BY Julian Myers in Reviews | 02 JAN 02
Featured in
Issue 64

Revelatory Landscapes/ Back to the Bay

BY Julian Myers in Reviews | 02 JAN 02

Tourism usually portrays San Francisco as a set of consumable attractions - cable cars and Coit Tower, shopping and counter-culture on Haight Street, taquerias in the Mission, new museums south of Market Street - but other versions of the city disrupt this image of funky urban utopia. Shabby tenements and earthquake-damaged buildings press against new museums; chemical lagoons and dilapidated piers punctuate the tourist Embarcadero; rubbish-strewn lots occupy sites in view of downtown offices. Two recent exhibitions examine the conflicted terrain of San Franciso's Bay Area: 'Revelatory Landscapes', a show of landscape architecture sponsored by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and 'Back to the Bay', a concurrent show by the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) at the Yerba Buena Center.
Both shows take as their subject what 'Revelatory Landscapes' curator Aaron Betsky has called 'fragmentized' places, in particular sites along the shores of the San Francisco Bay where military divestment and industrial neglect have wrecked huge portions of the shoreline. Such locations are available for artists' projects because they are situated in what CLUI's Melinda Stone has called 'planning purgatory' - too dirty, run down, or, in some cases, radioactive to be developed, despite San Francisco's impacted property market. Stone's site in Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard actually burped up a dense cloud of apocalyptic smoke on the day she had scheduled an event among its abandoned barracks. Both shows examine sites on the margins of urban development, but despite the apparent similarities, their approaches could not be more different: there is little common ground between the self-conscious humanism of the landscape architects and the materialist investigations of CLUI. The evocations of memory and place on offer in 'Revelatory Landscapes' - Hargreaves Associates' poetic words painted on a motorway underpass, for instance - seem misplaced in today's Bay Area, bound to the idealism that surrounded public art in the 1980s and to the giddy boom-economy atmosphere of San Francisco in the 1990s, when the show was originally conceived. In comparison, CLUI's deadpan documentary seems simultaneously more old-fashioned and more relevant.
CLUI draws its aesthetic from the familiar, even passé, conventions of tourism and travelogue - the slide show, the bus or boat tour, the brochure, the photo archive, the faux-bureaucratic sound of their name. Their 'tourism', however, attends to sites that tourism rarely addresses: the nuclear landscape of Nevada, California's vernacular architecture and the dreamlike, wasted beauty of the Bay's abandoned shipyards, burnt piers and crystallization ponds. In this context industrial sites such as the San Rafael Quarry - dug 200 precarious feet below the water level of the neighbouring Bay - seem both disastrous and strangely fascinating.
The joint reception for the shows took the form of a boat tour of 'fragmentized' sites led by Matthew Coolidge of CLUI; it was only then, when we were drunk and isolated on the water, that the disparate sites addressed by the shows began to seem part of a unified landscape. After a day-long symposium around 100 museum workers, cultural geographers and curious ticket holders piled aboard a borrowed Giants Ferry whose hull was, for better or worse, painted with stitches like a colossal, floating baseball. Aboard this strange vessel, festooned with Giants banners and blinking Christmas lights, CLUI's tour became (even more) elaborately surreal. Soaked docents and wasted architects staggered through the upper deck as Coolidge pointed out charred whaling stations, Chevron-owned gunnery ranges, trashed marinas, rusting barges, molasses storage tanks, and the deteriorating ruins of San Francisco's once glorious shipyards. His narrative was complemented by shaky live-feed video intercut with aerial views and accidental clips from the evening news (dogs jumping onto helicopters!) and an episode of Cops. It is unclear whether this anarchic tone is native to CLUI's other tours (probably not), but a perceptible hysteria hung in the salt air until the boat docked. It was also impossible to avoid the class comedy of the event: arty sherry snatchers slumming it on the sports ferry, even as the political geography presented by Coolidge seemed to grow more and more haphazard and catastrophic.
When the tour ended we disembarked at Pier 40, in view of the newly built baseball stadium and the half-constructed capitalist fantasia of the new SoMa district. It is a testament to the potency of CLUI's particular vision of geography that San Francisco seemed, at that moment, even more dense, tangled, surreal and compromised. It suggests too, however, that the most 'fragmentized' sites may not be those that exist on the margins of our urban landscape, but those deep inside its boundaries.

Julian Myers is an art historian based in San Francisco. He is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts.