Amid the Edwardian cottages and modern apartments on a tree-lined block of Minnesota Street in Dogpatch, the new Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco boldly announces itself as an ambitious addition to the Bay Area art scene.
With a vivid yellow-and-pink paint job and multicolored vinyl patchwork adorning the facade of the 11,000-square-foot former gymnasium, it’s hard not to notice. On the windows are the phrases “The trees are witnesses” and “Speaking to the sky and kissing the ground.”
The installation, on the frontage of the museum through March 26, announces the museum’s debut exhibition, “Jeffrey Gibson: This Burning World” by the Cherokee and Choctaw multimedia artist from New York’s Hudson Valley. And its words are indicative of the community-minded public face ICA SF has projected since its formation in September 2021.
With a non-collecting mission, Executive Director Alison Gass and her founding donors have pledged that more of its nearly $3 million annual budget will go toward structuring an equitable organization for its six full-time employees, and commissioning original work and programming by artists that can better engage audiences. Often compared to tech startups in its mentality, the museum’s founding donors include Silicon Valley luminaries like Reach Capital partner Wayee Chu and Yoz Labs co-founder Ethan Beard; Rsquared Communication founder Rebecca Henderson and Slack Technologies co-founder Cal Henderson, as well as Dr. Martha Muña and Kindred Ventures founder Kanyi Maqubela.
The ICA SF building at 901 Minnesota St. was leased for the museum by the Minnesota Street Project Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Minnesota Street Project art hub two blocks south. Among the new museum’s largest donors are MSP founders Deborah Rappaport and venture capitalist Andy Rappaport; collector Pamela Hornik and Lobby Capital founding partner David Hornik; and Future Justice Fund President Kaitlyn Krieger and Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger.
During January’s Fog Design + Art fair, the museum opened for a preview show of hanging textiles and text sculptures by Oakland artist Chris Martin titled “Ancient as Time.” Following the end of Martin’s show in May, the building closed to complete final renovations. White paint, new bathrooms and accessibility upgrades are the most obvious improvements. The basic warehouse shell remains the same, with beamed ceilings repaired and buffed to industrial chic.
Artist Jeffrey Gibson at the new Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco, which opened with his show “This Burning World.”
“This Burning World” by Gibson consists of a 20-minute, 10-channel video installation in an enclosed gallery in the back half of the museum. Besides being the ICA SF’s inaugural exhibition, the show offers a meaningful expansion of the practice of Indigenous land acknowledgements.
“It’s about land as an entity with a complex identity,” Gibson said of the installation. “Land in Dogpatch has a history within the city, has a demographic history, a racial history and a class history. I think you can apply that to any piece of land and the narrative is different.”
Projected onto opposing walls, the work shows video of the natural world (filmed in the Hudson Valley and the Bay Area) including plants, forests, water, sky and fire. The channels are separated in blocks, like panels of a quilt, with moving images layered over one another in triangular patterns that are reminiscent of traditional Indigenous textiles. Joan Henry of New York, in the roles of both a dekanogisgi (traditional song-carrier) and hahesh’kah (lead drummer), composed and performed the installation soundtrack.
Artist Jeffrey Gibson’s projected artwork inside the new Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco.
In front of each wall of projections, shallow trenches dug into the cement expose the soil underneath the building. (ICA SF and Gibson both note it is not meant to be touched given environmental concerns related to the area.) Gibson calls the trenches “an opportunity for the earth to breathe and serve as a portal for us to speak, give thanks, and apologize to the land for our treatment of ‘them,’ ” according to his artist statement. For the viewer, they are a reminder that whatever structures of civilization we build, nature is always present.
“I think Jeffrey has allowed the team at the ICA, the visitors to the institution, to stop for a minute and think about how significant the practice of land acknowledgements really can be,” said Gass. “We’ve done something that goes beyond just putting an announcement on a wall. We are opening a new institution on a piece of land, but as Jeffrey rightly pointed out, that has intersectional meanings.”
“This Burning World” is among the most intricate projected works to be shown in the Bay Area. The overlaying of footage in the triangular schemes manages to heighten the images through the abstracted lens, but Gibson’s marriage of motifs, colors and seasons in the composition can also feel tranquil. For instance, the blue of the sky in one channel will be placed in repeating triangles on other video panels, or blazing orange will occur in a sunset that is then peppered throughout other parts of the video with fire footage.
Behind the video installation, Gibson has suspended an uprooted 12-foot red maple tree brought from curator Christine Koppes’ garden (the tree was damaged when it was hit by a car). Hanging horizontally with its root clump and leaves intact (for now), it is displayed against another multicolor vinyl window covering, this one with the feeling of a Gothic stained glass rose window. Koppes sees the space as one for contemplation and re-centering after the stimulation of the video installation.
Through Gibson’s patterns, darkness and daylight collide, with video of waving yellow grasses seemingly growing into the atmosphere and the natural world a palette applied to the gallery. As evidenced by the dug-out concrete, Gibson’s ability to engage with the building itself is at the center of the show. The museum’s willingness to intervene with its very foundations sets an exciting precedent for what may come in future installations.
A hanging tree is part of Jeffrey Gibson’s “This Burning World” installation at the new Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco.
For Koppes, there was “a sense of freedom and deeper collaboration with the artist, and a trust of the artist that feels different from other exhibitions that I’ve worked on.”
“What you see in the final installation is reflective of this idea with the leadership, staff and supporters of the ICA SF, that we’re people who really want to see what the artist can do and not try to stifle any creativity or expression,” Koppes said. “I’m hoping we can keep that momentum going for the future shows.”
It seems likely those who experience this inaugural exhibition will share that sentiment. On its own, “This Burning World” asks meaningful questions about our relationship with land. But in the context of ICA SF’s opening, it portrays an institution not afraid to take on work that wouldn’t have a natural home in other local museums or galleries.
It also sets a high bar for whatever site-specific work that follows.