One on One: Arnold J. Kemp on Sargent Johnson’s Forever Free

Our “One on One” series features artists, writers, poets, curators, and others, from around the country, responding to works in SFMOMA’s collection. You can follow the series here. Today I’m so pleased to welcome artist, educator, and writer Arnold J. Kemp.

Sargent Johnson, Forever Free, 1933; Collection SFMOMA

Untitled, 1933

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Here is the statue of queen whats-her-name
she feel fever roof
a real black mother of black equestrian vivacity.

Perhaps you are too.

yes yonder
you you you

But nothing
Blond Negress
but no

other bodies are coming to take her cup of money.

trust turn turn us

At five-foot-six and
elegance she is a head turning beauty.

unbroken unchanging unclouded
understanding understands until
up up up
upon upon us

walk walk walk wanna
want was water


In Search of Christopher Maclaine 14: The THE END Tour – A Work in Progress 12: CHRIS B

This is the fourteenth in a multipart series unofficially conjoined to the publication of Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, and the accompanying film series currently being presented by the Pacific Film Archive and San Francisco Cinematheque (in partnership with SFMOMA).

With my friend Brian Darr, proprietor of the great Bay Area cinephilia blog Hell on Frisco Bay, I’ve been scouting out the San Francisco locations used in Christopher Maclaine’s Masterpiece, THE END. What began as an attempt to identify and document what physically remains of the often mysterious places at which THE END was shot has evolved into a larger project to also analyze the film, and to identify all its many actors and extras, all of whom appear uncredited. To read the full version of these preliminary remarks, including info on how YOU can participate in this project, click here. For further information on Maclaine, check out the intro, which serves as this series’ hub. For the previous post of this Tour, click here.

NEW FEATURE: a YouTube of the CHRIS episode is viewable here.

NOTE: portions of Maclaine’s Voice-Over narration are transcribed in italicized sections. The images, for the most part, are stills documenting many (but by no means all) of THE END‘s shots. Those unfamiliar with this film will probably want to watch the video clip found above first, before making their way through the (hopefully enjoyable) notes and explication.

We now take up from the end of CHRIS A, which saw our current protagonist, played by THE END‘s auteur, Christopher Maclaine, about to ascend the front stoop of a mysterious house with seemingly malevolent intent.

36) CHRIS ascends the stoop. From the shot seen in image 30 (scroll down), our “Character” has been engaged in a crazy comedy of repeatedly approaching the house and beginning to walk up its front stairs, only to find himself returned to his starting point, then setting off anew. Chris’s performance style as “A Character” is that of a natural (and probably practiced) physical comedian, akin somewhat, in its cartoonishness, to something one might see in a film by Frank Tashlin, the great director of Hollywood comedies in the ’50s and ’60s. Like Maclaine’s, Tashlin’s work deeply registered the madness of their era. (Interestingly, Tashlin was also the author/illustrator of  several what might be called “mock children’s books” for adults, including THE WORLD THAT ISN’T (1951), in which a humanity grown wise to its collective madness explodes a nuclear bomb, dumps all its technology into the resulting crater, then creates a primitive Rousseauian utopia.)

37) “A Character’s” hands are pulled back from a gesture apparently inspired by a desire to cause mayhem. A version of this shot had been seen as part of the introductory montage.

38) Chris reaches into the frame to open the mysterious house’s front door. This gesture will be twice repeated in this dream-like sequence — as I mentioned towards the end of the last post, “the obsessive, flirting with psychosis, has an internal repertoire of such cherished images, which both console and spur him or her along the mad path.” The repetition of these images also further engages us in Maclaine’s Voice-Over request to his audience to “write this story” by attempting to figure out just “what is happening.”

Someone is in the house.


One on One: Jill Dawsey on Vik Muniz’s “Spiral Jetty after Robert Smithson”

Our “One on One” series features artists, writers, poets, curators, and others from around the country, responding to works in SFMOMA’s collection. You can follow the series here. Today our guest is Jill Dawsey, acting chief curator and curator of modern and contemporary art at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and former SFMOMA assistant curator of painting and sculpture (2003–6). Lovely to have you back, Jill.

