The most scintillating three-letter word in the English language? Sure, “s-e-x” would get a million votes, but so would “w-h-y.” Why? Because it's a word that leads to so many possibilities — whether it's answers, reflection, other questions, or sex itself. The “WHY” sculpture atop the Henry Hotel, orchestrated by artist Ana Teresa Fernandez, is a why with a semi-hidden agenda: Get people to question the commercial development of San Francisco's mid-Market corridor. The sculpture, which glows at night, is connected to four other illuminated “w” sculptures (“who,” “what,” “where,” “when”) that Fernandez placed within a four-block radius of the Henry Hotel.
The WHY sculpture first appeared almost two years ago, after Fernandez got the hotel's permission and secured permits to put up the art, just like the other “w” sculptures in the area. All the legal and technical wrangling took about two-and-a-half years — Fernandez first dreamed of the project in 2011, after doing work at Intersection for the Arts, near the corner of Mission and Fifth streets. Intersection helped fund the sculpture series.
“The initial intention was to create this constellation of questions,” says Fernandez, a Bernal Heights resident who collaborated with designer and architect Johanna Grawunder on the project. “I was doing this workshop for inner-city youth, and I kept walking past conversations about what was happening with mid-Market redevelopment — and these are ongoing conversations that've been happening for years. And everyone has an opinion. I've heard from blue-collar workers to techies to homeless people. For me, it was this lighting-bolt idea. The conversations were like beacons of light — like, 'What is this doing here?' The art doesn't necessarily need to be understood as a conceptual constellation. You might come across it as a moment of awareness. My text work tends to be much more about contemplation.”
Some of Fernandez's other “w” signs in the area have since disappeared because of permit expirations and real estate turnover, but the Henry Hotel's WHY sign, which is visible to anyone who looks up, will be there for the foreseeable future — and that's appropriate, says Fernandez.
“The 'why' is the heart,” she says. “I see the (sculpture series) as a little bit like organs of the body. And 'why' is the most pulsating and concerning question of all. It's the pivotal question to anything — to any theme, any pursuit. It's a highly valuable question that we don't necessarily ask ourselves enough.”