Visiting Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Two classmates and I visited Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco this past weekend. As I mentioned in my first blog post, two representatives from this museum had previously visited our class to share some videos detailing their collaboration with activists and artists throughout the nation. Thus, we had a preconceived notion of the outspokenness and fearlessness of these artists. A quick BART ride from Berkeley landed us at the museum on Sunday afternoon, where we spent the day wandering through the installations and discussing our interpretations of these displays.

The first thing I noticed upon our entrance was this slogan unapologetically signifying the genre of works that we were about to see. It read, “Center for the Art of Progress.” Needless to say, I was already excited.

“Center for the Art of Progress”

Moving past the entrance, we were immediately drawn to a rusty-looking sculpture on the first floor. This piece, titled “Destierro,” by Tania Bruguera, was much more than a mere statue made of Cuban mud, nails, wood, and textile scraps. In this exhibit, Bruguera explores using public performances to openly criticize both the Cuban government as well as the civilians who have not spoken about the lack of fulfillment of the leaders’ promises to the people. Different mediums were utilized to bring this artwork to life; a muted video of someone walking around in the mud cast, acting as the nksi nkondi (power figure of the Kongo people), manifested how this political performance was received by locals.

Bruguera’s mud sculpture, with video footage of an activist bringing the statue to life playing in the back

Another eye-catching exhibit was “Space Brainz” by Damon Rich and Jae Shin. If Bruguera’s “Talking to Power” had a sobering, passionate tone, then this colorful installation could best be described as a cheerful, optimistic collection of shapes, lights, and graphs.

This display was a lot to take in: bright colors inundated the entire room, and graphics were strewn across metal bars that seemed to resemble building structures. It took a docent and her generous explanation of the artists for us to get a feel for what this room was trying to convey. My takeways: the two artists, Rich and Shin, are urban planners who are using art to communicate with larger communities. By working with youth and neighborhoods, they were experimenting how to give people tools to build environments best suited for their needs. Instead of relying on a “master planner,” the community could identify problems (zoning rights, water pollution, trash disposal, etc were highlighted throughout the room) and dream up their own solutions.

This made so much sense: through Space Brainz, Rich and Shin were trying to convey a “dystopic diorama,” or the ideal representation of an un-idealized American city. This installation, though a bit chaotic, effectively reflected the multitude of themes and ideas that frame an ideal community. This made a lasting impact, in the sense that empowering normal people (and children!) to have their own agency to play a role in their society is an incredibly affirming and provides a voice to all constituents.

We returned to this room twice to really scope each map, diagram, and signs, before moving on to other rooms. The rest of the museum also did not disappoint — current political issues of immigration, refugees, Trump’s policies, and D.A.C.A. were all addressed in some form or another, sprouting conversations throughout the museum. It really made me think about how necessary spaces like museums are to provide a platform for dialogue to find the solutions to these bleak realities.

Each portion of this utopian society was designated a specific color of rails.

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