Still defying gravity

Pub date March 2, 2010


By Brady Welch

For more than a decade, a curious scene has greeted viewers looking upon the old Hugo Hotel at Sixth and Howard streets. A bright green couch lurches precipitously from the building’s corner window. Packs of reading lamps are scaling the building’s outer walls. A floor or two up, another couch, some coffee tables, and one of those old and impossibly heavy television cabinets appear to contemplate jumping from the fourth-story rooftop. No prank of the homeless, this precarious assemblage — wow, that’s a dangling claw-foot bathtub three stories up — is the Defenestration Project, the work of Bay-Area artist Brian Goggin.

“I never thought it would last,” Goggin recently admitted to us. In fact, the project wasn’t supposed to last for more than six months. “The clock and armoire were built for the project. But the bathtub is an original from the Hugo, and all the others were salvaged from the street or found in thrift stores.” It is a testament to the project’s sheer fortitude against the elements — and its quirky appeal — that Defenestration will celebrate its 13th anniversary March 5 at 1:AM Gallery, located directly across the street from the installation.

The event will be a retrospective-cum-fundraiser for a proposed $75,000 restoration Goggin has titled “Project Restore Defenestration” that includes illuminating the lamps and installing an LED strobe in the hulking television set. “We’re making sure that all the pieces are looking good and in some cases even better than they originally looked,” he said.

A few pieces of furniture already have been removed, many needing to be entirely rebuilt. Others will be restored while remaining affixed to the building, requiring boom lifts and scaffolding. Overall, these will require resealing, repainting, fiberglassing in some instances, and in the case of the couch, getting covered in a new gloss of latex (as a preservative). Goggin estimates the restoration will take from one to three months, and he may even add some entirely new pieces to the installation.

“We want to see it vibrant again,” he said. For the gallery show, he plans to have individual pieces of furniture on view with the intent that patrons will sponsor them. “We’re hoping to get the funding and support, so by the time the rain stops, we’re funded and ready to go. If we don’t, maybe it’s time for it to come down.”

And come down it eventually will, though not for lack of funding and support. In October 2009, a court ruled that the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency could condemn and acquire the building under eminent domain for $4.6 million. Though the agency’s plan is to build much-needed affordable housing in the area, the sale represented the retreat of any protective cover the building’s original owners, the I.M. and S.I. Patel Living Trust, inadvertently provided for the artwork.

The Guardian spoke to Jeremy Sugerman, Goggin’s legal adviser, who was able to confirm that the artist always had a loose agreement with the Patels whereby they reserved the right to notify the artist to take down the work for any reason or lose title to it. So when the Redevelopment Agency purchased the building, the notice from the Patels came due.

Sugerman and Goggin then went directly to the Redevelopment Agency and pleaded with them to let the building and art stay until a new development was solidly in the works. A raggedy Hugo Hotel with couches and reading lamps welded to its side, they argued, is easier on the eye than an empty hole in the ground. Sugerman told us that the agency was immediately receptive. A month after the purchase, SFRA commissioners approved a permit stipulating that the work could stay hanging for a minimum of 18 months.

Then again, any demolition of the building will require a litany of proposal reviews, permits, and budgeting that could take longer than the 18-month lifeline. In other words, Defenestration will continue to occupy the same conspicuously abandoned and, depending on whom you ask, dilapidated building at the corner of Sixth and Howard.

Originally funded by a combination of maxed-out credit cards, a $3,500 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, “sweat equity” from more than 100 volunteers, and a staggering $14,000 raised on the project’s opening night, Goggin — understandably — doesn’t envision the same type of institutional support existing in today’s economy for his present renovation. Still, he’s positive. “I feel like this can be done,” he said, adding that $75,000 “is not an outrageous amount to be raised. It’s much less than Burning Man projects that only stay up for a few days.”

Which got us to wondering how in the heck Goggin came up with the idea of Defenestration — a word that means throwing someone or something out a window — in the first place. “I was an apprentice to a sculptor in Europe for a number of years, helping him set up shows, and he invited me to go create an installation in Paris,” Goggin told us. “There was this one area where they were demolishing 18th-century buildings, and I could see remnants of the walls and portions of the staircases and tiled elements of the bathrooms and old shelving. Through the course of imagining what could fill that vacant space that so many had lived in, life and form created a drama.”

For years, it was a drama that played out solely within the artist’s head. But Goggin eventually received the NEA grant, and like a kid who just received his allowance, went shopping around. “I just started knocking on doors, asking people who had buildings if they’d be interested as a base for this installation,” he told us. “Most owners were interested in the idea but then, when they found out what would be involved in installing the piece, became less interested. After I was told off a 16th time, I was riding my bicycle by the Hugo Hotel and I noted the sign.” The sign Goggin is referring to is still there. Posted for potential buyers of the building, it reads: “LOT & BUILDING for SALE. Limit ‘130’ ZONED: RC. 3 HEIGHT,” and lists a fax number.

“It looked vacant, so it seemed like a good option,” he said. “I sent them a proposal.”

Sumati Patel, the daughter of the buildings owner, loved the idea, and over the course of a few weeks, convinced her father that having Goggin work on the building would ultimately be advantageous to the real estate. Squatters had become a problem since renovations on the building had stalled in the 1990s. “Lots of squatters,” Patel told us. “Tons. They’re pooping and peeing. They would have rallies. It gets tiring. It gets expensive.” Under the artist’s agreement with the owners, Goggin sort of took responsibility for the building. “If a squatter got it in, Brian would go over there and take care of it,” Patel said. And how does she feel the project turned out? “I remember once picking up my AAA magazine and seeing an article about Defenestration and showing my dad, like, ‘See?'”

The agreement between Goggin and SFRA to keep the work hanging certainly testifies to the success of the project. It has become part of the neighborhood, and although its days are numbered, perhaps they will be brighter than ever before.