by Natasha Boas Ph.D.
“Walking, in particular drifting, or strolling, is already – with the speed culture of our time – a kind of resistance… a very immediate method for unfolding stories.” – Francis Alÿs
Up in the tower in Oakland, at David Wilson’s latest art-project “The Tower Show,” I experience vertigo.
My flash-back comes on suddenly and without nostalgia: I am eight years old and I am watching Gordon Matta-Clark’s tree dance at Vassar in Poughkeepsie, New York. The happening is part of the exhibition “Twenty-Six by Twenty-Six” organized by Vassar College Art Gallery and it is accompanied by the music “Miss Balaton” of the Venetian Snares.
Inspired by Spring fertility rituals, Matta-Clark and others in attendance move through ladders, ropes, and billowing materials built into the canopy of a grand tree. Somehow my aunt is involved in the performance. We are visiting from San Francisco, and my parents are wearing matching patchwork blue-jean flared pantsuits and my brother and I are barefoot and happy. I think: it is beautiful what these people are doing in the tree – hanging and moving like that – and I want to engage in it.
David Wilson’s project took place over the months of February and March of this year. Aprecarious, unsteady ladder-like staircase leads vertically to a small turret room renovated by Wilson. Audiences arrive through hand-drawn-invitations or word of mouth, and ascend cautiously to be greeted by the artist. Once in the elevated gallery space, the line of sight moves from dramatic views of industrial Oakland to intimate ink, pencil, watercolor and charcoal drawings on found paper that hang salon style on the walls. Drawn quick and loose, and framed within reclaimed wood from the woodshop space on the ground floor, Wilson’s drawing-room becomes the locus of an experience where spectators become participants.
An East Coast transplant, Oakland-based Wilson has settled in just like a native –celebrating nature, youth-oriented subcultures, experimentation and community. Wilson’s drawing, created out of his solitary, meditative worldwide meanderings are also the prerequisite for his site-specific signature gathering events that incorporate art, music, film and performance.
His work has been shown in venues ranging from the Berkeley Art Museum, the California Biennale, Angel Island and Prospect Park among many others. Presenting us, his audience, with his artistic process, while we participate in it, Wilson fits into a particular strand of Bay Area 70s conceptual art not constrained by any one medium. But in David Wilson’s case, the practice is rooted in drawing—the drawings act both as signs and signifiers, pre and postperformance artifacts, recordings and documents. While Wilson redirects his audience away from the conditions of his drawings by activating a social component, he always returns back to them as the central object of his inquiry.
In the late 1970s, cultural theorist Michel de Certeau wrote an essay, “Walking in the City,” that begins with the author standing at the top of the World Trade Center looking out over Manhattan. De Certeau discusses the experience of walking: like figurative language, which wanders away from literal meaning, the act of walking is a way of leaving fixed places in order to introduce new significations and ambiguities into an established geography. As such, Wilson’s practice intentionally or unintentionally references a long tradition of avant-garde wanderings, from the writings of the nineteenth-century modern flaneur to the derives of the Surrealists and Situationists.
If Wilson’s work is critiqued, it is usually around the imputation of a touristic artworld privilege—one that does not engage “walking” or “gathering” as potential for intense political activism as it did for many artists who were working in the social climate of the late 60s and 70s. Although Wilson explicitly resists the term “social practice” and does not use the promenade as a charged time for encounter, but rather as a private space to make art, he does ask us to rethink public/private models of art-production and exhibition–making. Moreover, like the now decades-long lingering affect of Matta-Clark’s Tree Dance happening, Wilson’s work seduces us to gather and participate in the witnessing of something beautiful… And today, that, in itself, may be very political.
David Wilson is one of three SFMoMA SECA awardees and his project will take place from early September until the end of November 2013 and will consist of a series of interventions in what he refers to as “forgotten sites” around San Francisco involving small and large scale drawings. Sets of directions will be posted on a free standing framed piece in front of SFMoMA .
For more information on David Wilson visit here.
This article was selected from SFAQ Issue #13.