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Let There Be Light: Art from Subway to Sky

By Catherine Barry

In more ways than one, the Bay Area is emerging from the darkness, as art-inspired light installations and public art pieces are glowing all around us. From subterranean spaces to the vast skies above, our surroundings have turned into one outdoor luminous gallery of art.

As a result of commissions by The San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), site-specific new displays by 12 artists are on view inside and outside of stations along the 1.7-mile Central Subway line alignment, which is due to open with a full-run schedule in early 2023. Whether or not you intend to hop on a train in the New Year, this public art-for-all is well worth checking out.

Leslie Shows; Face C/Z; 2021; Glass and Steel; Central Subway: Yerba Buena Moscone Station. Photo by Ethan Kaplan. Image courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Featured in the ticketing hall at the Yerba Buena/Moscone Station, San Francisco-based mixed media artist, Leslie Shows created "Face C/Z," (detail shown, front cover)  a 35-feet wide integrated artwork, based on an image of iron pyrite, hand fabricated combining mirrored, fused, painted, and engraved glass, sheet metal, and other permanent materials. The use of pyrite, also known as “fool’s gold,” speaks to ever-shifting notions of value in industry and aesthetics, the many gold rushes of the San Francisco Bay Area, and the alchemy of glass and light.

At the Union Square/Market Street Station, world-renowned artists Jim Campbell and Werner Klotz have created "Silent Stream," a 250-feet long suspended stainless-steel sculpture comprised of highly polished steel disks, resembling an upside-down river flowing overhead the length of the platform. At the station's concourse level, putting the trip in your trip, "Lucy in the Sky" is a kaleidoscopic, illuminated installation by Ohio-based artist, Erwin Redl. More than 500 translucent light panels suspended along the concourse level’s ceiling slowly change colors and display different patterns.

Erwin Redl's "Lucy in the Sky," 2021, OLED light panels. Central Subway: Union Square/Market Station.

Over at the Chinatown–Rose Pak Station, visitors are greeted by two monumental artworks by Chinatown-based artist Yumei Hou. Acclaimed for her intricate traditional paper cuts works, Hou has designed two large laser-cut metal artworks painted a vibrant red and finished with a shadow-casting process. "Yangge: Dance of the Bride" and "Yangge: Dance of the New Year," are inspired by the Yangge (Rice Sprout Song), a popular folk dance from the northern provinces of China, which typically involves groups of people celebrating happy occasions. Also at that station, don't miss "A Sense of Community," an inspired work by San Francisco Bay Area-based artist Clare Rojas. It's a colorfully gorgeous ceramic tile mural, featuring a variety of textiles patterned in the style of a cathedral window quilt. The work represents a community held together by a common history and culture.

Yumei Hou; Yangge: Dance of the Bride; 2022; Painted Steel; SFMTA Central Subway Chinatown-Rose Pak Station; Photo by Ehtan Kaplan; Courtesy SFAC.

“While transit helps connect passengers from point A to point B, it is public art that helps connect us all,” says Ralph Remington, Director of Cultural Affairs. “The Arts Commission is proud to have worked closely with our city agency and community partners and each of the 12 artists that were selected to create these unique and beautiful installations that help enliven our urban environment and tells the stories that are reflective of the communities, neighborhoods and stations they are featured in.”

Transit-riding art lovers can also enjoy works by Hughen/Starkweather, Catherine Wagner, and Moto Ohtake. Installations of artworks by Tomie Arai and Roxy Paine will take place when the full stations open in 2023.

What has become a visual staple with its 25,000 Bay Bridge-spanning LED lights, Leo Villareal's "The Bay Lights" launched SF Travel's annual "Illuminate SF Festival of Light" in 2013. Over the course of 10 years, the project has continued to add sparkle to dark winter days, presenting art by a diverse array of acclaimed artists, including Olafur Eliasson, Jenny Holzer, Daniel Libeskind, Jorge Pardo and Jerry van Eyck, and San Francisco Bay-based Jim Campbell, Johanna Grawunder, Dorka Keehn and Brian Goggins.

"The Wind Baffles" structure at The Parks at 5M, Fifth and Mission.

This year's festival is presented by SF Travel along with 5M (the new mixed-use four-acre destination at Fifth and Mission) as well as local cultural partners. Beginning at the 5M, there's a self-guided tour around dozens of site-specific artworks, starting at the 5M site where the softy-lit "The Wind-Baffles" structure looms large, like a giant blue metal flower.

Other new additions include Iranian-American Taravat Talepasand’s "Peace in the Middle East" in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ lobby. The neon art explores the cultural taboos that reflect on gender and political authority.

Award-winning artist Yu-Wen Wu's installation of 29 illustrated lanterns hangs overhead Chinatown's Grant Avenue, some relating to the long and fraught history and legacy of Chinese immigration in the United States.

Although "Day for Night," Jim Campbell's dreamscape that subtly floats on the night skyline atop Salesforce Tower, is the highest work of public art in the country, things are about to get even higher as an iridescent, choreographed flight of lights is headed our way for five nights in January.

The skies over Rotterdam, the Kennedy Space Center and Burning Man have already provided a backdrop for DRIFT’s “Franchise Freedom,” and now, thanks to Immersive Arts Alliance (IAA), the Bay Area is next up.

Dutch artists Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta founded DRIFT to manifest the phenomena and hidden properties of nature combined with technology, in order to learn from the Earth’s underlying mechanisms and to re-establish our connection to it. “Franchise Freedom”is based on a biological algorithm from over 10 years of research into starlings’ flight and murmurations behavior. The aerial performance funnels technology, science, and art into a poetic illustration of how we strive to live autonomously within societies defined by convention.

Continuing through the first few months of the year, IAA will also be rolling up to buildings and iconic sites in San Francisco and the East Bay with projectors and audio equipment, displaying works of light art by Bay Area artists.

Seems like 2023 is the year to look up to the sky, and see.


→ More information at sfartscommission.org;
illuminatesf.com; immersiveartsalliance.org.


Yu-Wen Wu's lantern art, that commemorates the neighborhood's history, culture, and community, brightens Chinatown's Grant Ave. Among the notable Chinese-Americans depicted on these lanterns are actor Bruce Lee and author Amy Tan.


Catherine Barry
Catherine Barry
Editor at SF/Arts
Editor at SF/Arts
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