Vik Muniz, Spiral Jetty after Robert Smithson, from the series Brooklyn, NY, 1997; Collection SFMOMA; © Vik Muniz/Licensed by VAGA, New York

I recall puzzling over Vik Muniz’s photograph Spiral Jetty after Robert Smithson, from the series Brooklyn, NY (1997) some years ago. At first glance, I took it to be a reproduction of one of Gianfranco Gorgoni’s photographs of the iconic earthwork. That is to say, I responded precisely as Muniz intends for his viewer to respond. Like so much of his work, the photograph presents an optical illusion, a sight gag: only its title suggests that it in fact depicts a miniature replica of Spiral Jetty built by the artist in his studio in Brooklyn, New York. Today, though, Muniz’s Spiral Jetty after Robert Smithson appears to me as the fake that it is. The scale and perspective seem implausible; the hilly landscape is not quite right.  The topographical accuracy of Muniz’s tabletop model is perhaps beside the point of Spiral Jetty after Robert Smithson; he is less interested in the physical drawings and sculptural works he creates than in their afterlives as photographic representations. For me, though, Spiral Jetty has ceased to exist only as an object of my projections and imaginings — as part of my image-repertoire, as Barthes might say — because I have been there eight times now. That’s not a world record or anything, but those visits have served to check the otherwise mythic notions about the Jetty I had in my head.

Two and half years ago, when I was trying to decide whether or not to move to Utah to take up a curatorial post at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, I made a list of pros and cons. “Spiral Jetty” was scribbled near the top of the pros column. I’m not sure exactly what I imagined it meant for the world’s most famous work of land art to serve as an argument for my relocation to the desert. Like most people, I knew the work primarily through photographic images. Spiral Jetty was a slide that flashed during a lecture in a dark classroom. It was a series of film stills reproduced in the 1971 issue of Artforum that I found in a bookstore. It was footage of Smithson running from a helicopter like Cary Grant. It was evidence that in Utah, there might be something like a there there.

It was also anecdote and rumor. For most of its life the Jetty had been submerged in the Great Salt Lake, a ghostly coil just visible beneath the water’s surface. Sometime in 2002 or 2003 it reemerged, and people I knew started making pilgrimages to see it. Based on the many pictures I had seen and stories I’d heard, I had specific expectations about what I might encounter at the Jetty when I got there, which I finally did, in 2008. I thought, for example, that I might need a pair of wading boots to walk out onto the spiral. I expected the Jetty to be sparkling white, encrusted with salt crystals. (My friend, the art and media historian Kris Paulsen, told me that Spiral Jetty struck her as surprisingly “feminine,” like “a big doily” floating in pink water.) Mostly, I thought Spiral Jetty would be monumental, as it appears in the aerial photographs.

Perhaps it was inevitable then, that I found it so underwhelming, at least initially. I first caught sight of the Jetty from the road: there it was, so unmistakable, so familiar — and yet, so small. Standing at the foot of it, I reassessed: it was not small exactly, but neither was it sublime. Why did this surprise me? Smithson prepares us for as much in his essay “The Spiral Jetty” (1972). “The scale of the Spiral Jetty tends to fluctuate depending on where the viewer happens to be,” he states plainly, going on to draw an analogy between a crack in the wall and the Grand Canyon, viewed according to scale, not size. But Smithson’s essay also employs words like “flickering,” “spinning,” and “gyrating,” to evoke his nearly hallucinatory experience of being at the site. Beneath an overcast sky I stood swatting tiny bugs away from my face and worried that I lack imagination.

The lake has now receded so far from the mainland that one can walk between the rings of the spiral, making a bee-line for the center if one so chooses. It was only by walking the full length of the Jetty, however, that I began to have a sense of the work’s true scale. Walking to the center takes some time. The jagged black basalt rocks (no longer coated in salt) require careful steps. Spiral Jetty became a clock and I was the second hand, ticking slowly toward the center (ticking in reverse, technically, as the jetty is oriented counter-clockwise). Once there, I surveyed the landscape, white and barren, and felt that I’d landed on the moon.

The sensation of interplanetary travel aside, Spiral Jetty is just two hours from Salt Lake City. Earthworks of the late 1960s and 1970s are generally characterized by their remoteness, their habitation of that vast otherness that is the desert. Even if the desert once represented a “no-place”¹ “off the grid,” artists of Smithson’s generation ultimately had to come to terms with the fact that “outside” and “otherness” was a fiction: the land was already shot through with modes of surveying and surveillance, bureaucratic management and state power. Remoteness is relative, like scale. Earthworks are remote from the vantage point of the art world.

