Burning Man comes to city hall

In a nod to temporary art, the city of San Francisco installs a 30-foot-high metalwork sculpture in its civic center. Photos: Burning Man art in S.F.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Befitting its role as an alternative art center, San Francisco on Thursday unveiled the latest in a series of temporary art projects designed to showcase the best that local artists have to offer.

In a ceremony in front of San Francisco's City Hall, attended by about 150 people, Mayor Gavin Newsom lauded the just-installed sculpture "Flock," by local artist Michael Christian. The sculpture, which is more than 30 feet tall and was originally built for the 2001 edition of the countercultural arts festival Burning Man, resembles an animal with legs that morph into the roots of a giant plant.

"Flock" is the second large-scale temporary artwork put up in San Francisco as part of an effort coordinated by the mayor's office, the city's Recreation and Park Department and the Black Rock Arts Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Burning Man organization.

Flock in S.F.

"Temporary art is much less challenging (to get installed) than permanent art," Newsom told CNET News.com. "We're moving in this direction (as a city) much more aggressively. We want to excite people about the artistic creativity that exists in extraordinary ways in San Francisco."

Newsom explained that temporary artworks--"Flock" is scheduled to sit in front of City Hall for three months--are a much simpler way of displaying art in a city known for its bureaucracies. The point, he said, is to expose the city's citizens to artists' work without having to go through the hassles required of permanent installations.

And Newsom smiled broadly when asked about the prominent placement of "Flock," one of the best-known Burning Man art pieces of all time.

"It's a symbolic statement, putting it in front of City Hall," he said. "I told our friends at Rec and Park that they (had to) understand the importance of this."

David Best, another artist whose large-scale projects are well known in the Burning Man community, recently had one of his signature wooden temples built in a new park in the city's center. That project, too, was originally scheduled to be up for three months, but it has not yet been taken down because the neighborhood in which it was built has grown fond of it.

Best said that piece, which was also put up in cooperation with the city and the Black Rock Arts Foundation, had been unexpectedly easy to get done thanks to the city's enthusiasm for the project.

"I had to go through nothing," Best said. "The Black Rock Arts Foundation, the arts commission and the mayor's office formed the most incredible marriage. Everyone went, 'OK, let's do this.'"

Mark Van Proyen, a member of BRAF's board and chair of its civic arts committee, said it had been tough deciding which former Burning Man art piece to suggest for this installation.

"We looked at some of the sculptures and felt that 'Flock' was one of the best pieces still intact--that is to say, not burned," Van Proyen said.

Van Proyen also said BRAF hopes to expand its reach into other cities. He explained that BRAF is looking at installing another piece of Best's work in Detroit in the near future, as well as a possible project in conjunction with the Oakland Museum of California.

For his part, Christian appeared bowled over by the honor of having his work, and a 4-year-old project at that, raised in such a visible and important location in San Francisco.

He addressed the question he said most people ask him about "Flock": What is it?

"I finally have just come up with, Whatever you want it to be," Christian said. "I'm more impressed by what other people have to say, and kids are the best critics."

Indeed, before giving a set of remarks to the gathered crowd, Newsom polled a group of about 20 children, asking them what they thought "Flock" was. The answers ranged from a giraffe to a dog and just about everything in between. But one kid's answer summed up the mood of the crowd.

"I don't know," he answered the mayor. "But it's art and it's cool."