A sign in front of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, now closed for a three-year expansion, reads "We've temporarily moved...everywhere." Though the building has gone dark, the programming has ramped up and spread out -- collaborative projects are being presented in a variety of conventional and unconventional partnering venues, including, at present, the Contemporary Jewish Museum and Crissy Field. The 2012 SECA Art Awards, debuting to the public this week, push the boundaries of the museum well beyond what one might imagine, including a eucalyptus grove in the Presidio, the alcoves of the Neptune Society Columbarium, the open air plaza of downtown Oakland, and the expansive public platform of the Internet. In the absence of brick and mortar galleries, SFMOMA has considered the whole Bay Area as a possible exhibition site -- and the experiments have yielded exciting new public platforms. The results challenge our expectations of how and where museums present art and will undeniably expand SFMOMA's understanding of its community and audience.
The SECA Award -- bestowed by the SFMOMA's Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art -- is a key point of professional recognition among Bay Area artists. It typically includes funds for a new commission and an exhibition in the museum. With this year's award, artists were invited to propose site-specific projects in venues of their own choosing. All four of the awardees seized this opportunity to simultaneously expand their practices and explore new terrain.
David Wilson, Frog Woman Rock (installation view) from Arrivals, 2013; commissioned by SFMOMA, courtesy the artist; c. David Wilson; photo: Ian Reeves
Oakland-based David Wilson decided to pursue his long considered notion of a "forest gallery" and created a massive landscape drawing for presentation in the midst of the Presidio, near an overlook with breathtaking views of the San Francisco National Cemetery, the Golden Gate Bridge and the surrounding Bay. This is the first in a series of six site-specific projects, titled Arrivals, organized around self-directed walking tours, live musical performances, communal gatherings, hidden audio recordings, and landscape drawings presented in outdoor locations around San Francisco. Each week a new map will be distributed from an "informational trailhead" installed at the now closed SFMOMA entrance; an enclosed bulletin board will also present materials collected by the artist over the course of the project.
Josh Faught, BE BOLD For What You Stand For, BE CAREFUL For What You Fall For (installation view), 2013; commissioned by SFMOMA, courtesy the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York; c. Josh Faught; photo: Ian Reeves
The extraordinary Neptune Society Columbarium houses San Francisco-based Josh Faught's three hand-woven sculptures in various alcoves of its 1897 neo-classical building. Originally part of a cemetery operated by the Odd Fellows, a global altruistic fraternal organization dating back to 17th-century Britain, the Columbarium fell into neglect from 1934 through 1979. It was restored and has since been maintained by caretaker Emmitt Wilson, once referred to as "the man who keeps the dead alive" in the now defunct Argus Newspaper. As the restoration and reopening of the Columbarium coincided with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and '90s, these non-denominational resting grounds reflect the far reaching effects of the epidemic -- and formulate a unique time capsule, as it were, of a wide-reaching community. The ashes of artist Martin Wong, for example, who passed away from an AIDS-related illness in 1999, are interred at the Columbarium, alongside those of his parents.
Discovery of Faught's installations at the Columbarium is as much about exploration of the thousands of personalized niches and, if you are lucky, a conversation with Emmitt Wilson, as it is about the aesthetic experience of Faught's sculptures. Each sculpture references the many ways the dead are memorialized by the living and the personal touches that distinguish each final resting place, including photographs, silk flowers, seasonal decorations, mementos, knickknacks and humorous tchotchkes. One niche houses a small decorative urn, etched with the words "Ashes of Difficult Clients," while several others display local pride in the Giants and, elsewhere, cookie jars abound. Unlike headstones, which signify death, the numerous niches in the Columbarium poignantly illustrate lives lived, an aspect of the site that resonates strongly with Faught's larger investigations into emotional support systems and the varied histories of craft, queer community and activism.
View of Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, downtown Oakland, where the sound of five brass bells in Zarouhie Abdalian's Occasional Music (2013) are heard once daily; commissioned by SFMOMA, courtesy the artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco; c Zarouhie Abdalian; photo: Ian Reeves
Oakland-based Zarouhie Abdalian's sound installation in downtown Oakland is best observed in Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, or Oscar Grant Plaza, depending on whom you ask, in front of City Hall. At varying times (see schedule), a series of bells will ring simultaneously from various city rooftops. The bells themselves are positioned out of sight -- at the media preview Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was overheard talking on her cell phone and saying, "Yes, I hear bells, but I don't see any bells." The sound evokes old world city squares and plazas, harkening communities to take notice of the passage of time. The work, titled Occasional Music, anchors the listener in place and encourages an awareness of our surroundings. Its placement in the city center vividly animated by Occupy Oakland, as well as more recent demonstrations resulting from the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict, evokes Oakland's uncompromising history of community organizing. Historically, bells ring to bring us together or to summon collective cognition to a task. They may signify that we should come together or disperse, but they always ask us to be present. In the case of Abdalian's Occasional Music, the listener might rotate in space, in an attempt to locate the bells and, in doing so, make eye contact with a stranger or notice the uncommon, oft-overlooked beauty and challenges of the city.
Jonn Herschend, Stories from the Evacuation (production still), 2013; commissioned by SFMOMA, courtesy the artist and Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco; c. John Herschend
Stories from the Evacuation, Jonn Herschend's short film from the SECA Art Award, can be viewed online from anywhere, echoing the dispersed framework of the museum during its renovation. Shot on-site during the final days of relocating more than 100 staff and more than 25,000 artworks, the film explores the complexities of a massive move at an organizational level, and how this might coincide with the messier personal aspects of transition. (In one sequence of the film, SFMOMA Installation Manager Brandon Larson delightedly reveals that commonplace Saran Wrap is the key to any successful move. The next frame shows an artwork neatly and completely encased in the stuff on a shipping palette, ready to be heaved out. If only everything in life could be managed so neatly.) On par with his earlier work, Herschend's film blends fact and fiction in a documentary-style narrative, revealing "back of the house" stories about the move through interviews with museum staff. These stories, interwoven with fictionalized drama, blur our perceptions of reality and fantasy, seriousness and humor -- all while offering exquisitely framed images of the museum's architecture, collection and stewards.
The 2012 SECA Art Awards provide a new context for understanding the museum and its function in, and as part of, a larger community. There is a humanizing quality to displacement -- who among us can't identify with it? -- and relocation. In tearing down the walls, the museum is experimenting with previously unexplored channels, sites and partnerships to determine new alternatives in place making. This new mode of thinking wouldn't satisfy the concerns of every artwork in the museum's collection, to be sure, but it does expand perceptions about what kind of art belongs in a museum -- and how we might think about the museum of the future, in and outside the box.