Artist Edgar Arceneaux, in the helicopter to the Jetty. Photo: Jill Dawsey

These days, I have to admit that my relationship with the Jetty has become increasingly instrumental: I use Spiral Jetty to lure my art world friends to visit me in Utah. “It won’t be here forever,” I remind them. “You know, that whole entropy thing …” The strategy has worked pretty well, helping me to maintain some of the friendships I made back when I was working at SFMOMA. Assistant curator Apsara DiQuinzio came to visit last summer (she chronicled her trip on Open Space), and last fall I flew over the Jetty in a helicopter with Edgar Arceneaux, whose New Work exhibition I organized in 2005.

I don’t mean to suggest finally that visiting Spiral Jetty in person provides an experience more authentic or real than the other ways (Nonsites, photographs, stories) one encounters the work.  For if Muniz gets Spiral Jetty and its environs slightly wrong, that is also how he gets it right. Spiral Jetty after Robert Smithson is a copy that announces itself as a copy, a photograph twice removed from the famous work it references. The jetty’s inaccessibility — because of submersion or (perceived) remoteness — has created a space for mythmaking, facilitated by photography. Visiting Spiral Jetty reminds me that my experience of the work is determined not only by my own perceptions and internal realities, but by so many collective fantasies that precede me.

[1] The term is Julian Myers’s. See No-places: Earthworks and Urbanism Circa 1970, Doctoral dissertation, UC Berkeley, 2006.

Jill Dawsey is acting chief curator and curator of modern and contemporary art at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. She was previously assistant curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2003–6) and has taught curatorial practice at the California College of the Arts and art history at the University of Utah, San Francisco Art Institute, UC Irvine, and Stanford University, where she completed her doctorate in art history. Her writing has appeared in Afterall, Art Journal, Art Papers, and Dawsey is currently organizing “The Smithson Effect,” an exhibition exploring Robert Smithson’s influence on contemporary artists of the past two decades.

Where Art Is a Matter of Life and Death

Up in the Yukon they say that you can freeze to death in less than an hour. It’s especially true when temperatures drop to 48 degrees below zero — like they did last week. So if you don’t dress right or your car dies and you get stuck outside, things can get bad really fast. The cold does violence to the skin first, signaling your capillaries to narrow, constricting the blood flow as your body tries to maintain its core temperature. Then you might start to tremble and shiver, uncontrollably, as hypothermia sets in. That shaking is your body’s involuntary reaction as it expands and contracts muscles in a frantic attempt to generate heat. Along with that an increase in blood pressure starts to affect both your heart and brain functions. If exposed to the cold long enough, you’ll begin to suffer cell damage, and if your skin freezes — that’s called frostbite. By then you might have started to hallucinate, which is common in extreme weather. But as your heart races you are burning up carbohydrates by sweating. Of course as the sweat cools more heat is lost. But still, your heart tries to compensate for the rapid changes you are experiencing, but it can’t. The only hope is to find shelter fast because, depending on your age and health, the stress alone can cause it to go into arrhythmia, or it could fibrillate, triggering a heart attack, blood clot, or aneurysm. Of course all the above can lead to sudden death before you’re actually frozen. Oh, and then there is the breath vapor — which can freeze when inhaled or exhaled. At 32 degrees Fahrenheit it takes one hour for a cup of water to freeze, but at 48 degrees below zero death lurks around every corner, under every rock, up every tree, and behind every door. This is the environment in which the Inland Tlingit people make their art.

The Yukon is located between Canada’s British Columbia and Alaska. It is famous for its wondrous mountains, clear lakes, and its perfect view of the Aurora Borealis. Geographically it’s bigger than California, but it’s populated with only 34,000 people. Of that 34,000 about two-thirds live in the capital of Whitehorse. The other 10,000 are scattered around the rest of this unforgiving arctic territory. These small, ancient, and rugged communities are bound together by tradition and family. They are the descendants of nomads who came across the Bering Strait about 11,000 years ago when a land bridge existed there. The clans are known by their association with various animals — the raven, eagle, beaver, frog, etc. Likewise, these animals are featured prominently in their art.

