San Francisco is an iconic city, a place of legend, the favoured setting of many a mid-century American murder mystery, and, like all compelling places, a site crammed with contradictions.
Physically beautiful—well deserving of its nickname “the Paris of the United States”—it is also extremely fragile. Nobody knows when the next “big one” earthquake will hit and grind the city to rubble again. Enormously rich, a city built on gold rushes, land speculation and booming intra-Pacific trade, San Francisco is also home to one of North America’s largest homeless populations.
Culturally independent since its birth, especially as the first U.S. city to embrace the nation’s growing Chinese and Asian population and its contributions to American culture, the city nevertheless suffers from a chronic inferiority complex when compared to glitzy Los Angeles (much as Chicago does when matched with New York City).
German artist Felix Schramm skilfully exploits these troublesome contradictions with a mangy but boisterous, scrappy (literally) yet imposing site-specific installation housed (and just barely) within the pristine halls of San Francisco’s palatial Museum of Modern Art.
Obviously, Schramm arrived at the museum and went for a short walk, because within three blocks of the bubbling parks, smart shops and green, sun-dappled pedestrian breezeways that surround the gallery, some of the city’s worst urban blight is on unadorned display. A long stretch of boarded-up retail spaces and greasy eateries, and destitute people who depend on these venues for temporary shelter and sustenance, hovers near the SFMOMA like a sad cloud.
One wonders if the people living out of rusted shopping carts are even aware that a major cultural institution, a place of warmth and comfort and pretty colours, waits next door.
Schramm’s installation speaks to this disgraceful disparity with all the subtlety of jackhammer. Breaking through the walls of his assigned gallery space with giant, menacing chunks of found sheetrock, plywood, bent sheet metal and scabby old roofing shingles, Schramm turns the gallery inside out, showing us all the rough scaffolding and hard labour that supports its shiny white walls.
It’s hard not to read this aggressive disruption of a vaunted art hall as a j’accuse, a denouncing of the class trauma that allows—indeed facilitates—the city’s saddening, now-naturalized conflation of splendour and ruin, finery and decay.
Perversely, however, the simultaneous brilliance and failure of Schramm’s installation is that, as far as I could tell, most of the locals didn’t get it.
I suspect they responded to Schramm’s junk-amid-jewels juxtaposition as if each interruption was meant only to work as an academic deconstruction of a known space, a brainy game—or, as the SFMOMA’s public relations materials put it, “a poetic balance between chaos and order.” All of which, of course, is true. Or half true. Perhaps they thought he was referencing the Great Quake of 1906?
Being a wide-eyed outsider, however, someone who actually walked over and around the abandoned-hoardings-and-fridge-box dwellers to get to the gallery, I heard Schramm’s political message loud and clear.
Whether or not Schramm could have been more direct or overt in his messaging is a point of (very long) debate, the never-ending one about so-called political art and its strategies—but when a work so obviously reflects the unpleasant reality of the broken environment in which it is staged, why not, well, go for broke?