Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Birds on a Wire

Artists Brian Goggins and Dorka Keen's installation Language of Birds lights up the sky between Chinatown and North Beach.

Anyone who’s seen Brian Goggin’s Defenestration at Sixth and Howard—the art installation in which furniture and appliances appear to be climbing out of a building’s windows—shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this Daliesque scene has its roots in magic. You see, Goggin, a 20-year resident of San Francisco, spent much of his peripatetic youth making fast money as a childhood magician. “I specialize in illusion and sublime spectacles,” he says.

Keep that in mind when his new site-specific installation (a two-year collaboration—commissioned by the SF Arts Commission—with local political activist Dorka Keehn) is unveiled this month above a new plaza linking Chinatown and North Beach, at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus. The Language of Birds (a reference to the ancient Greek and Celtic mythical languages used to communicate with the divine) is a flock of 23 books suspended 15 to 30 feet above ground and arranged with their bindings open, as if in flight. For the sublime-spectacle portion of the program, the books, sculpted from white translucent polycarbonate and embedded with LED lights, will be illuminated from dusk till dawn using solar power from ad-hoc panels installed above City Lights Books. “Eventually, the goal is to take City Lights off the electrical grid,” Keehn says. (Bonus points awarded for the project’s

While the book imagery alludes to the strong literary history of North Beach and Chinatown, the bird metaphor was inspired by a friendly flock of sparrows that would visit Goggin’s studio while he was a participant at Woodside’s Djerassi Resident Artists Program in June 2006. Concurrently, Keehn, on vacation in Italy, was having a more Hitchcockian experience. “Every pigeon in Capri would come to my porch every morning to attack my breakfast!” she laughs.

Broken phrases from works in three languages by more than 90 authors, from Armistead Maupin to Jade Snow Wong, will be sandblasted into the plaza below the main installation, appearing to have fallen straight from the pages of the books above—the jumble of words creating the new and improved, carved-in-stone (literally!) Language of Birds.

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