But thousands of years of culture changed when Europeans sailed into the area 200 years ago. Seeking to expand trade routes and looking to exploit the animals for the lucrative fur market, Europeans came and never looked back. As in other places around the continent during the Westward Expansion — and later during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 — they brought disease, religion, and an odd form of economics: Capitalism. But what does that have to do with art, you might ask? Well to begin with, it was one of the first things Europeans tried to suppress. Taking the natural resources wasn’t enough in the age of Imperialism, they also wanted their minds. Natives were forced to convert to Christianity and were subjected to well-documented abuses by a long list of newcomers. These days the Tlingit language is among the most endangered in the world; there are just a few hundred speakers left. So with this in mind, it’s important to understand that the art that they make isn’t the kind taught in art schools. Rather, it is something completely different. It’s inherently linked to their way of life and to their history, a means to convey their beliefs and a way to keep a record of what happened to them.

Indeed in that isolated wilderness it’s no exaggeration to say that making art is a matter of life and death. After all, without your history, what are you? How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been? How will your children ever know their history, their legends, and their culture? In American kindergartens children are taught to color in pictures of Santa and of Christmas trees, of cartoons and other signifiers of Western culture. But for generations the Tlingit children were taught to be ashamed of their old ways, and only somewhat recently has that started to change.

When approaching the First Nations people, as they are known (referring to all of the indigenous people of Canada, including the Tlingit), the tendency among some whites has been to document, catalog, archive, and then ultimately collect objects and stories from their culture. But doing so has meant the imposition of a rational and very Western concept of transaction. It is alien to people who have historically shared their resources for survival and helped each other out as a way of life. While on the surface it might appear harmless, this anthropological impulse to preserve has resulted in the removal of many things that can never be replaced. Just imagine, for example, if someone came to your house and took all of your dead grandfather’s clothes, all the pictures of him, his car, his cane, his hat, his glasses, his books, his tools … everything … eventually all you’d have left is a memory of the man. But imagine that being done systematically and on a massive scale — across the entire continent. Knowing about the loss of so many pieces of native peoples’ history and symbols of identity, you can start to sense the urgency and necessity of the arts in their communities. Dance. Music. Sculpture. Poetry. Storytelling. Language. It is not just symbolic; it all has meaning.

But vivid descriptions and words are only stand-ins for the real thing and, as such, cannot replace authentic experience. For these reasons I thought it would be prudent to call someone who knows what it’s like to live there. I called up Doug Smarch Jr., an Inland Tlingit artist from Teslin, a small town near Whitehorse. He grew up there and eventually went to the San Francisco Art Institute and then later to UCLA. After traveling around the world he returned to where he was from, and now lives and works there.

Visitor Flickr Photo of the Week

top floor installation by Masami Kawazato

Masami Kawazato, a.k.a mamichan, made her own personal installation on the 5th floor turret bridge with her gray shoes and dress alongside the steel mesh of the bridge.

We choose the Flickr pictures of the week from anything tagged “SFMOMA”. You tag too!

Celebrating The Uncelebrated

John Koch, Interpenetrations at Right Window Gallery, San Francisco

John Koch’s solo debut, Interpenetrations at Right Window Gallery closed a little over a week ago, but it was such a joyous surprise of a show that I wanted to share it with those who may have missed it.  Consisting of a large high-contrast photograph blown up to fit the full frame and right angle of the window and back-lit with fluorescent lights, one needed to position oneself on the far corner across the street to allow the image to unfold, and even then, it refused to give itself completely away.

Being both graphically bold and mysteriously subtle, the image hovers between the painterly and the cinematic. One could just make out though the industrial fuzziness of the stark blown-up image, an iron gate against a long wall of a building on the right, and a fence on the left that can barely contain the blooming foliage that grows through and over it. When the sides come together, a path is revealed where we can almost walk into the image itself. But where that path leads to, the threshold of where the image wants to take us,  is coyly just out of reach of recognition, leaving us contained in an inert feedback loop of unfulfilled desires.

It was a stunning effect to witness in person. But it wasn’t the first time I’ve been surprised by him.


Sequent Occupancy, Josh Singer, and The Trappist (Part 1)

I don’t drink coffee, so let’s have a beer… My posts are always collaborations and are presented in two parts. Part 1 is a summary of a shared experience with my collaborator(s). Part 2 is a response often in the form of a project created specifically for this blog.

