In recent months a rustic cabin has appeared on Bush Street, three stories aloft on the side of the Hotel des Arts and balanced on nothing — or so it seems. An equally rustic-looking sign at sidewalk level explains that this is Manifest Destiny! 2011, a public artwork by artists Jenny Chapman and Mark A. Reigelman II commissioned by Southern Exposure. But for many who stroll or drive down Bush Street, it is a fleeting, anonymous apparition evoking the Western frontier in the midst of urban life. Only after a moment of pure wonder at its discovery do possible meanings reveal themselves, sometimes long after the work has disappeared from view.
At first sight the work is jarring and unexpected, appearing to float weightlessly between other buildings and cantilevered over Le Central restaurant. It is life-scaled, though it appears diminutive from the street, and is constructed from 100-year-old reclaimed barn wood. It certainly looks real, even if its placement is improbable. Solar panels on the far side of the roof power the gentle light that glows in the evenings, illuminating the interior through gauzy curtains; this is an innovation that surely would have been appreciated on the frontier.
C. Mark Reigelman, 2012.
The “space” the work occupies is, in fact, among the few remaining unclaimed spaces in the city — this exemplifies the notion of Manifest Destiny itself, the 19th century American expansionist view that charted the contours of the United States. As a result, the work invokes a complicated history, simultaneously progressive and oppressive for most anyone who wasn’t an Anglo-Saxon male. The vicinity of Chinatown heightens, so to speak, an awareness of this legacy. The absence of a door signals the impossibility of entry, but so too does the absence of stairs — indicating the largely unyielding limitations for many in a time of limitless possibility for the select few beneficiaries of American prosperity.
At the same time that it draws on the past, the work provides uncanny metaphors about the present. Parallel insinuations about the recent economic collapse and bottomed-out real estate market come to mind. Rustic cabins don’t look all that different from blighted homes, do they? As the work continues to weather the elements over the next few seasons, this comparison may be increasingly valid. Whereas viewers might have once quipped about a comparable studio selling for millions, one might now wince and wonder if it’s a foreclosure.
C. Mark Reigelman, 2012.
Artists Jenny Chapman and Mark A. Reigelman II are the recipients of the Graue Award, a prize administered by arts organization Southern Exposure to commission new, temporary public art projects. Southern Exposure has long supported the experimental work of emerging artists in the public realm and encourages work that intervenes with the socio-political landscape. Last summer, Allison Smith’s The Cries of San Francisco 2011 involved seventy artists in the production of a street market, with participants hawking their ‘conceptual’ wares on Mint Plaza. Elaborate productions such as these require the nimble negotiation of bureaucratic permissions: Manifest Destiny! involved consulting with architects and structural engineers, as well as the City of San Francisco’s Planning and Building Departments. Beyond the red tape, finding building owners to partner with in the placement of the work also proved challenging; one can only begin to imagine the search. Kudos to these local businesses for supporting this unconventional art project; may their participation serve as a model for others. And yet the purely coincidental wordplay involved in the ultimate location of the project — at the Hotel des Arts, above Le Central — couldn’t have been more appropriate for a contemporary public artwork. Perhaps too its a metaphor for the working ethos of Southern Exposure, a small non-profit organization that prioritizes art in the center of daily life, even when the space for it must be carved out of thin air.
Manifest Destiny! is on view at 447 Bush Street through October 31, 2012. For more information, visit soex.org.