How Doug Aitken, Andy Goldsworthy and other artists turned a former retreat for San Francisco’s elites into a stark reminder of climate change



It is almost impossible to think of San Francisco without thinking of its landscape: the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, the earthquake of 1989. The Golden City of California, a booming city with an economy, immigrants and an identity urban so linked to its surroundings that the climate itself is a central figure in San Francisco’s history.

So it was no surprise that when For-Site Foundation Founding Director Cheryl Haines began considering the Bay Area-based organization’s next exhibit, the climate crisis would be her central issue. Over the past decade, the city has been plagued by drought and fires, also becoming local residents in the San Francisco psyche. But it was when the National Park Service practically threw Haines the keys to Cliff House, the iconic Victorian-era recreation complex on the Pacific Ocean, that the theme of the new exhibition entitled “Lands End”, Really started to take on tones that otherwise might not be there.

Cliff house, once the golden getaway of the rich and later a tourist trap and overpriced wedding venue, fell prey to the pandemic and closed on the last day of 2020. It remained unoccupied until month last, when For-Site opened the show there. It will occupy the space until March, free and open to the public, when the National Park Service hopes to have a new tenant.

Haines and his team had about six weeks to prepare for the exhibition and it wasn’t until early September that they started installing the works of 26 artists, including Doug Aitken, Andy Goldsworthy, Olafur Eliasson and Ana Teresa Fernandez.

Despite the urgency and tattered timeline, Haines, who was also behind the 2014 Ai Weiwei Show at Alcatraz, felt that the exhibition was a necessary undertaking for the foundation: “Because we are a project-based organization, we disappear between projects,” she said. “We cannot remain financially viable if we remain silent for too long. “

Doug Aitken, migration (empire), (2008) <p data-wpview-marker=

It was uncomfortably ironic that on the day I visited “Lands End”, while it was being set up last month, the bay area had just been battered by historic rainfall (effectively ending the fire season, the other end of the region’s climate crutch). The waterlogged fire alarm inside Cliff House kept ringing for the entire hour Haines took me. (Sound the alarm? So on the nose, that could have served as a work of art in itself.)

Instead, inside the 1960s travel lodge transformed into a 1990s corporate structure, you’ll find works of sculpture, painting, video, and social practice from an impressive list of artists with bold names in full use of all spaces (including the trash!). It’s evocative and ghostly, as well as literally a confrontation of our climate.

Brian Jungen, Gravestone, (2019).  Courtesy of the artist and Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver, BC

Brian Jungen, Tomb stone, (2019). Courtesy of the artist and Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver, BC

Haines personally installed some of the controls for artists who were unable to travel. Of his Geophagy, a California Kaolin clay experiment, Goldsworthy said, “I wanted to see if it would be possible for me to do this work from a distance – it’s difficult for an artist for whom space is so important. Cheryl should be my hands.

The clay sits on the dining tables in the old café space, creaking as it dries and evoking the many themes of California: topography, drought, fault lines, fragile resources and, as Goldsworthy said, ” a reminder that when we dine, we eat dirt.

Meanwhile, the specific site of Ana Teresa Fernandez On the horizon (2021) is a series of six-foot-high plexiglass tubes, filled with seawater collected in buckets from the outside, materializing the projected rise in sea level.

Ana Teresa Fernández, On the Horizon, (2021).  Courtesy of the artist and the Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Ana Teresa Fernandez, On the horizon, (2021). Courtesy of the artist and the Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Andrea Chung offered Sea change, a cyanotype made not with the climate in mind, but for its sake of exploring the colonial histories of the Caribbean. Hanging near huge bay windows facing the ocean, Chung’s work echoes ideas of “remodeling the land because of colonialism.” What we know of the Caribbean is an imposed fantasy of trying to create the Garden of Eden, and there are consequences to this that people do not consider when modifying the earth.

Although the exhibition is one of discoverymostly art in unlikely placesthat sparks a dialogue about the changing nature of our world, “the artists I pick don’t hit you in the head,” Haines said. “They are not aggressive in their messages, they invite you to think and ask questions more than they present answers.”

With a subject as existential, anxiety-provoking, and seemingly insurmountable as climate change, it was important that Haines intentionally framed curation. “Beauty and the seduction of beauty is always a device that I have used to get people into big ideas,” she said, “but I feel it more on this show than in the past.”

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