FOR-SITE’s Presidio Habitats is a unique year-long site-based exhibition that invited 25 artists and designers to propose custom-designed habitats for animals that lived or once lived in San Francisco’s Presidio. The national park being an urban oasis with strange interweaving of natural and social histories (people have lived and worked on the grounds even after its designation as a national park in 1944), to my mind the show has two ostensible and very interesting audiences: animals who used to call the Presidio home, and us humans, who may or may not have been a factor in their leaving but are certainly playing a role in ongoing restoration efforts.
Eleven of the proposed pieces were actually realized and are now scattered throughout the park (although all 25 proposals are on display in the Exhibition Pavilion). The broad conceptual task of the artists being to propose custom-designed habitats for animals that live or once lived in the park, the results vary a great deal in execution and theme. Which is great fun, for us humans at least.
Many cater directly to the needs of the animal in question. Pieces built for the Western Screech Owl, the Mexican Free-Tailed Bat, the Gray Fox and others are designed to provide shelter, protection, and comfort for fauna, but inhabited or not, are beautiful and unexpected works of art in their own right.
Some, like “Patience” by Jensen Architects (below), ask visitors to put themselves in the mindset of the animal—in this case the often motionless Great Blue Heron, which does still exist in the park—becoming “part of the theater of the site.” Movable yellow chairs allow people to sit and take in minute details of a landscape they might usually jog right past.
Others, like Nathan Lynch’s “Where is the Hare?”, play on our human tendency to mythologize and personify our furry friends. His hand-constructed start and finish banners invite the missing black-tailed jackrabbit (actually, it turns out, a fabled hare), to return to the park and defend his honor in a rematch race against age-old nemesis, the tortoise.
We’ve written in the past about art that exploits the space it inhabits, pieces that involve casual spectators, and the invisible things that shape our relationship to art, especially in a museum environment. Presidio Habitats is refreshing and fun in the way its focus on place eliminates the trappings and social codes of the white-wall gallery, putting the art out in the world to be touched and, if we’re lucky, inhabited.
Presidio Habitats runs through May 11, 2011. For more information and a site map, visit the FOR-SITE Foundation’s website.