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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.