El mural social y político se digitaliza
SAN FRANCISCO is renowned for its political street art, from the murals of the Mission District to the social-realist frescoes that adorn many municipal buildings. The focus of this monumental form has always been clear. The self-described capital of the “Left Coast”, San Francisco championed the labour movement in its art as well as its politics. The painters hired during the Great Depression, and their Latino counterparts—following the lead of Diego Rivera, a Mexican muralist—celebrated the workers who undergird the American Dream. As a form of public dialogue, murals have generated debate and much controversy. In the 1930s it was an outcry over pro-communist paintings at Coit Tower; today it is objections over how Native Americans and enslaved African-Americans are depicted in a mural at George Washington High School.
Small wonder, then, that a city synonymous with the technology industry is now digitally updating this time-honoured form. Two new installations in San Francisco’s leading museums bring this democratic artistic tradition into the 21st century with verve. The first, at the Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), is a video panorama of the city’s diverse population by JR, a French street artist. The second, at the de Young Museum, is a vast moving frieze that critiques colonial narratives, created by Lisa Reihana, an artist from New Zealand. Together these works put San Francisco in the vanguard of a new and moving medium.
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“The Chronicles of San Francisco” (pictured top) is a mesmerising black-and-white digital photo-collage that dominates SFMOMA’s street-level gallery, spooling across a curved 30-metre LED screen. Described by the artist as “the first moving mural”, it layers nearly 1,200 video clips over the city’s buildings and landmarks. Hipster joggers flash past a man getting a tattoo and homeless people wrapped in blankets; a unicorn gazes on the ducked heads of tech workers, their faces lit by an eerie glow from their laptops. The work is an homage to Rivera’s monumental “Pan American Unity” at the City College of San Francisco, JR has said, and he has even included a Frida Kahlo lookalike.
The artist also cites the bustling panoramas of Pieter Breughel and Hieronymus Bosch as inspirations, but his mural takes the form further. He visited more than 20 different neighbourhoods and invited passing San Franciscans to be filmed and recorded. Click on any figure on the iPads provided in the gallery and each person tells a tale, either about themselves or the city. “I think of San Francisco as the new Rome,” says a man identified as Peter S. “It’s one of the great cities of creativity and culture.” A woman wrapped in a blanket has a bleaker story. “I’m Karen and I’m the new face of homelessness. It’s people like me who have lost our homes despite paying rent for 22 years.”
Sound and movement are key to Ms Reihana’s astounding “in Pursuit of Venus [infected]” (pictured above), too. This monumental work of digital visual art is a kind of living diorama, which premiered at the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennial in 2017. Ms Reihana, who is Maori and British, brilliantly reinterprets an early 19th-century French wallpaper depicting Captain James Cook’s journeys to the Pacific islands. Entitled “Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique”, the wallpaper once covered wealthy European drawing rooms and staged native people as exotics, albeit posed and draped in neoclassical style.
That static depiction is replaced by filmed vignettes in Ms Reihana’s 64-minute video, which stretches across 22.5 metres of screen. Tableaux include traditional haka dances, floggings by Cook’s men and comedies of miscommunication. The soundtrack of contemporary song mixed with historical sounds offers a powerful rebuttal to the muteness of the original, and the performances bring the depiction of native peoples out of a misty past and into the present. The work positions the red-suited interlopers from Cook’s ship as an interruption—an infection, as the title plainly states—into a rich and self-contained world.
Though not permanently fixed in place in the public sphere, both artworks make clear their allegiance to the mural’s political and social role. Each in its own way celebrates the people of a given world and not its power brokers. Ms Reihana slyly notes this shift with the original title of her work: POV, for point of view, as well as “Pursuit of Venus”. JR, who has long photographed ordinary people and plastered them across the walls of Paris, makes the point more explicitly. “In a painting it’s usually the perspective that focuses the attention of the viewer,” he says. “With this new mural technique, we break the perspective: every person is presented at the same size, captured with the same light. No one is more than important than another.”
These new digital “murals” have been acquired by their respective institutions (“in Pursuit of Venus” is jointly owned by the de Young and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Though they will not be on permanent display, they still perform the same important role, documenting how artists see society and history now.
“JR: The Chronicles of San Francisco” continues at SFMOMA until 2020. “Lisa Reihana: in Pursuit of Venus [infected]” is on view at the de Young Museum from August 10th to January 5th 2020