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Defenestration (Thought And Image, March 2012)

Defenestration: An Installation by Brian Goggin (written for CA426, “Thought And Image”, at San Francisco State University, March 2012.)defenestration

Two sad blocks away from Market Street, down a corridor where disoriented, broken alcoholics shamble about and sleep rough on the sidewalk, you will find the corner of Sixth and Howard. In this particularly poor section of San Francisco’s South Of Market neighborhood, passersby absorbed in the traffic or pedestrians avoiding eye contact with the homeless might miss something truly astonishing just above eye level. The abandoned husk of the four-story Hugo Hotel has been transformed by artist Brian Goggin into what he refers to as a “sculptural mural” entitled Defenestration.

From a top floor bay window (all of the windows have had their glass removed), two thirds of a lime green sofa lean out into the air and curve downward like toothpaste oozing out of a tube. A table, legs splayed out like a daddy longlegs halted mid-crawl, has climbed completely out of another window, telephone still attached to the tabletop. A metal-frame bed with a bright blue mattress and fluffy, gravity-defying white pillows, is crawling out of the adjacent window to meet it. A grandfather clock slants upward through its second floor window, its body curving gracefully as if it were peeking to see what is coming around the corner. One floor up and three windows west, a turquoise wardrobe with mirrored doors leans out, itself taller by a foot than the window it sits precariously balanced on. Table lamps twist and elongate their necks as they poke out other windows. High above and around the corner on the Sixth St. side, a group of coffee tables follow each other straight off the roof like lemmings in a conga line, hanging in space as if frozen in the midst of free fall. A claw-foot bathtub lays on its side, perched on the edge of a sill, half in, half out. Everywhere you look on this building, some piece of furniture is falling out of an available opening, twisting and curling like soft plastic, or climbing down like insects. Nothing moves, all is in motion.

The title, “Defenestration”, comes from the English word for throwing objects out of windows, yet the pieces of furniture appear caught in the midst of throwing themselves out, with no human assistance required. The solid inanimate objects are bent into fluid, expressive, curving shapes and look capable of wriggling like snakes, scampering like cockroaches, or hurling themselves into flight. The bright, playful feeling of the escaping furniture contrasts with the bleak, weathered exterior of the ruined building that houses it. In the same fashion, Defenestration is a little oasis of whimsy and innocence in a neighborhood where people go to give up on life.

There is another twist to the story when you learn a little about the history of the building. Writer/photographer/blogger Mark Ellinger provides some important background on his website, Up From The Deep:

The Hugo is Sixth Street’s oldest hotel. Shuttered and vacant since a fire burned out several rooms in 1987, the unreinforced masonry building also suffered structural damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake… Untold thousands of photographs have been taken of the Hugo and its famous furniture, now a designated sightseeing stop, a housing crisis turned into public art.

As a work of conceptual art, the Hugo Hotel is universally appealing—everyone likes it—and I’ve become more attached to it with each passing year. Yet few people know the hotel remained empty for over twenty years because its owners cared more about profits than people. They didn’t want to repair and maintain the building as low income housing, but were unable to sell it because their asking price vastly exceeded the building’s actual market value. Their outspoken contempt for those less fortunate reflects an attitude that for years has been tacitly encouraged by the policies of local government.

The revelation that the building was left unusable and empty for decades in a neighborhood full of homeless people adds an edge to our experience with Defenestration. The hotel itself was thrown away by the owners rather than allowed to be repaired so that poor people could afford to live there. It was then left as an eyesore and a gesture of contempt to the community until Goggin and his cohorts came along in 1997 to add some humor and beauty to the setting.

Goggin’s own site includes his own statement on the purpose of Defenestration:

Located at the corner of Sixth and Howard Streets in San Francisco in an abandoned four-story tenement building, the site is part of a neighborhood that historically has faced economic challenges and has often endured the stigma of skid row status. Reflecting the harsh experience of many members of the community, the furniture is of the streets, cast-off and unappreciated. The simple, unpretentious beauty and humanity of these downtrodden objects is reawakened through the action of the piece. The act of “throwing out” becomes an uplifting gesture of release, inviting reflection on the spirit of the people we live with, the objects we encounter, and the places in which we live.

To truly appreciate the piece, one must encounter it in person. All of the “action” takes place on the top three floors of the Hugo Hotel’s two external walls that face Sixth St. to the northeast and Howard St. to the northwest. The larger objects are spread out among the levels and windows in a harmonious combination of randomness and balance.  The bottom floor’s solid windowless facade is filled with colorful graffiti art, adding another element. Goggin intended it this way, commissioning local street muralists for that purpose. The bright bursts of green, blue and orange in the street level art add an illusion of fecundity, as if the Hugo is rising from a magical garden.

What may appear to be a silly novelty in a photograph or on your computer screen takes on a different aura in real life. To see these spirited “characters” roaming above your head, apparently ignoring all the laws of gravity and physics as they hang precariously in all directions, can actually stir up some awe in the viewer. I have driven past this piece for years and was always amused by it, but finally getting out, walking around, and experiencing it in the context of the neighborhood in which it sits has given me a new appreciation of the work’s size, as well as its humanity.

Defenestration is not just a cute prank; it is a grand statement on a large scale. The setting and history add resonance to the piece, imbuing it with an air of defiance, as if to say, “If you turn our infrastructure into trash, we will respond by turning your trash into art.” The reclaiming of abandoned space and the transformation of same into joyful, irreverent public art is the sort of gesture that makes San Francisco the unique environment its residents take pride in.

Ellinger, M. (2011, April 14). Part 1: Sixth street [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://upfromthedeep.com/sixth-street/

Goggin, B. (n.d.). Brian Goggin Defenestration. Retrieved from http://www.metaphorm.org/works/defenestration/

Photo: J Neo Marvin, February 15, 2012.