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Stories of War and Survival Unfold in San Francisco’s Presidio

Homeland Security takes over three decommissioned military bunkers, a church, and the former headquarters of the Nike Missile Program by staging paintings, installations, and social practice projects throughout.

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“Ohlone Sacred Land” was tagged on Battery Marcus Miller the evening before the opening of Home Land Security; FOR-SITE Foundation and Presidio staff will not remove it for the duration of the show. (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

SAN FRANCISCO — Something akin to cognitive dissonance flashed through me as I sat on a speeding bus across the Golden Gate Bridge on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. I thought, as we blew past our designated stops at the Golden Gate tourist center on the San Francisco side, and the multiple stops in Marin, how very strange that I am the only one totally freaking out about this aberration. I looked around at my fellow passengers — most of them international tourists, cameras slung around their necks — wondering if I was the only one who meant to get off on the San Francisco side, and if not, how everyone could be so silent, so complicit in this surreal conveyance of seemingly no end. This wasn’t quite a Speed scenario — no terrorists aboard, just a clueless and stubborn bus driver who didn’t know his new route — but it felt almost allegorical of our current state of affairs. Black folks are brutally murdered daily by the forces we say are there to protect them; indigenous communities at Standing Rock are staging a historical protest to protect all our rights to clean water and land; there is a global refugee crisis and, closer to home, a severe housing crisis, yet somehow most of us are glassy eyed and passive observers, apparently inured to the possibility we are all careening towards a collective crash.

For what it’s worth, I’m an East Coaster and I wasn’t going out like this. I yelled and made enough noise to get us back to San Francisco from the Marin Headlands and finally made it to my destination: the Presidio, where FOR-SITE Foundation’s ambitious undertaking, Home Land Security, had just opened to the public. Taking over three decommissioned military bunkers, a church, and the former headquarters of the Nike Missile Program, Home Land Security stages paintings, installations, social practice projects, and sculptures throughout these sites, in order to “turn a spotlight on the personal cost borne by soldiers, feelings of isolation and vulnerability, and the thin line between defense and attack … collaps[ing] the distance between target and source: one cannot hide from the impact.”

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Tirtzah Bassel, “Concourse” (2016) (detail), duct tape on wall

The exhibition is strong, much more so than FOR-SITE’s monumental Ai Weiwei solo show staged on Alcatraz in 2014–2015. The pieces resonate, in part, because the viewers’ experience of the 18 artists’ works in these militarized spaces — many never before open to the public — is more intimate. Krzysztof Wodiczko’s “Veteran’s Flame” is most affecting in this regard. In a totally dark, domed corridor, a flame flickers in apparent synchronization with an unseen speaker breathing out a testimony of his participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and its ongoing traumas. The voice echoes down the corridor, the speaker’s pain amplified directly in your ear, while just outside Do Ho Suh’s metal cape of dog tags stands silent sentry, a challenge and reminder that the majority of us will never fully comprehend the permanent damage of war on its survivors.

The show bridges multiple perspectives of war; Mandana Moghaddam’s video installation “Exodus” follows a small flotilla of suitcases buffeted by ocean waves, the quiet lapping underscoring the desperation of refugees and migrants displaced across the world. Taking up Homeland Security’s more mundane impact on our daily lives in the developed world, Tirtzah Bassel’s duct taped wall installation, commissioned for this show, cheekily visualizes a pain familiar to more of us: that of being trapped in a snaking airport security line. A traveler’s mohawk zigzags in a riot of colors; a chubby woman pushes a cart, her skin a vibrant neon purple; two bodies, black and brown, are patted down by airport security in a corner — a pleasurable patchwork of texture and color presses against a discomforting realization that the War on Terror has deadly serious consequences for those targeted as threats to national security. Bassel’s work feels even more pressing now, in November, with the election of an autocrat whose campaign was won on the promises of building walls and deporting “illegals”; an expansion of Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant sentiment that has created new waves of fear in communities marked as somehow more un-American.

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Tirtzah Bassel, “Concourse” (2016) (detail), duct tape on wall

A few rooms over, Yashar Azar Emdadian’s “Disintegration” makes a banal act a public, implicitly political sentiment that I couldn’t stop watching. Shirtless with a light pair of denim jeans, Emdadian steps onto a Persian rug in a fairly unremarkable corner (if that is possible) of the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Facing the camera directly, he proceeds to shave off his copious body hair and beard with an electric razor. Is this a piece about forced assimilation, or is Emdadian preparing for a religious pilgrimage elsewhere? In any case, it was incredibly satisfying to watch.

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Yashar Azar Emdadian, “Disintegration” (2012), single-channel video with rug

As I walked through the dispersed sites, it was refreshing to see tourists to the Presidio stumble upon the exhibition, popping in to check out a piece before disappearing, or being compelled enough to talk to the posted docents and guides for more. This is the promise and possibility of public art, and I commend curators Cheryl Haines and Jackie von Treskow for choosing difficult works rather than easily digestible narratives about war and survival.

But perhaps the best work on display now is the one that is not actually part of the official show: the night before Home Land Security’s press opening, unsanctioned artists or activists scaled the top of Battery Boutelle, writing tags that claimed the space as Ohlone Sacred Land. These words remain as a potent reminder that people are still fighting for a more just way of life outside of the prescribed norms or “acceptable” codes of political or artistic conduct, even as we all may well be on the fast track to a national disaster.

Home Land Security continues at Fort Winfield Scott at Landon Court in the Presidio of San Francisco through December 18. 

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