Joshua Singer, Still from Google Earth of Oakland with overlay of 1878 real estate map and GPS track of bicycle route home from The Trappist on 5 January 2011, logged at 23:23. Map courtesy of The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

“Interdisciplinarity is not the calm of an easy security; it begins effectively when the solidarity of the old disciplines breaks down — perhaps even violently, via the jolts of fashionin the interests of a new object and a new language …”

—Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text”

Josh Singer

My collaborator for this post and the next is Joshua Singer, an insanely talented graphic designer, artist, occasional writer, dad, former punk rocker, and professor in the Design and Industry Department at SF State. We settled in to explore the vast offerings at The Trappist in Oakland, a gem of a spot — “Featuring 25 rotating taps and over 100 specialty bottles in stock. No big corporate beer.” (As a side note, we had beer that tasted like sour gym socks and another that tasted like fruity bread. I love The Trappist for challenging my taste buds!)

Josh has an incredibly voracious interest in mapping and visualizing systems. As he was explaining the ins and outs of his current research he hit upon a term that interested me — sequent occupancy. In 1929 American geographer Derwent Whittlesley (love that name!) coined the term and defined it as “the study of the human occupation of a specific region over intervals of historic time.” The term is associated with geography viewed through both cultural and historic lenses. Josh told me that sequence occupancy speaks to his interests in geography, and how he’s trying to integrate it into his graphics discipline. He’s currently teaching a collaborative class with Paula Levine and the Geography Dept. at SF State.

SFMOMA in the Veterans Building. Installation view of the 77th Annual Painting and Sculpture Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association, 1958. At right: Richard Diebenkorn’s Painting (now Woman in Profile), 1958. SFMOMA Archives.

Dr. Grace Morley

A little example: Sequence occupancy links me to SFMOMA in a way. The Veterans Building in the Civic Center was built in 1932, and SFMOMA moved in to the grand fourth floor galleries in 1935. Originally called the San Francisco Museum of Art, it was the first museum on the West Coast, and only the second in the country, I believe, to be solely devoted to the exhibition of modern art. The founding director, Dr. Grace Louise McCann Morley (1900–1985), remained at the Museum for 23 years and became world renowned for her tireless support of and visionary leadership in the arts. Reading the bio of this incredible woman is both inspiring and mind-boggling that such accomplishments were possible in the scope of one lifetime. Grace is my new hero!

Veterans Building, Civic Center, San Francisco

So, back to sequence occupancy. When SFMOMA moved out of the Veterans Building, the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery (founded in 1970 and originally called Capricorn Asunder) was looking for a new home. The original SFAC Gallery on Grove Street was deemed uninhabitable after the 1989 Loma Prieta and 1994 earthquakes due to its lack of seismic upgrading. So, in 1995 SFMOMA moved into its new building downtown, and the SFAC Gallery opened in SFMOMA’s former bookstore on the first floor of the Veterans Building as a temporary solution to its need for space. In 2005 I assumed the role of Gallery Director, and am excited to announce that in a few years the SFAC Gallery will finally move out of its “temporary gallery” and into 4400 sq. ft. on the McAllister side of the Veterans Building. I think that Grace would be happy to know that there is a continued presence of contemporary art, and a constant stream of arts patrons, on the site where she built her museum.

SFAC Main Gallery in the Veterans Building

Josh responded to my example above with: Sequent occupancy speaks to the primacy of place. There are two things happening here (in your proposition): the evolution of institutions and the transformation of place(s) and the creation of space(s). What forces are at work and in what systems (a key framework) or ecology do they operate? How are they connected? Individuals, the city, the arts, real estate, culture, technology, economics, geology (earthquakes). How do these change the surfaces of the place(s)? How have these changed activities and modes of operation? Perceptions of authenticity and value (important in the arts and in general)? What is still visible? What evidence can be found in records, stories, artifacts? How do we imagine this sequence? How do we visualize it?

What exactly does Josh mean by surfaces?

“The second theme of the landscape urbanism project concerns itself with the phenomenon of the horizontal surface, the ground plane, the ‘field’ of action. These surfaces constitute the urban field when considered across a wide range of scales, from the sidewalk to the street to the entire infrastructural matrix of urban surfaces. This suggests contemporary interest in surface continuities, where roofs and grounds become one and the same; and this is certainly of great value with regard to conflating separations between landscape and building …

This understanding of surface highlights the trajectories of shifting populations, demographics, and interest groups upon the urban surface; traces of people provisionally stage a site in different ways at different times for various programmatic events, while connecting a variety of such events temporally around the larger territory. This attempt to create an environment that is not so much an object that has been ‘designed’ as it is an ecology of various system and elements that set in motion a diverse network of interaction.”

