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Sculptor Brian Goggin throws art out the window

Wednesday, Mar 5 1997
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In December, a terrified woman saw a chest of drawers that looked as if it were leaping out of the top floor of the four-story building at Sixth and Howard streets of its own volition. She called the police, and the aerial truck from a nearby fire station rolled up minutes later and extended a ladder; a firefighter reached out with an ax. It took 17 swipes, an officer on the scene later reported, before the chest dropped to the ground.

And when it dropped, the first act of Brian Goggin's monumental sculpture performance Defenestration premiered, sans audience or critics. The firefighters didn't know it, but they were messing with a prototype of a collaborative, grand-scale, $7,000 artistic undertaking. Funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts -- in fact, one of the last set of individual artist grants made by the NEA -- the piece officially opens with what Goggin is calling an "Urban Circus" on Sunday, March 9. Then, the one-time apartment building at Sixth and Howard, damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, will complete its transformation into what Goggin calls a "madcap furniturama."

"I'm trying to create these pieces that look like they're really flying out at impossible angles from this building," says the 31-year-old Goggin, wild-haired and rail skinny in paint-splattered steel-toes and a faded Guatemalan shirt. "Or climbing up in a mysterious fashion."

Goggin came on the Defenestration concept four years ago, one piece in a series of artworks that might be likened to a fugue.

The first sculpture in the series was Climbing Frenzy, a group of 16 Queen Anne tables scaling each other's backs in a helix, struggling toward a skylight inside the S.F. Art Commission's gallery. That project led to Herd Morality, more Queen Annes installed on the roof of the Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens. Goggin imagined the tables, with their spindly legs and ornate edging, as buffalo on the Great Plains, barreling through the city in search of water or food -- and in this case jumping off into midair toward the sidewalk in a panicked rush away from the crowds across the street at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

But Defenestration is clearly the most ambitious work in a life that was not always aimed at the visual arts.

An Army brat during his early childhood, Goggin moved just about every six months. His father, a debating professor at West Point, eventually settled down in California, where he was elected to the California Assembly from a district in San Bernardino.

During his years of bouncing between Sacramento and San Bernardino, Goggin began cultivating passions that would inform his work as an adult. By the time he was 8 years old, he was hiring himself out as a magician and funneling the profits into animation projects influenced by Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. In college, magic fell by the wayside, but Goggin kept after film, although he never got closer to Hollywood than working as a PA on the Mel Gibson version of The Bounty.

After two years in Cambridge, England, and two more at San Francisco State University, Goggin met the visual artist who became his mentor, Scottish installation sculptor David Mach, a neo-dadaist who uses a variety of surplus and used materials in his pieces. Goggin worked as Mach's apprentice for two years in London, learning to survive as an artist.

When he moved back to San Francisco in 1993, though, Goggin was just another freaky artist. He wanted to make large-scale sculptures but had no record as an independent artist. To cut costs and create that record, the sculptor made tiny models and photocollages, one of which now is a poster advertising the opening of Defenestration.

The small-scale approach eventually landed Goggin a $3,430 award administered by New Langton Arts, a local art gallery. The award included funds from the last series of individual artist grants given by the NEA, as well as contributions from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Immediately Goggin began designing the project, scouting locations, and meeting with city officials. He didn't, it turned out, meet with enough of them. As life imitates art, the permit process became as absurd as the work itself. It turned out that Defenestration required a pocketful of clearances, each from a different city agency.

Building inspectors had to review plans and inspect steel frameworks (created by blacksmith Morgan Raimond) for the "leaping" furniture. A street closure permit, a temporary occupancy permit, an amplified sound permit, a Department of Public Health permit, and private insurance and workers' compensation premiums also were required.

