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Until Today: Spectres for the International Hotel

"Stage (My Way)", 2010
Courtesy of the artist.

Jerome Reyes' Until Today: Spectres for the International Hotel is a group of site-responsive works and a series of events that simultaneously offer a historical reading of the International Hotel's past, activate a community space for current tenants, and present a promising solo debut by a young visual artist. Working on the site of the original I-Hotel (now senior housing), Reyes and curator Julio César Morales transformed the ground-floor-level community center into a gallery space, which functions in both capacities throughout the run of the exhibition. Until Today includes a corner stage, a site-specific sculpture, three framed architectural renderings, an original video, and ephemera from the hotel's archive. The project's genuine dedication to the history of the site and its contemporary inhabitants situates it in the realm of social practice. However, the exhibition distinguishes itself from much community-based art through its commitment to visual autonomy within the realm of contemporary art making.

Reyes conducted significant research on the I-Hotel's freighted history in order to accurately represent the political symbolism of the building in the struggle against gentrification. In the 1960s, the I-Hotel, a low-income residential hotel in San Francisco's Manilatown, was slated for demolition by the city as a result of urban renewal efforts. The primarily Filipino American elderly residents, together with local activists, opposed the destruction. A decades-long struggle between the latter group and city officials ensued. In 1977, the residents were evicted, and in 1981, the building was demolished. The community activists never stopped fighting, however, and in 2005, a new building designated for senior citizen housing was constructed.

Through interviews with past tenants and activists, the artist also discovered that the I-Hotel had once housed a nightclub called the hungry i and Mabuhay Gardens, the premiere venue for punk rock in the '70s and '80s in San Francisco. The typography associated with punk rock posters and flyers is a strong influence in Reyes' installation, which otherwise eschews the messy aesthetic of the punk scene. Across the front and side windows of the building, Reyes has affixed bold orange block letters approximately two feet tall that spell out a quotation from I-Hotel activist Alan Robles: "they lived, as it were, in two worlds -- in a world they left behind, and in a dream before their eyes." The text unites the artist's dualistic approach to the subject matter: interpreting the past and looking to the future.

Inside the building, the conceptual centerpiece of the exhibition is a black platform with a standing microphone and speakers. The unassuming dark corner stage serves three purposes: it refers back to Mabuhay Gardens, it suggests the outspoken speech of the I-Hotel activists, and it offers a setting for current programming. While the platform may initially read as merely practical, the stage is actually a recurring motif in contemporary art, presented as sculpture by artists such as Banks Violette and Martin Kersels, linking visual art, music, and performance.


"Stage (My Way)," 2010, Courtesy of the Artist.

Slightly to the left of the center of the room, a burgundy carpet delineates an eight-by-eight-foot square, and a matching deep red fedora perched on a small unremarkable wood table sits in the corner. Imbued with symbolism, the piece shows an acute attention to historical detail that repeats itself throughout the exhibition. Reyes brushed hundreds of feathers with dust from the original I-Hotel bricks to form the carpet, re-created a simple unfinished table based on descriptions from previous tenants, and mirrored the constrictive dimensions of the '60s hotel rooms. A bit too literal in its translation of history into visual iconography, the work nevertheless succeeds in tying the exhibition together. It stands close to the center of the room, and the cast hat alone on the table evokes a sense of loss.

Three ethereal architectural drawings on the opposite wall are also marked more by absence than presence. Employing unconventional materials and referencing photographs from the I-Hotel archive, the drawings imagine faded hallways devoid of inhabitants in a style reminiscent of hand-colored eighteenth-century engravings. Pulling the viewer back into the '70s, a small black folding table with a pile of white buttons with slogans in black block letters sits nearby. Mimicking posters and flyers, the rectangular buttons connect the building's punk rock and activist pasts. An ominous repetitive sound of a street switchblade methodically slicing through a cantaloupe fills the room. The rhythmic, unrelenting noise emanates from a four-minute-and twenty-six-second video projected onto a low white platform on the floor, and references an anecdote from a high-tension moment in the eviction struggle.

The history of the building is extremely present in all of the work, but the back section of the gallery emphasizes the connection to the I-Hotel community. Located on the literal and metaphorical ramp between the tenants' rooms and the community space, Reyes has compiled a chaotic archive of the I-Hotel's struggle-flyers, city documents, posters, and letters are pinned to the wall in an intentionally haphazard style that reflects the fervor of the time. While the artist's distinct authorship is maintained throughout the majority of the exhibition, this section allows for a looser engagement with a broader constituency.

In her controversial 2006 Artforum article, "The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents," Claire Bishop heralds a type of socially engaged art that conflates the aesthetic and the social and the political. She argues that socially engaged art is too often measured by ethical criteria, rather than aesthetic judgments. Jerome Reyes' project succeeds by both terms of measurement: a community space and a gallery exist harmoniously, a political statement becomes a visually powerful sculpture, and a video can be both a loaded historical reference and a compelling autonomous work. Until Today serves not only as a means of exposing a significant struggle in the city's history, but also introduces a substantial body of work by an exciting local artist.

Until Today: Spectres for the International Hotel is on view at the International Hotel, in San Francisco, through December 4, 2010. For more information visit ihotelproject.com.

This article was originally published by Art Practical, an online magazine providing comprehensive analysis of Bay Area visual arts events and exhibitions.

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