looks at monuments from various world’s fairs. The film, most of which is shot from behind overgrown shrubs and trees, shows the trajectory of disrepair and abandon such buildings typically follow. Abstract sequences, intercut, bear no obvious relation to the subject, but they’re fun. As for how civic monuments become political footballs, the history of Vendome Column is a good case study. Erected in 1810 as a tribute to Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, it was toppled by the Communards in 1871 and resurrected in 1874 after the revolt was suppressed. Before the column was torn down, the Communards laid a mound of hay, dirt and detritus below it to soften the impact. Gissen, a professor of architectural history at CCA, wants, believe it or not, to restore the mound, and he’s circulated a petition to get it done. The effort has the ring of a well-crafted hoax.
Stranger still are Pawel Althamer’s videos, Common Task and Brazil. Plot? Four guys dressed in gold space suits walk around Poland. They freak out an elderly drunk in a Warsaw grocery, then travel to Brasilia where they mix it up with cult bent on contacting aliens. Had the artist looked closely at Niemeyer’s architecture and its social and political history, the results would have been enlightening in the context of Temporary Structures. What we see looks like a bad Saturday Night Live skit.
Roy McMakin’s installation of an empty bedframe bisected by a mirror feels misplaced, too, but it’s a great Surrealist object that radiates psychosexual intrigue.
Still, hits outnumber misses, and best of all, the Walter and McBean Galleries have, at least for now, been lifted out of darkness. With the change in leadership at SFAI, a brightened fiscal picture, and a curatorial hire pending, perhaps the changes we see here won’t be temporary at all; they’ll be permanent and structural.
–DAVID M. ROTH
“Temporary Structures” @ San Francisco Art Institute, Walter and McBean Galleries, through December 15, 2012.