Neck massages. Apple fritters. Sultry bedroom eyes. Big dudes in tiny coats. The laughter of my beloved.
Expressions of love for these things and more — scrawled on airline baggage tags and tied to a fence on Valencia at 19th — fluttered on windy nights for over two weeks at the end of the summer. But when artist Todd Hanson returned from Burning Man, his “What Do You Love” art piece was gone.
It lived briefly and vanished mysteriously, and like other such pieces of ephemeral art, became part of the ever-changing landscape of public spaces in the Mission. Transforming everyday places and generating raw, spontaneous moments are what artists like Hanson are after.
On one evening Hanson watched as two women stopped to read the tags. He stepped into the light of the streetlamp, his fists stuffed with Hawaiian Airlines, United and Virgin America baggage tags that he swiped from the airport. “Would you like to put one up?” he asked, Sharpie marker extended. They did.
“Passing by, it’s just a fence, but suddenly it’s more meaningful,” said Leena Prasad, one of the women.
Another couple stopped to consider the fence and then walked away, hand in hand. They giggled, stopped, embraced. And then they kissed. “This is what I want,” Hanson said. “It doesn’t take much to actually remind people of the love that they feel.”
Hanson’s first interactive installation may have had a brief run, but it served its purpose: to urge people to stop and think about all of the things that make them feel alive, connected and passionate — things, he said, that we tend to lose track of.
Stumbling across things that remind us to be present is what’s most exciting about ephemeral art to Lynn Marie Kirby, artist and professor of fine arts at California College of the Arts. “I like the accidental,” she said. “The notion of surprise. It’s just sort of magical.”
The transitory nature of art that comes and goes is something that Kirby, who has an interest in how people experience time, has explored in her own work. Two years ago, through the city-sponsored Art in Storefronts program, she was commissioned by the Mission’s Triple Base Gallery to do a “listening” project at sites along 24th Street.
Inviting the public to join her in listening to the sounds at places such as the Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting House, Brava Theater, Center Nails and Garfield Square Park, Kirby took notes and made ephemeral documents that were then put into forms found at the original sites.
One of the results was a sign made to look like an official city park sign, posted at Garfield Square Park. It read, “Welcome to Garfield Square Listening Field,” under which rules of the park were replaced by sounds overheard during the listening project: “Go whistle. Go laughing. Go flip-flop flopping.”
Like Hanson, Kirby stood back and observed reactions to her piece. “This is not a real park sign,” a man said to her one day. “I think it might be poetry.”
Kirby didn’t reveal herself as the artist. “I thought it was more fun that way,” she said of the sign that endured for five months. “He sort of invited me to read it with him.”
Public art pieces like these encourage people to think about art in a different way, Kirby said. Existing in spaces where they may or may not get noticed, they’re not confined to gallery walls, and there are no price tags.
“It’s not about consuming,” she said. “It’s about an experience.”
Creating experiences is the very essence of Surabhi Saraf’s work. The 28-year-old new media artist, a former resident artist at Root Division Gallery, recently completed her FOLD (Live) Project, a series of site-specific public performances around San Francisco.
Saraf hoped the performances, which featured volunteers slowly folding laundry in choreographed sequences, would draw attention to the subtleties that we tend to overlook in our busy lives. She was also inspired by the idea of a collective unconscious.
“I sort of believe that all human beings are connected to each other,” she said. “But you don’t always feel those connections at all times.”
The performances lasted only 15 to 20 minutes, but it was enough time for Saraf to succeed in what she had set out to accomplish. “I try to create spaces or experiences where these energies can come together,” she said.
Jeremiah Barber, another artist intrigued by the intersection of performance and ritual, said that even though many people are experiencing many different things at his performances, somehow it transmits. “I’ve had people cry during my projects because they’ve been moved by the process,” he said.
The Root Division artist scouts spaces “that look like they’re ready to be activated by someone,” and creates projects based on whimsical aspirations.
“One of my goals is to find a visual language that communicates something that’s not so steeped in order,” he said. “So that someone who stumbles across it could understand it in some way.”
One project took him to the middle of Chicago’s Federal Plaza on a cold day in January. Barber rolled around on the ground with his partner in a predetermined pattern. A crowd gathered, clapped and shouted “Encore!” at the end of it.
But oftentimes there is no audience at all. “Sometimes I like to take my ideas to remote areas,” he said. “They’re all kind of experiments where I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The unpredictability of ephemeral art is familiar to Hanson, who also does street stenciling. “I had no idea what direction it was gonna go, or how long it was gonna be there,” he said of “What Do You Love.”
But when it comes to the disappearance of the piece, he lets himself indulge in only positive reasoning. “Maybe someone really needed that love really badly, and took it.”
According to Saraf, being part of ephemeral art can be one of the most amazing human experiences. “When it’s over, it’s over,” she said. “Even if I do it again, it won’t be the same. I will change. People will change.”