Visitors to Fort Mason and the Embarcadero will be greeted by something out of the ordinary – if they stop to look down. In late September and October, several colorful vinyl walkways appeared on the pavement: two at Fort Mason Center (one near the entrance to the complex and another near the water, at Pier 2), and two in front of the Exploratorium’s Pier 15 entrance on the Embarcadero. A fifth example joined these in the atrium of the Minnesota Street Project (MSP). With their sequence of alternating single and double squares, the walkways loosely evoke hopscotch courts blown up to giant proportions. They are roughly 40-feet long, curving rather than straight, and, in place of the usual ascending numbers, they are inscribed with a series of phrases connected by ampersands.
They are the latest manifestations of Lawrence Weiner’s OUT OF SIGHT, a work that, since its inception in 2017, has traveled to cities as far-flung as Miami, Melbourne, Chicago, Singapore and Kortij, Belgium. (The San Francisco presentation was jointly organized by the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, The Exploratorium and the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts.)
Weiner — who sadly passed away this week at age 79 — is internationally recognized as one of the pioneering figures of Conceptual art. The Bay Area holds a special place in his development: During a visit to a state park in Mill Valley in 1960, he detonated dynamite to create a series of temporary craters, a piece that he cites as his first significant work. But the true turning point came in 1968 when a sculpture he had erected in a field in Vermont was damaged. Weiner concluded that the physical condition of the artwork — titled A SERIES OF STAKES SET IN THE GROUND AT REGULAR INTERVALS TO FORM A RECTANGLE—TWINE STRUNG FROM STAKE TO STAKE TO DEMARK A GRID—A RECTANGLE REMOVED FROM THIS RECTANGLE—was unimportant. Its public presentation as a text was sufficient to give it a material reality. As he articulated in his subsequent “Statement of Intent” (1968), each of his works may be “constructed” by the artist himself—as he famously did for A 36” x 36” REMOVAL TO THE LATHING OR SUPPORT WALL OF PLASTER OR WALLBORARD FROM A WALL, by excising a section of wall at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969. But he also allowed his works to be “fabricated” by others or remain unbuilt, existing in the form of language. When presented as language (as they most often are), Weiner’s works have assumed myriad forms over the years, from text in books or posters or typeface set directly on gallery walls, to matchbook covers, coins, tattoos, or song lyrics.
In turning to the hopscotch or marelle (the French term for the game, which the artist prefers), Weiner selected a format recognizable to people of all ages and cultures. It is not the first time Weiner used the marelle. In 1990, he created a permanent installation Villeurbanne, France, which included three stainless steel courts set in concrete. There, the marelle retains its standard format with numbers; but the inscription of “earth” and “sky” at its start and finish —together with work’s title (BIG STONES MOVED FROM HERE & THERE BETWEEN THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH) —conjures an upward, celestial journey. In OUT OF SIGHT, the series of statements suggest a
personal journey. The piece, beginning with “ASSUMING A POSITION” and “PRESUME A DESTINATION,” and proceeding through such phrases as “IMAGINED THINGS CAN BE ALTERED TO SUIT,” equates forward movement with a process of introspection and progress toward some goal. (An accompanying 2017 artist’s book, HERE TO THERE, offers a similar trip via the printed page.) At the same time, the piece’s curved shape, together with lines that continue at either end, suggests a larger loop — echoed by the circular graphic in the penultimate squares, readable as a tunnel or a ring. The point, perhaps, is that we never arrive at our destination, but instead continually strive toward an objective that remains forever—in the words of the last square and the title — OUT OF SIGHT.
While the work’s phrases, sequencing and underlying graphic form (including the typography, designed by Weiner) remain constant across its various iterations, each contains variables that make a trip to the individual the sites worthwhile. In keeping with Weiner’s usual practice, the statements appear translated into each region’s primary local languages: English and Spanish at the Exploratorium; Mandarin and English at Fort Mason; and English at MSP. These installations also vary in their color schemes. While most of the previous incarnations were stark black-and-white, Weiner selected an eclectic palette for San Francisco: various colored fonts on an alternating white, yellow or red ground. At each, context and placement determine a set of conditions for the encounter. A visitor entering MSP, for example, is already primed to look for art, whereas pedestrians in the Marina or the Embarcadero are more likely to stumble upon it accidentally. The decision by the project’s organizers to present the work in public spaces such as parks and art institutions — often in multiple locations — befits the emphatically democratic ethos of Weiner’s work as well as its radically decentered nature.
With its inviting, game-like format, this work holds special appeal for children. (My own 7- and 10-year-olds enjoyed hopping the squares at Fort Mason and following along with a family activity guide devised by the San Francisco Children’s Art Center.) However, unlike a game, there are, crucially, no rules in Weiner’s work. The artist eschews the imperative voice in his statements; he consistently disavowed any artwork that imposes itself on its audience as “aesthetic fascism.” Here, the very first phrase takes the gerund form (“ASSUMING” rather than “ASSUME A POSITION”), while others resemble aphorisms (e.g., “ONE CAN ONLY IMAGINE THE POWERS THAT BE”). Such statements function as prompts rather than instructions.
Weiner’s work made me think of several walking labyrinths in San Francisco, particularly Grace Cathedral’s copies of the one in Chartres Cathedral, and the stone version of the same form, created in 2004, by artist Eduardo Aguilera at Land’s End. The labyrinth, with its unicursal form, enables a metaphoric walking journey along a single path, reenacting Dedalus’s mythic journey into a Cretan labyrinth, wherein pilgrims retrace the same circuitous route to the center and back out again. By contrast, Weiner’s hopscotch, entirely contingent on language, proposes as many paths as there are potential responses to its statements. Although the work has occasionally been “activated” by performances (on October 10, the ODC Dance Jam performed a piece choreographed by Catherine Galasso at the Embarcadero installation), it mainly asks visitors to construct their own meaning.
OUT OF SIGHT was first inaugurated not long after the 2016 election, and it no doubt had particular resonance during the Trump years. (I think especially of “SPIT INTO THE WIND / HOPE FOR THE BEST.”) But it feels especially timely now, in the second year of a global pandemic that has, among other things, upended the plans and aspirations of millions of people around the globe. Weiner’s work invites its audience, children and adults alike, to imagine embarking on a new path. It is up to each individual to decide whether, and how, to take the first step.