Monday, February 22, 2010

Placing Burning Man In Hayes Valley

Exhibition Title: Ecstasy by Karen Cusdolito and Dan Das Mann
Patricia’s Green Hayes Street and Octavia Street San Francisco
February 7 - June 18, 2010

As a student at SFAI, I attend a number of art shows on a regular basis. Most of the time - I’m embarrassed to say - it’s obligatory and not an earnest and sought out desire to see what is being exhibited. The reason for this has everything to do with the amount of work and lack of enough time in each day. Considering my motivation for attending exhibitions recently, I decided to use this assignment as an opportunity to take myself out of the museum or gallery setting and into the public space. While looking at the reviews of my colleagues last week, I noticed that all of the events or exhibitions discussed were shows in the space of a gallery/museum or in one case a garage. I began to seek out works of art that exist in open public space as installations. My research led me to the work of native San Franciscan Mark Baugh-Sasaki's, specifically his sculpture Adaptations, that I thought was installed at the intersection of Octavia and Hayes. When I went to view the piece, I learned it had been moved to a new home at 580 Hayes at Laguna, a space in the process of becoming an Art Park. In its place was an interesting sculpture that I must admit is something I would not have experienced otherwise.

Patricia’s Green, the name of the park at Octavia and Hayes in Hayes Valley, is now home to the massive piece Ecstasy, by Karen Cusdolito and Dan Das Mann. Both works are part of a goal set by the Hayes Valley Art Coalition to sponsor art installations and find artists willing to donate their time and creative energy toward the creation of public art.

Karen Cusdolito and Dan Das Mann Ecstacy (Photo taken by Hasan El-Tayyab)

Ecstasy’s history includes an appearance at the Burning Man Festival in 2008. Ironically, the first piece ever installed at Patricia’s Green was another art installation from Burning Man, David Best’s pagoda temple made from plywood and sponsored by the Black Rock Arts Foundation.

About the work…it’s enormous! I mean enormous!!! It’s 30’ tall and made from recycled and found material. Sculpted in the shape of a woman, its sinuous path from top to bottom is as captivating as its monumental proportions. The stance of the figure mimics a fluidity, contrasted by the materials used for its construction that are rigid and fixed. Ecstasy dwarfs its surroundings much like Godzilla in film, but, instead of provoking fear, the figure is not threatening at all and has a sentimental quality that creates an emotional response in the viewer. For me, I recognized this emotion as sadness. The linked chains that hang from the top of the piece like hair could be interpreted as an expression of exhilaration. However, I would describe it more like an expression of the evacuation of life that is being pulled out of this body. I can’t help but walk around it and feel as if something has been lost; an epic battle has taken place where there is no victor.

Karen Cusdolito and Dan Das Mann Ecstacy (Photo taken by Michael Strickland)

I can only imagine what it may have looked like at the Burning Man Festival in Black Rock Desert, Nevada in 2008. At Burning Man, it was assembled along with eight other similar metal figures that surrounded a 99-foot tall wooden oil derrick with gestures of prostration, worship, and exaltation. The collected piece titled Crude Awakening represented various types of religious worshipers and included a grandiose firework and fire display. From the information posted on the Black Rock Arts Festival website, I learned that this particular piece is “the largest burn to date gathered around in homage of the symbol of the oil derrick.” I can only imagine what the experience of seeing Crude Awakening at Burning Man in all its fire and glory was like.

Thinking about the work brought to mind the essay Can Man Survive by Robert Smithson. The writing critiques an exhibition, titled Can Man Survive, in the Museum of Natural History in 1969. The exhibition was built out of leftover technology from a failed company. He describes the viewer’s experience as,

“…being conditioned for some unknown millennium. A condition of fear inclining toward religiosity is evolved through boundless agitation, uncontrolled representations of man’s inventions. The storm spirits are with us again in the shapes of grinding motors. Magic and demonic dread is instilled in the viewer. Out of the failures of Western religion a weird faith is being born. The irrational, the unaccountable is the essence of the exhibition and its belief in ecology and the internal agents of pollution.”

He goes on to explain that the exhibit on a whole is meant to make people want to restore nature’s harmony but only succeeds at presenting a “convulsive yearning, a super-serious rapture before the environmental crisis.”

This seems particularly apropos for this piece. In the case of Ecstasy or the Crude Awakening installation, the yearning for rapture is apparent but the threat of an environmental crisis is well on its way. Perhaps the entire Burning Man Festival is an example of this need for something to believe in and what way to represent the gods of today then with discarded material that we can never dispose of completely.

Karen Cusdolito and Dan Das Mann Ecstacy (Photo taken by Kim Silva)

Though I recognize the power of the piece, I have to admit, it is not something I subscribe to in terms of contemporary art in a public space. Perhaps, it is the placement of an enormous figure plopped in the middle of an affluent area surrounded by high-end boutiques and expensive cafes and restaurants that make the piece not work. It loses the power it likely has when displayed in the desert setting. I find it somewhat insincere to display a piece that was built for such an “outsider or fringe” festival and place it in a city park surrounded by concrete, asphalt and traffic signals. I don’t think that is what the artists had intended when they built the piece. On its own, in a city that strives to reject mega supermarkets and huge malls, it is clear it does not belong. Its message is lost. It becomes something to look at for its size and not its quality. I can’t help but wonder what the Hayes Valley Art Coalition thinks this piece offers to the public? Is it a chance to package up what has made Burning Man unique and bring it to the city in order to attract tourism and inevitably more money to the community or does the Art Coalition actually want to bring art to the public? If the answer is the latter, somebody needs to tell them that the public needs something more than a physical representation of humanities waste and destruction; the work doesn’t have to be cool. In a public space, a greater challenge might be to offer something that addresses the community it becomes a part of once it is installed. The goal should be to present artwork that inspires creativity and builds community. The constant feed of destruction and waste propagated in media makes the role of public art vital. Public art works cannot be reiterations of what we already know because if they do they become irrelevant. Public installations need to present new ideas, new talent and new energy in order to stimulate conversation and create interest. I’m afraid the installation of Ecstasy in Hayes Valley misses the mark completely.


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