by Renny Pritikin
The City of San Francisco has imminent plans to remodel Portsmouth Square in Chinatown, including the demolition of the pedestrian bridge to the Chinese Culture Center, host to Present Tense: Perilous Playground, an exhibition of 14 international artist projects. Organized by C&G Artpartment, a formerly Hong Kong-based art space run by the artists Clara Cheung and Gum Cheng, the exhibition questions such change from the point of view of the residents of other reconceived neighborhoods in California, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong.
In the US, these so-called redevelopment efforts have a long and egregious history, beginning after World War II when cities across the country began to show their age. In 1948, the California legislature addressed this decay in San Francisco by establishing a redevelopment agency (SFRA). With its substantial funding and power, it notoriously changed the face of the city over the next half-century. Though the SFRA is long gone, residents near Portsmouth Square, known as Chinatown’s “living room,” see the latest plans as a continuation of community needs being ignored while developers are enriched in the name of dubious progress. Residents of the Square, which provides open space to socialize safely and comfortably in this infamously overcrowded area, were relieved to find their wishes were eventually incorporated into the plan as it developed.
Most egregious of the SFRA projects was the destruction of the African-American neighborhood along Fillmore Street, north and south of Geary, in the 1960s – part of a long history of violent destruction of thriving Black towns and communities from Tulsa to Chicago to Atlanta. The SFRA used legal machinations instead of riotous violence to the same effect in San Francisco. Ting Ying Han draws parallels between that history and the current plight of San Francisco Chinatown’s, a neglected area of the city. One small print, Seeing is Forgetting, depicts an archival image of a Fillmore district Victorian home reduced to a three-story pile of lumber shaded in blue: a blueprint, in other words, of destruction. Han also displays two large prints of bilingual street signs printed in Chinese cooking sauces, a potent metaphor for how local language and culture are now slated for eradication.
Anson Mak’s documentary film project, From the Factory (2013-2015), explores changes in the Kwun Tong neighborhood in Hong Kong. Once a thriving light industrial area, it became a popular and affordable area for artists after manufacturing moved to the Chinese mainland around the turn of the century. Mak interviewed 21 of those artists. In 2023 he returned only to discover that gentrification made it impossible for most of the artists to remain; only two out of the original group were still around. Artists and galleries have long been implicated in this cycle of neighborhood decay, renewal and commercialization in a familiar American pattern that has been reproduced overseas.
I’ve always enjoyed artists who find ways of turning cities into playgrounds. Kuang-Yu Tsui, from Taiwan, shot a pair of humorous videos in Liverpool and London that humanize urban life with a heavy dose of disarming silliness. The Shortcut to the Systematic Life: City Spirits (2005) documents the artist engaged in several such pranks: walking up to a line of cars at a stoplight, waving a race car flag before the signal turned green; rolling a bowling ball toward a knot of pigeons, scattering them like pins; practicing his golf stroke on median strips and other small grassy areas; and repelling down mountains of landfill and piles of junkyard cars. A second video, Liverpool Top 9 (2006), depicts more assertive intervention involving signs. One on a hillside cobbled with round stones encourages passersby to use them for foot massages, while a second indicates a row of roadside metal posts available to train dogs in slalom-like obedience exercises.
Lucky Rabbit Pictures’ eleven-minute video animation, Bridge to Everywhere (2023), extends the popular online joke Birds Aren’t Real, a parody of a conspiracy theory claiming birds are government surveillance agents. The Kearny Street pedestrian bridge mentioned earlier has been called the bridge to nowhere because it is mostly used by skateboarders. Tsang combines these two ideas into a science-fiction story about an immortal and intelligent pigeon who observes and manipulates human history to support urban immigrants suffering from isolation and poverty.
South Ho’s grid of photographs, Defense and Resistance (2013), shows a hollow column of rubber bricks being built on Victoria Harbour in view of Hong Kong’s skyline; after he completed it, the artist climbed inside to hide. In the gallery, the bricks form a floor on which viewers must walk; nearby, black-and-white documentary pictures of bricks on the street after public riots jar the otherwise lighthearted images with a dash of painful realism. Elsewhere, San Francisco conceptual sculptor Weston Teruya made faux rubble based on the soon-to-be- demolished bridge. Wang Chau Tin Yuen muddies the distinction between art and documentation with a re-creation of a farmer’s market stall situated on usurped land in Hong Kong.
As cities inevitably change, Perilous Playground asks who gains and who loses from these changes? To those who’ve witnessed them, the results, whether in San Francisco, London, New York, Hong Kong or Seoul, are strikingly and depressingly similar.
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Present Tense: Perilous Playground @ Chinese Culture Center through August 10, 2024.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal. His memoir, At Third and Mission: A Life Among Artists, will be published this fall.