School of Chairs at 500 Capp Street


School of Chairs at 500 Capp Street

By Anton Stuebner March 27, 2018

Material invention was central to the work of David Ireland (1930–2009). A prolific member of the Bay Area conceptualist movement, Ireland's practice challenged conventions of art making by reconsidering how everyday environments could be activated as sites of perceptual engagement. His former home at 500 Capp Street in San Francisco represents the apotheosis of his methodologies, and its current iteration operates both as a work of hyper-virtuoso installation and as a living archive of Ireland's creative output that is continuously reactivated by visiting artists. On view through June 9, School of Chairs1 is the space’s first group exhibition; as head curator Bob Linder notes, the show attempts to explore how "shift(s) in perspective" can "create relationships between contemporary artworks and devalued artifacts," while also opening art-historical objects (in this case, Ireland's work) to new meaning through multiple encounters by contemporary practitioners whose own work questions the limits of "social and gender politics, the environment, and the role institutions play in shaping art history."2

The curatorial framework is promisingly ambitious, and the most vital works in School of Chairs indeed raise questions about the limits of material presence, and how absence functions as a signifier for the erasure of vulnerable bodies. Not every work delves deep; the inverted landscape depicted in Rodney Graham's monochrome photograph Black Cottonwood Tree, Spanish Banks Tree (2012), for example, is meant to upend the viewer's expectations upon entering the house by frustrating art-historical traditions of landscape, while visualizing the human eye's inversion of images on the retina. It is a conceptually tidy composition that quickly illustrates Linder's "shift in perspective," but its impact is cursory at best.

Rodney Graham. Black Cottonwood Tree, Spanish Banks Tree, 2012; transmounted, monochromatic C-print; 91 3/8 x 73 3/8 in. Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York. Photo: Rodney Graham. 

By contrast, Anicka Yi's installation, Immigrant Caucus (2017), invites an unsettling first encounter. Its components—a half-open, powder-coated mesh gate, and three stainless-steel canisters outfitted with red tubing and insecticide-spraying nozzles—are immediately strange. Yi's installation separates the room at the entrance from the house's main hallway, an intervention that delimits physical movement while evoking more troubling associations with detention and border politics. It is a visually arresting tableau that initially distracts from the faint scent emitting from the canisters, which is vaguely floral and slightly acidic.

Anicka Yi. Immigrant Caucus, 2017; powder-coated steel and expanded steel mesh, stainless-steel insecticide sprayer with brass fittings, ultrasonic diffuser, fragrance; dimensions variable; installation view, School of Chairs, 2017. Artwork courtesy of the Artist and 47 Canal. Installation image courtesy of The 500 Capp Street Foundation. Photo: Henrik Kam.

As the viewer draws closer to the nozzle, a built-in diffuser releases another spray that smells like clay, grass, and also a definite sweetness, possibly hibiscus. Initially pleasing, the scent lulls the viewer into a dreamy complacency that's immediately complicated by Yi's written notes, which describe the fragrances as sweat-based scents formulated from "chemical compounds derived from Asian American women and carpenter ants," a comparison that foregrounds the abjection that women of color continuously face.3 By utilizing a diffuse substance—in this case, chemicals that produce scent—Yi questions the definition of presence by positing her own kind of material invention that re-places bodies that are made absent through discrimination. In turn, she also imagines radical modes of being that are expansive and, as such, uncontainable by political or physical boundaries.

K.r.m. Mooney. Circadian Interface III, 2017; pneumatic actuator, steel tray, grounding wire, inset glass, silver, steel, organic compounds, water; 42 x 22 x 6 in.; installation view, School of Chairs, 2017. Artwork courtesy of the Artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco. Installation image courtesy of The 500 Capp Street Foundation. Photo: Henrik Kam.

K.r.m. Mooney's sculptural installation Circadian Interface III (2017) also imagines a kind of radical hybridity. The seemingly disparate elements in Mooney's assemblage—a pneumatic actuator, a steel rod and tray, inset glass, water, silver, and cast elements, among others—blur the lines of the organic and readymade. Mooney subverts assumptions of functionality by re-positing electronic components as parts of a sculptural form, divested of their original use value. Mooney's work is deliberately unfamiliar, and can seem impenetrable at first. But like Yi, Mooney encourages viewers to adopt a more expansive mode of perception and to reconsider the limits of possibility, a deeply moving gesture that becomes even more relevant when considered alongside increasingly mainstreamed conversations around the porous boundaries of gender, race, and citizenship.

Jason Dodge. The Doctors Are Sleeping, undated; pillows that have been slept on by doctors; dimensions variable; installation view, School of Chairs, 2017. Artwork courtesy of the artist Casey Kaplan, New York. Installation image courtesy of The 500 Capp Street Foundation. Photo: Henrik Kam.

Jason Dodge's undated The Doctors Are Sleeping also offers a quietly eloquent meditation on presence and absence. The work includes two stacks of pillows, one gently placed on Ireland's bed and the other on the floor in his office. The implications of rest and labor are salient when considered in light of capitalist narratives of careerism (and—as the title suggests—the ever-circulating image of the forever "on-call" healthcare professional). Ultimately, though, Dodge's installation evokes a curiously affecting re-presencing of Ireland himself, as if Dodge—through his open collaboration with the late artist's personal effects—is encouraging Ireland to traverse time, space, and mortality to stop for a moment and rest.

School of Chairs is on view at 500 Capp Street in San Francisco through June 9, 2018.


  1. Per Linder's curatorial statement, the exhibition's title references "a David Ireland installation presented at Berkeley’s University Art Museum in 1988. The installation consisted of fourteen identical metal chairs; those often used in classrooms, offices, governmental institutions, or community centers. These empty chairs were scattered around the exhibition space, often times moved or sat in by tired visitors." The installation foregrounded a material activation of everyday objects—in this case, office chairs—into artworks, while de-emphasizing a singular "authorship" of the work in favor of a multiplicity of interventions/interactive becomings.
  2. Quotes are sourced from the press release for School of Chairs at 500 Capp Street.
  3. Ibid.

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