The New Public Art in the Castro Is Almost Unimaginably Hideous

Aphidoidea planted its Seed all over Jane Warner Plaza, and the result is the worst erection we've seen in some time.

Jane Warner Plaza has been through a lot. The section of 17th Street at Castro and Market streets was closed off to traffic in 2009, and it’s been subject to renovations, nudity protests, the removal of its tables and chairs, and a quickly scotched plan to have kids from Larkin Street Youth Services look after it. Now we have The Seed, a series of six 13-foot-tall LED flowers made by L.A. architecture and design firm Aphidoidea and unveiled Friday night. It’s what’s often known as an “activation,” which is probably the barfiest P.R.-inflected word of 2017. And you know something? That shit is absolutely fucking hideous.

It’s disappointing, because Aphidoidea does some great work. Scroll through their site and you’ll see stuff that looks almost Zaha Hadid-esque. To dial the cynicism all the way up to 11, The Seed looks like the desperate move of a community business district in a neighborhood full of commercial vacancies that will do anything to keep homeless kids away from a place where they congregate. 

Such pretty satellite dishes. (Peter Lawrence Kane)

Admittedly, Jane Warner Plaza is a very difficult public space to manage, but The Seed — which cost $40,000 out of a $150,000 grant — looks like someone banged a gavel and said, “Sure! Yes! Anything! Meeting adjourned.” Did the CBD not realize that people have to see these things during the day, too? When they’re not lit up, they look like part of the military-industrial complex, like satellite dishes beaming information to that billion-dollar surveillance blimp tethered over Maryland that got away that time. How long before InfoWars gets word of this and Alex Jones rallies his Seed Truthers?

The world may be completely falling apart, yet San Francisco remains full of artists — queer or otherwise — and this is what we get. Why are the flowers so unnecessarily out of scale, like prehistoric plants from an epoch when the chemistry of the air was very different? Why not fewer, smaller ones, in and among the real plants that used to be in the plaza? Why can’t the colors fade into one another on a smooth gradient instead of flicking arrythmically, like outdated LED technology? And Jesus, why couldn’t the unveiling ceremony conclude with the removal of the police tape and the metal crowd-control horses, in a beleaguered memorial already named for a cop? 

They’re also supposed to be dandelions. I’m going to assume that everyone involved knows what the most common yard weed in America looks like, so, OK, we’re in the realm of metaphor. Fine. (This would also answer the question as to why it’s The Seed and not The Flower, or The Seeds, or The Flowers, any one of which would be less dumb.) Maybe we’re supposed to close our eyes and wish for world peace while metaphorically blowing away the seed pods of a flower whose anatomical structure lacks them. But in addition to being obviously not dandelions, The Seed actually bears a strong resemblance to other types of flowers, like morning glories or Datura inoxia. Dandelions are whimsical and childlike, but morning glories are toxic and contain a compound similar to LSD. This whole thing feels confusing and very hastily sketched out.

Public art looks prettier without police barricades around it. (Peter Lawrence Kane)

Worse, Aphidoidea couches it as something that “draws from the many wishes many people had, to be able to freely love and to be able to be themselves.” In all seriousness: I know what those words say, but WTF does that even mean? That torturously worded statement is a monument to bland inoffensiveness, like boilerplate you might get from Lyft’s corporate P.R. as a non-response response to their drivers refusing to pick up drag queens. It’s supposed to get us to think about gayness and the personal coming-out narrative — except it trips all over itself to avoid any political keywords like “gay,” “queer,” “LGBT,” or the like, probably because of this idea that the Castro “is for everyone” but in spite of the fact that the Gramophone trumpets are in the six colors of the Pride flag rainbow.

It’s also very Burner-y. I don’t mean to pick on Burning Man here. Quite the contrary: You can’t just plop something gargantuan on a city street corner and pretend the context works the same as on desert hardpan. Much of the magic of the Playa — from afar, and to this non-Burner, anyway — is that people cared enough and worked hard enough to build something and transport it all the way out there, install it quickly and under difficult conditions, then disassemble it a week later. That evanescence is beautiful, and The Seed would work a lot better there. 

As is, it’s just plain awful. Meanwhile, Harvey Milk Plaza across the street is going to be redesigned. On Wednesday, Nov. 8, it’ll be home to Illuminate, a temporary light sculpture that will be lit for 40 hours over eight nights to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Harvey Milk’s election to the Board of Supervisors. Seems pretty cool, honestly, although it could just be SoulCycle flipping its existing lights upward. Fingers crossed!

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the accurate cost of The Seed, which is $40,000. The $150,000 we initially reported was the amount of an Invest in Neighborhoods Grant that the Castro Business District received in 2016 through the mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. Additionally, even though the CBD had a public unveiling of The Seed, the landscaping isn’t finished yet, which is why those ugly SFPD barricades are still up. Lastly, the Nov. 8 ceremony for Illuminate at Harvey Milk Plaza will honor the 40th anniversary of Milk’s 1977 election to the Board of Supervisors, not the rainbow flag. We regret the errors. We are also told that the Arts Commission and not merely the CBD approved of this monstrous carbuncle, which in retrospect is not surprising, since The Seed embodies the idea of “art by committee.”


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