by Maria Porges
Many Bay Area residents are unaware that a multitude of military bases once dotted the region— and not that long ago, either. Surprisingly little remains of this past: some old ships, a lot of concrete, and a number of buildings converted to cheerful uses like art centers, museums or office parks. Along the coast, though, both in the Marin Headlands and in San Francisco, there are still concrete bunkers, built to defend San Francisco from attacks that never materialized.
Fortifications located in Fort Winfield Scott, within San Francisco’s Presidio (a former Army base that is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area), serve as a reminder of those times, and as the location for For-Site Foundation’s current exhibition, Home Land Security. Staging a show in a national park is a remarkable feat; the foundation, launched in 2003 by SF gallerist Cheryl Haines, has done it several times in the Presidio and other parts of the GGNRA: at Fort Point, at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, and at Alcatraz Island, where, in 2014, the Chinese dissident artist, Ai Wei Wei created a memorable installation, @ Large.
For Home Land Security, For-Site has brought together video, installation, sculpture, painting and photography by 18 artists and collectives from around the world. As with many themed group shows, some works were commissioned and others were chosen for their relevance. The result is a wildly ambitious, largely compelling and somewhat uneven experience.
The show is, of course, named for the US government agency created in the wake of 9/11 “to insure a homeland that is safe, secure and resilient against terrorism.” The exhibition's theme, as summarized on For-Site’s website, is the “increasing complexity of national security, including the physical and psychological borders we create, protect, and cross in its name.” The works presented reflect on the current heavy militarization of borders, the hazards of migration (particularly for conflict refugees) and the escalation of war culture as it affects both combatants and those dispossessed by conflict.
Several appear in a bare-bones concrete building that once served as headquarters for the fort’s part of the Nike missile program, the national anti-aircraft security system America devised during the Cold War. (It was dismantled in the late 1960s after Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles rendered it obsolete.) A volunteer directs visitors to start at a doorway that leads to one of Michele Pred’s now-familiar arrangements of sharp objects confiscated by TSA employees: scissors, corkscrews and pocket knives, mounded in a ring on the floor. It serves as a colorful, yet faintly disturbing counterpoint to South African artist Tirtzah Bassel’s duct tape mural depicting lines of travelers waiting to pass through security checks. The standing figures, which wrap around three walls, also evoke prisoners, disaster victims or anyone else forced to wait in line for help.
Bill Viola’s Martyrs sustains the feeling of being subject to authoritarian punishment. Four video loops, each projected onto the walls of a small, darkened chamber, depict torture with an implied outcome of death by earth, air, fire or water. The endurance and transcendence of pain are, of course, nondenominational; but since it was St Paul’s Cathedral in London that originally commissioned these works, the associations summoned are biblical: for instance, the Old Testament figures Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego. Consigned to a furnace for refusing to bow to a golden image, they walked away unscathed. Those depicted by Viola don’t appear to be as lucky. While they don’t die, as the title would imply, they certainly suffer. A woman hung by her hands is buffeted violently by wind; a man buried in soil is unburied as the video runs in reverse. It is all very spectacular, unsettling, and — as is sometimes the case with Viola’s work — manipulative.
Lotus (2014), Shiva Ahmadi’s video animation, offers a more subtle experience. Born in Tehran and now living in California, Ahmadi draws on traditional Persian and Indian art to reflect on the psychic landscape of conflict. In the video, a painted scene depicting a Middle Eastern village gradually shifts from poetic, contemplative beauty to bloody conflict, but without explicit violence. Still, the transformation of faith into fanaticism is clearly implied by crouching figures gazing into swirling spheres that morph into bombs and grenades, tossed from hand to hand.
In 2014, South African photographer Alexia Webster set up her first Refugee Street Studio at the Bulengo Internally Displaced Persons Camp in the DR Congo. Residents posed for portraits against a cloth background and received a photo, replacing a small part of what they’d lost, having fled with little more than the clothes they wore. Several are printed at the imposing size of official state portraits and are installed in two adjoining rooms. Resting provisionally against walls, as opposed to being formally hung, they reiterate the homeless status of those pictured. They look directly into the camera, dignified and charismatic, making it hard to look away.
Several additional projects are installed on three nearby bunkers and in the fort’s former chapel. These concrete caves — framed by spectacular views of the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay — serve as appropriate backgrounds for Mandana Mogghadam’s video of suitcases drifting on water and Yin Xiuzhen’s “weapons”made of second-hand clothing. Both recall wrecked ships, makeshift camps and the drifts of discarded garments that resulted from the flood of refugees attempting to reach Europe through perilous water crossings. Luz Maria Sanchez’s sound installation 2487 — a sonorous recitation of names —memorializes all those who died crossing the US- Mexico border between 1993 and 2006. Sound is also a crucial part of Krzysztof Wodiczko’s video installation, Flame (2009). It consists of a large flame that appears to flicker in response to the words or breath of veterans telling gut-wrenching stories of death and loss.
Other pieces offer mesmerizing spectacles: Do Ho Suh’s beautiful coat of “armor,” made of fake dog tags; Shahpour Puhyan’s fantastic missile-like metal sculptures; and Al Farrow’s models of buildings, meticulously constructed of spent ammunition. In the end, however, it’s the works that focus on the human dimension of security that most successfully fulfill the exhibition’s premise. All are worth the visit. Collectively, they remind us of the shifting meaning of borders in the present political climate.
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Home Land Security @ The Presidio, Fort Winfield Scott, through December 18, 2016.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of nearly 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.