—James Corner, Landscape Urbanism Reader

Joshua Singer, Still from Google Earth of East Oakland and Oakland Hills with various GPS tracks of bicycle routes logged in 2010.

Joshua Singer, Same as previous with addition of 1910 map overlay of Brooklyn Township (current East Oakland). Map courtesy of The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

Dominic Willsdon: Things Will Have to Change

The exhibition The More Things Change samples SFMOMA’s collection to present a range of works made since 2000, offering a selective survey of the art of the last 10 years and a thematic and psychological portrait of the decade. The exhibition is also an unusual collaboration among all five curatorial departments at the museum, and over the course of the year, Open Space will present texts from each of the 10 curators.

Things Will Have to Change

The title The More Things Change was Curator of Architecture and Design Henry Urbach’s idea. He brought it to our third curatorial meeting about this project. I liked it right away; I think most of us did. It seemed to suit the minor-key mood of the group of artworks being assembled — their fragility, mutability, and even elegiac qualities — but in a more everyday, vernacular turn of phrase. But there were doubts. Everyone knows how to complete the epigram — the more things change, the more they stay the same — and that sounds skeptical about change, which is to say, conservative. There’s resignation in it, too. Tsk … the more things change … this politician is no better than the last, don’t bother voting, the government always wins. It could be a dispiriting title for a contemporary show, and a show about the contemporary is almost one about the future. It could mean that we have seen it all before. Or, worse, that styles and movements come and go, but art is eternal.

Tacita Dean, Beauty, 2006; gouache on gelatin silver print mounted on paper; 141 in. x 147 in.; Collection SFMOMA, purchase through a gift of Raoul Kennedy in memory of Patricia A. Kennedy

I remember that Rudolf Frieling had the strongest doubts. That struck me because three or four years ago, he and I had an idea to coproduce a brief and tiny show of both live and installed works to be called Change (OK, working title), which would have taken place for just two or three weeks, in one gallery, during a transition between two major exhibitions. It was meant to be about collaboration, museum process, participation, and ephemerality. We didn’t get very far with it because it became possible for Rudolf to develop those ideas in a full-scale show: The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now. In many ways, the institutional momentum generated by that show, even while it was still in the planning stage, enabled some things to happen in my department: both a new commitment to commissioning artists’ projects within public programs — Stephanie Syjuco’s Shadow$hop is the latest of those — and the development of Open Space. So we didn’t do that show because other possibilities opened up. Oddly, though, the last gallery in The More Things Change — with Shadow$hop alongside Stephanie’s realization of Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July’s Learning to Love You More — reminds me a little of what Rudolf and I imagined for Change. He is a partisan for art as change (his very nice Open Space post in November testifies to that). So no wonder he was sensitive to the skepticism about change that’s easy to read in the title Henry suggested.

Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale in Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film of Lampedusa’s The Leopard

Still, I always liked it, even though I like to think I’m one of those partisans, too. I told myself (and others, whenever it came up) that it matters that the title is incomplete. It’s like the title of Salman Rushdie’s book East, West (1994). Everything depends on his not having added the (again conservative) idea that home is best. So we’re suspended between east and west, homeless and happier for it. “The more things change,” without its second clause, could suggest a state of not knowing how much things will stay the same, or which changes, if any, are real and which are not. I like it also because it reminds me of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s very great novel The Leopard (1958), about the Prince of Salinas, the aging patriarch of a noble Sicilian family, trying to come to terms with the Risorgimento that led to modern Italy, and the decline of the aristocracy.  I don’t know any work of art that so delicately describes what it is to be trapped by tradition, unable to stay the same, and unable to change, because to do either seems unwarranted. The prince’s nephew, Tancredi, turns-coat and fights with Garibaldi’s revolutionary forces — and the prince loves him for it. The bond between the uncle and nephew (it is hard to imagine this quite working if they were father and son) is based on a mutual recognition that inheriting a tradition must entail more betrayal than fidelity. In the novel’s most famous line, Tancredi tells his uncle: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” That’s a self-aware and unresigned variant on our exhibition’s title. It has the same sense (the same direction) as “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” but it is somehow the mirror image, and it’s in a different key, or voice. Same sense, different meaning.

