Over the past several decades, San Francisco has become the worldwide seat of technological innovation and, not coincidentally, one of the toughest cities on earth in which to find an affordable place to live. It wasn’t always so. The Chinese-American photographer Michael Jang, a Northern California native whose survey show was on view (through January 18) at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, captured a San Francisco you might not otherwise know ever existed if you’re younger than, say, 40. While Jang was working on his MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 1970s, his stomping grounds were the district known as South of Market, where his subjects included gay culture and the punk scene.
Jang captured several editions of the annual Hookers Ball, one of them featuring the sui generis Grimes Poznikov, the Automatic Human Jukebox (a freaked-out fellow with a Christ-like beard playing a trumpet or any other of a half-dozen instruments he kept available). But Jang’s most haunting photograph from that era showed a desolate South of Market street corner in 1976 beyond which there was a clear view of the buildings that tell the story of the city’s changing skyline. Between 1965 and 1972, the high-rises succeeded one another as San Francisco’s tallest (the reigning champion at the time being William Pereira’s famously hideous Transamerica Pyramid, which critics dubbed “Pereira’s Prick”).
Two years ago, the Pyramid lost its standing as tallest to another South of Market behemoth, the nearby 1,070-foot Salesforce Tower. Salesforce, the digital customer relations company founded in 1999, is now among the city’s largest employers. Simon Denny, an artist born in New Zealand and based in Berlin, has been thinking a lot about Salesforce lately, as evidenced by his exhibition at Altman Siegel gallery (through February 22). Denny printed out the company’s software patents, stacked them up, and carved into the brick-thick objects to turn them into sculptural reliefs that he hung on the walls. This might not make much sense if you haven’t read a recent Wired magazine article about Salesforce founder and co-CEO Marc Benioff’s use of such patents to help the company avoid paying certain taxes, a common strategy among enterprises of the kind. But all of it relates to a larger conversation happening in the United States right now around corporate behavior and private philanthropy—see Anand Giridharadas’s book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World and the recently formed tax-friendly group the Patriotic Millionaires—especially considering that Benioff and his wife, Lynne, gave $30 million to homelessness research last year.
Denny’s exhibition brought tech-bro culture face-to-face with homelessness with all the subtlety of a Google van picking up employees in front of an encampment. Denny tricked out Patagonia-brand sleeping bags with dizzily patterned scarves that once belonged to Margaret Thatcher and displayed them as sculptures, upright on the gallery floor like sarcophagi.
As San Francisco’s homeless are encased in sleeping bags, the city’s tech workers are encased in Nano Puff “power” vests—and Denny gave those too the Thatcher scarf treatment, showing them inside wall-mounted glass vitrines. (Denny bought the scarves last May from a Christie’s auction of Thatcher’s estate.) The bottom line seemed to be: if you want to know why so many people are sleeping on the street, you could do worse than look back to the particular breed of capitalism promoted by Thatcher, Reagan, and the Salesforces of the world.
If Denny’s sleeping bags were meant explicitly to call to mind San Francisco’s homelessness problem, Damián Ortega’s exhibition at Adrian Rosenfeld (closed February 1) did so unintentionally, obliquely, and more powerfully through the Mexico City–based artist’s co-opting of discarded materials and references to urban development. Ortega’s latest sculptures represent a truly transformational use of found materials, in this case discarded cement bags made into papier-mâché hybrids for which he cross-bred animals with iconic buildings. The Empire State Building sprouted the head of a donkey (cocked ever so slightly to the side), the Chrysler Building, that of a rhinoceros (head straight, arms crossed). A famous apartment building by Moshe Safdie in Montreal became a menacing gorilla, while another apartment project, by Charles Correa in Bombay, took on aspects of a bull. All between six and ten feet tall, works like Gorilla building and Rhino tower loomed over viewers, filling gallery space that they seemed to have claimed as their own.
The surfaces of Ortega’s sculptures betrayed their origins, showing the brand names on the bags used to package and ship cement mix. And using the by-products of architecture to represent some of the profession’s greatest feats made them all the more poignant. Iconic buildings are to be looked up at; bags—the stuff of landfills—end up being looked down on. Here, the bags assumed a certain dignity in their upcycled condition.
Many homeless encampments in and around San Francisco are characterized by the inventive use of discarded materials to build structures that can house human beings. Last fall, when police dismantled an encampment in Oakland, they tore down an elaborate makeshift shelter built from wood scrap and tarps, and a spotlight created by strapping a lamp to a pole with a leather belt. By one count, there are some 17,000 homeless people in San Francisco, and their work with what artists tend to refer to as found objects is visible everywhere on the city’s streets.
Encampments line the streets of the Presidio, right next to South of Market, where the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art happened to be exhibiting (through February 17) Richard Mosse’s three-channel 52-minute video Incoming (2017). Mosse used a thermal-imaging military camera to record, from a great distance, refugees from Africa and the Middle East living in encampments in Europe. Mosse’s camera could detect heat from a human body at a distance of 18 miles, and he used the surveillance camera out of necessity—there are restrictions on who can enter these areas. But the method of filming makes the work especially moving, as issues surrounding mass migration and homelessness are evoked in unique heat-generating individuals, each of whom has his or her own story contingent on all the systems in place around them.
In the midst of the other artwork on show around San Francisco, it seemed as if someone should point out that SFMOMA moved to a brand-new building by starchitect Mario Buatta in South of Market in 1995, providing a world-class cultural destination just in time for the dot-com boom that brought in the first wave of start-ups and, later, the influx of tech jobs, the real-estate shortage, and the homelessness that define so much of the city today.