The red tape did not stop the project or diminish its power.
Now, the walls of the Defenestration building are draped with two dozen pieces of stylized, recycled furniture. Their bent legs and oddly rejigged parts make them look as if they're trying to escape the building with the frenzy of woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers fleeing zealous prehistoric hunter-gatherers: A grandfather clock winds its way out of a window, a rippling bed frame poises on the brink of a leap, gawk-legged chairs crawl the exterior. Lamps, triggered by motion detectors, twist off fire escapes and illuminate passers-by. A 1940s radio springs from the building, held in place by a reinforced electric cord. And inside an old refrigerator attached to the outside of the building -- its idiot light on -- smoked Gouda and a six-pack of Budweiser teeter precariously.

Although Goggin's wacky leaping pieces of furniture look something like Disney's Beauty and the Beast character animations, the artist insists his inspiration comes from higher up the cultural food chain. He cites dada, the Theater of the Absurd, and almost any art movement with an ism, as well as Charles Dickens' short stories and Werner Herzog's 1982 epic film Fitzcarraldo as influences.

Goggin's work seems far more clearly influenced by Herzog's filmmaking than the other isms the artist cites.

Fitzcarraldo follows an opera-crazed madman as he attempts to lift a massive steamship over a mountain in the Amazon. San Francisco filmmaker Les Blank followed Herzog as he made the jungle film and made a documentary, Burden of Dreams, that paints Herzog as insane as his fictional protagonist.

Goggin sees Defenestration as paralleling this double level of near-insanity.

"[Fitzcarraldo] brought all of these people together to make a metaphor for what I think is absurd ambition," says Goggin. Almost as absurd, say, as hanging discarded furniture on the outside of an abandoned building.

"It created an inspirational idea that has helped inspire me. So it had this chain reaction, and I'm hoping that my piece will have that kind of positive reaction."

Goggin's work has humor enough to appeal to couch potatoes and enough gravitas, of a sort, to titillate art snobs. "I think first people identify with the whimsy," says Goggin. "But if they meditate on the piece, they will come to their own interpretations."

The artist hopes that animating one group of objects will entice viewers into noticing other objects, or, as he puts it, the "objects of burden that gather mold in their own basements." He also hopes to play off the real-world implications of the site, the economically depressed Sixth Street corridor. Almost all the furniture used in Defenestration was taken from trash piles. "People didn't appreciate this furniture," says Goggin. "They didn't look at the aesthetic beauty of the pieces; they didn't appreciate their eccentricities."

Goggin imagines his work engaged in a dialogue with the nearby landmark 1995 Innercity Home, a massive work by the muralist Rigo '97 that covers the side of a building close to the Defenestration site.

"We're both involving this community that may not necessarily expect art, or even initially be interested in the art," he says. "But I think as they've come to appreciate Rigo's work, they'll come to appreciate mine."

That's the impulse behind the Urban Circus that Goggin has planned to open Defenestration. Goggin says he was "trying to figure out how the sculpture could be an invited element, instead of an unwelcome cancer."

Conceiving an idea for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Goggin decided that he wanted a quirky orchestra to perform. He asked some friends he'd met over the past couple of years at the Burning Man festival to get involved. As more people joined in, Goggin realized the opening could evolve into an extravaganza in its own right. Neighborhood kids could form their own groups and take the stage.

The circus idea bloomed into a project almost as big as Defenestration itself. Cell collective, some of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and members of the Cacophony Society got involved, as well as a couple of dozen other art groups who take absurdity extremely seriously.

But more than anything, the circus provides Goggin with his natural audience.

Back in December, the firefighters never knew they were hacking away at a piece of art. Likewise, Goggin didn't know what had become of his missing chest of drawers. Three weeks later, Goggin returned to the site with a Victorian claw-and-ball bathtub, a fan, an iron, and a toaster. But the new pieces disappeared, too. Goggin couldn't figure out who kept knocking them down. After consulting with the squatters who inhabited the building and making repeated phone calls to various city agencies, he contacted the firefighters, who told him they were merely responding to a hazard call from the police.

"I asked them why they didn't call the owner," says Goggin. "Those pieces were elaborately connected to the building. But, after going through the permit process, the people in the Fire Department now understand the aesthetic goals." And, maybe, their own bit part in Goggin's absurd furniturama.

About The Author

Jeff Stark

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