By Joe Ferguson
Architecture evokes a sense of stability. The court house, city hall, the public library, these neoclassical buildings that mark the central hubs of many American cities elicit feelings of romanticism, strength, and long-lasting beauty. We have done something great and it will not fade, the buildings seem to say. These edifices, however, are human constructions and humans, at least as individuals, exist in a moment.
Karsten Harries in “Building and the Terror of Time,” wrote, “…if we can speak of architecture as a defense against the terror of space, we must also recognize that from the very beginning it has provided defenses against the terror of time.” Plato asserted that time ravages the body, but a beautiful construction appeals to the human spirit and is not subject to time. Modern and contemporary art often challenge this age-old perspective on beauty, such a challenge is the theme of a new exhibit of public art in downtown San Francisco. Kevin Cain’s The Illuminated Palace is the latest installation in Engineers of Illumination: A Projected Light Project by Optic Flare, a series that honors the technological and artistic achievements of the 1915 World’s Fair.
The Fair--or Panama Pacific International Exposition--was a showcase of turn-of-the-century technology as well as an opportunity for San Francisco to display its recovery from the 1906 earthquake. The sprawling 635-acre complex contained 11 exhibition palaces featuring objects from every corner of the globe, more than 1,500 sculptures, 65 acres of amusement concessions, and an aviation field. At the west end of the central court group was the Palace of Fine Arts.
The Palace of Fine Arts was designed by architect Bernard Maybeck to house great works of art from the Renaissance to the Modern. It was inspired by a Piranesi engraving and featured a Roman ruin reflected in a pool. According to Maybeck, this ruin was to display “the mortality of grandeur and the vanity of human wishes.” Like every other building of the fair, it would come down--it was meant to be ephemeral.
The Palace, however, proved to be a crowd favorite with more than 18 million people passing through during the fair’s nine-month run. The Palace Preservation League was formed during the fair, preventing the Palace’s demise.
In The Illuminated Palace, Kevin Cain combines early pinhole camera techniques with digitally-constructed views to present The Palace of Fine Arts in line with Maybeck’s intention as a fleeting ruin. Projected onto the front and side windows of the California Historical Society’s gallery, passersby can stop and watch a series of airy images that slowly dematerialize the Palace.
Cain’s use of photography without lenses--a technique in use when the Palace was constructed--confronts viewers with images that appear grainy and slightly out of focus. In some images, microscopic tears in the pinhole aperture create colorful streaming artifacts that obscure the architecture’s sharp delineations. The combined effects evoke memories of old, fading photographs. Presented in time-lapse, visitors pass between Corinthian columns as fountains splash and birds frolic in what seems like a previous time in a place that is no longer with us.
With a nod to contemporary issues, Cain addresses global warming by presenting the Palace as eventually surrounded by a rising Pacific ocean. A century ago, Maybeck couldn’t have conceived of our current environmental concerns, but in another century from today it is believed, if warming continues, the Palace of Fine Arts and its lagoon will be invaded by wetlands.
You can watch a video clip of Kevin Cain’s new work here.
Architecture, like any other art form, can express the human condition--more than shelter or odes to great wealth, a structure can be cause for contemplation about our time on this planet. Maybeck’s intention for his creation was never realized, but Cain has brought back that vision in The Illuminated Palace, a projected creation meant to be considered for a short time. If global warming predictions are accurate, and corrective measures not taken, Maybeck’s vision for his creation may finally come to pass--not by the effort of a concerned group of people, but by neglect.
The Illuminated Palace can be viewed in the California Historical Society gallery’s front and side windows nightly from 7:00 pm to midnight through August 16th.