Paul Sietsema, The Famous Last Words, 2006; ink on folded paper; 62 3/16 in. x 48 1/16 in. (158 cm x 122 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Ruth Nash Fund purchase

But that’s not the title we have. The one we have (and I like it for this reason, too) confesses something about what museums do to the contemporary. The contemporary is open, opaque, and disorderly. Museums tend to create effects of clarity, order, and completeness; and they give the impression of continuity. It’s the hardest thing, for museums to let discontinuity show or reveal where there are no affinities, no trends, no unifying sentiments. “The museum today accepts change as an intrinsic part of contemporary art,” Rudolf wrote. I know what he means; museums are sites of production and process so much more than before. But when it comes to creating histories, even histories of the contemporary, they still primarily work to assimilate and preserve. If real change took place, are we sure that museums could show it? It is the hardest thing to do, and the most necessary. Because the more things change, the more they change — or let’s hope so, anyway.

In Search of Christopher Maclaine 13: The THE END Tour – A Work in Progress 11: CHRIS A

This is the 13th in a multipart series unofficially conjoined to the publication of Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, and the accompanying film series currently being presented by the Pacific Film Archive and San Francisco Cinematheque (in partnership with SFMOMA).

With my friend Brian Darr, proprietor of the great Bay Area cinephilia blog Hell on Frisco Bay, I’ve been scouting out the San Francisco locations used in Christopher Maclaine’s Masterpiece, THE END. What began as an attempt to identify and document what physically remains of the often mysterious places at which THE END was shot has evolved into a larger project to also analyze the film, and to identify all its many actors and extras, all of whom appear uncredited. To read the full version of these preliminary remarks, including info on how YOU can participate in this project, click here. For further information on Maclaine, check out the intro, which serves as this series’s hub. For the previous post of this Tour, click here.

NEW FEATURE: a YouTube of the CHRIS episode is viewable here.

NOTE: portions of Maclaine’s Voice-Over narration are transcribed in italicized sections. The images, for the most part, are stills documenting many (but by no means all) of THE END‘s shots. Those unfamiliar with this film will probably want to watch the video clip found above first, before making their way through the (hopefully enjoyable) notes and explication.

1) We now plunge into THE END‘s final narrative of an alienated and desperate male in the San Francisco of the early 1950s.

2) As the episode proper begins, we hear what could be more of the random-seeming noises (such as car honks) picked up by Maclaine’s recording apparatus as he recorded his Voice-Over narration, and heard sporadically throughout his film, but which are suggestive to me, at this point, of the sounds of film editing and/or sound equipment in action. Along with these sounds, we hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, beginning from roughly two-and-a-half minutes into the final movement (Presto), which will prove a major element of this section of the film. My copy of the 12th edition of Gramophone’s Classical Good CD Guide describes the 9th aptly: “Beethoven celebrates both the breadth and power of man’s conception of his position in relation to the Universe; his sense of spirituality … In the finale, the essential life-enhancing optimism emerges, which makes human existence philosophically possible against all odds.”

In the first shot of the episode, the camera looks up into the original rotunda of Bernard Maybeck‘s Palace of Fine Arts, which was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (one can see a panoramic view of the Palace circa 1919 via this link by scrolling down). The Palace might be described as a work of Symbolist architecture, meant to evoke, in Maybeck’s words, “an old Roman ruin, away from civilization, which two thousand years before was the center of action, and full of life, and now partly overgrown with bushes and trees — such ruins give the mind a sense of sadness.” The underside of the rotunda’s dome was inset with eight large murals by Robert Reid, four of which allegorically depicted the Arts: “The Birth of European Art,” “Oriental Art,” “Ideals in Art,” and “Inspiration of All Arts.” “The entire scheme — the Conception and Birth of Art, its commitment to the Earth, its progress and acceptance by the human intellect — is expressed in the four major panels,” Reid described. The other panels symbolized the “Four Golds of California”: the golden poppy, wheat, citrus fruits, and the metal itself. As these murals no longer exist as part of the current version of the Palace, I haven’t yet been able to figure out which of them is the one found in the center of the Maclaine/Belson composition, but currently my vote is for “Inspiration,” or the poppy. Here is a photo of Reid at work on his murals.

3) Maclaine cuts to an overexposed shot from inside a car about to enter the Broadway Tunnel from the North Beach side. The tunnel opened in 1952, the same year we presume production began on THE END.