On a warm Sunday in San Francisco, as the city celebrated Pride weekend, longtime Mission artist Yolanda M. López put her recent Ellis Act eviction on display. The event at Red Poppy Art House, titled Accessories to an Eviction, was a conceptual performance-slash-garage sale organized to streamline the artist’s possessions in anticipation of vacating her home of forty years. It was the second such sale of things she liked and had cared for over the years. Everything was whole, with no chips or stray threads. It was also an immersive, participatory conceptual art performance organized to complicate distinctions between the personal and the political.
As I wrote recently in an article for the San Francisco Chronicle, López was a leading feminist and pioneer of the Chicana art movement in the '60s and '70s. Though never a commercial success, her work is included in the collections of several major institutions, including the de Young, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Oakland Museum of California. She was also an adjunct professor for decades at many esteemed Bay Area colleges, including UC Berkeley and Stanford. Now at 71, she subsists on social security, the sum of which is too little to qualify for low-income housing. As she prepares to leave her home in the Mission, she is making art out of her eviction.
The concept for López’s eviction garage sales is inspired by friend and mentor artist Martha Rosler’s 1973 Monumental Garage Sale. Items for sale included a cache of vintage neckties, jewelry, and pocketbooks, among other accessories. Each item was tagged with a price. Each was also labeled with a second tag that read: “ACCESSORIES To An Eviction” The Mission, 2014, Yolanda M. Lopez.
In the buyer’s hands, each object was transformed and the buyer was free to decide its fate. Was this a practical object? Was this a found artwork? In either case, the answer is the same. Yes, these were practical objects. And yes, these were found artworks and documents of the event.
As a kind of performance, it was a gut wrenching display. I was reminded of the public vulnerability of Yoko Ono’s 1964 Cut Piece. Captured in grainy video, the artist knelt on a stage while audience members were invited to cut away her best clothes. In Cut Piece, much is left to the viewer’s discretion and every gesture is freighted with meaning, including how much is cut away, and from where. The participant’s demeanor was indicative of something too: compassion, empathy, entitlement, or the lack thereof.
López’s Accessories To An Eviction shared in these perceptions. It was sad for anyone who knew the motivation for the event. At the same time, as a garage sale, it was a vintage treasure trove. Haggling was overheard between strangers over a ceramic cat, but the price was firm and the price was met. I bought a pair of pigment smudged fingerless gloves that López wore in the studio ($1), and an exquisite pair of antique ¾ elbow length, pale blue flannel gloves with pearl trim ($3), among other items.
Also on view was Home/Studio: Eviction Scene Investigation 2014, a diagrammatic installation produced by López in collaboration with Mission-based writer, artist, and activist Adriana Camarena. It presents López’s eviction documents, among other legal notices and places intimate details on public display. The artists have said it is meant to be educational and to allow the public to consider where responsibility lies. But it is overt in placing blame: one element is titled “murder board,” after crime scene investigations, and speaks to changes in the city in terms of criminal activity even as these changes are being executed under the letter of law. Seen in contrast with the eviction garage sale, Home/Studio: Eviction Scene Investigation is less nuanced. With the diagram, the viewer is afforded distance; with the eviction garage sale, the viewer is a participant.
The larger questions raised around responsibility in the work are complicated. Responses to López’s eviction, and to many of the no-fault evictions taking place in the city, seem to fall into one of two categories. There are those who are empathetic to the situation that someone could be made homeless with so little recourse, and there are those who abide by the legality of the situation.
Of course there is a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law -- and this gap has allowed some to consider different solutions. According to a recent article in The Examiner, one landlord recently backed off plans to evict several long term Section-8 tenants in favor of assisting them in their transition. He has offered to find real estate agents for them and to pay their security deposits. The law doesn’t require this solution, but perhaps it should, especially in cases where people have been responsible long-term tenants and the property owner stands to make considerable profit in the transition.
My personal response to this event was complex. I wanted to participate -- and to consider the questions and feelings that arose from participation. I was also aware of buying someone’s treasures for very little money, and this made me think about the different meanings that arise from López’s deliberate title.
Though I see my purchases as functional objects -- I will wear the fingerless gloves myself and I will give away the others -- I do see their labels differently. I will keep the labels as minute records of an art experience. Each is a small act of resistance, not necessarily to change, but to powerlessness in the face of change.
Yolanda M. López: Accessories to an Eviction was a one-day event on June 29, 2014; Home/Studio: Eviction Scene Investigation is on view at Red Poppy Art House through early July; prior to the artist’s eviction on July 12 it will be wheat pasted on the city’s streets. For more information, visit redpoppyarthouse.org.