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The Art of the Brick

Started: 2022-09-21 21:02:45

Submitted: 2022-09-21 23:40:02

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Seeing Lego art in person; also, a random Ferris wheel in Golden Gate Park!

I ran across the book The Art of the Brick by Nathan Sawaya years ago, probably from one of our local libraries. This year the artist's traveling exhibition by the same name set up shop in San Francisco, giving me a compelling excuse to see Lego art in person (and, to be fair, I'm always on the lookout for excuses to go to San Francisco). I bought tickets to the exhibition for the last Saturday in August; then on the Saturday morning we were planning on leaving, Calvin came down with a nasty cold and asked to stay home and we agreed, because it still seemed awkward to take anyone out into the world when they were clearly sick, even if they'd tested negative for COVID on a home antigen test. (It did not escape my notice that both kids came down with colds in the weeks after school started; though so far no one in my household has ever tested positive for COVID-19.)

We left Calvin at home, aware that we were violating the Wrong Side of the Mountain Rule (at least one responsible adult should stay on the same side of the mountain as the kids, on the theory that Highway 17 is a terrible choke-point that's likely to be impassable when we need it, especially during winter storms). We took Julian and drove across the mountain and up I-280 to the parking garage at Daly City BART, which serves as a convenient parking lot to take transit the rest of the way into the city.

The exhibition started in the basement of an old bank building around the corner from Union Square, not far from the Powell BART station. The first thing we saw was a human-sized figure made out of full-sized Lego bricks sitting on a park bench, clearly intended to be photographed and posted on Instagram. We posed for pictures with the figure but did not post them on Instagram. (I was a little disappointed by the lighting, which illuminated the subjects from above with very little fill lighting.

Jaeger at The Art of the Brick
Jaeger at The Art of the Brick

The first part of the exhibition reproduced various famous works of art in Lego, using a variety of techniques. The artist wrote about each of the works in signs next to the works, and talked about why he choose various techniques. Most of the art used a mosaic of some sort, but the next question was whether the work was presented so that we were looking down on top of the studs (as shown in the background of The Scream), or whether we were looking sideways at the edge of the plates (as represented in the body of the figure).

The Scream in Lego
The Scream in Lego

The reproduction of The Great Wave used the plates facing upwards so that we saw them edge on. This meant that each pixel was three times as wide as it was tall, which in this case echoed the horizontal nature of the ocean (notwithstanding the titular wave towering over the tiny fishing boat).

The Great Wave in Lego
The Great Wave in Lego

The next room turned to sculpture and presented Venus de Milo and David standing next to each other. (Here, too, the figures were lit starkly from above, and the black wall they're behind them washed caused the auto-exposure on my camera to wash out the bright white Lego bricks.) For this larger, human-sized work, the artist used regular-sized Lego bricks as voxels to fill out the space occupied by the sculpture. This produced a certain pixelated effect in the sculpture, with some interesting patterns as the square bricks tried to reproduce curved three-dimensional surfaces. (I also noticed that David was not as anatomically complete as his stone counterpart, though a more-accurate representation would have run into the same problems with small details.)

Venus de Milo and David in Lego
Venus de Milo and David in Lego

The next room held the biggest piece I'd seen so far, a T-Rex skeleton in Lego. I looked at the hanging ribs arcing down from the spine, hanging in space only by the strength of the tower of structural bricks, and wondered about the tensile strength of a Lego stud (though in practice I assume the artist broke the cardinal rule of Lego and glued the pieces together. But then I wondered how the works were packaged for storage and delivery: most of the small-to-medium-sized pieces (up to human-scale sculptures like David) could be packed as a single piece, but did the larger pieces like T-Rex need to be broken up into sections? Were those joints the only pieces of the model not glued together?)

T-Rex in Lego
T-Rex in Lego

Around the corner I saw Yellow, the sculpture that I associate with artist Nathan Sawaya because it's pictured on the cover of the book The Art of the Brick. I confess I find it slightly creepy: the figure is opening up their own chest to dump out their entrails and it turns out they're filled with lose Lego bricks inside. But it's certainly a striking piece, so I'll allow it.

Yellow by Nathan Sawaya
Yellow by Nathan Sawaya

There was one room titled Pink Dream that included a chair made out of Lego that we were invited to sit on (under the silent watchful eye of a nearby security guard). I wondered about the structure of the chair: how strong did it have to be in order to withstand people sitting on it all day? (I did not get the opportunity to study the interior structure of the chair, but I can confirm that the flat surface covered in Lego studs was not an especially comfortable chair to sit on.)

Kiesa and Julian in Pink Dreams
Kiesa and Julian in Pink Dreams

There were many other pieces of Lego art that I didn't photograph, many involving stylized human figures. There was one room showing a series of stylized photographs, looking like they were replicating mundane suburban scenes from the middle of the last century, where one element of the scene had been replaced by a life-sized Lego sculpture. The sculptures themselves were displayed near the photographs; it was weird to see the least-realistic part of the stylized photo suddenly manifested in real life in front of me.

At the end of the exhibition we had the opportunity to climb up to the mezzanine overlooking the final gallery (once the exhibition had finally climbed back up to ground level) and build a Lego sculpture of our own. Julian and I built something out of Lego and set it up on the counter for display (before being eventually reclaimed, because in Lego, all structures are impermanent).

And then we exited the exhibition back onto the sidewalk, once again returned to the real world of physical objects, not Lego sculptures.

We ate lunch at Super Duper on Market Street, then caught the N-Judah MUNI Metro line outbound from Powell to the Inner Sunset, then walked a couple of blocks north into Golden Gate Park. As we walked into the park the fog blew overhead, rustling the leaves in the towering eucalyptus trees. It was the end of Fogust and we were happy to see the fog.

Skystar Wheel in Golden Gate Park
Skystar Wheel in Golden Gate Park

The Skystar Wheel was placed at the edge of the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park to celebrate some auspicious anniversary in 2020, but then 2020 happened and the wheel never opened as scheduled. It was supposed to be a limited-time one-year-only installation, but because of the pandemic, it got an extension and is now scheduled to come down in 2025. That's far enough out that I probably don't need to rush to see the wheel, but while I was in the city anyway, it seemed like I might as well drop by and give it a ride.

Julian and Kiesa wait for the Skystar Wheel
Julian and Kiesa wait for the Skystar Wheel

We bought tickets and waited for our turn to board the wheel. The wheel was not especially crowded, in the middle of a foggy Saturday afternoon at the end of August. After a few minutes the wheel slowed and stopped to disembark its first set of passengers, and an attendant appeared to scan our tickets and let us onto the first of the open cabins. (The boarding area was equipped to board up to five cabins simultaneously, but with a smaller crowd it looked like they were only boarding one or two at a time.)

Skystar Wheel above the Music Concourse
Skystar Wheel above the Music Concourse

The Ferris wheel started moving and whisked us up into the air with a view of the de Young Museum, vaguely north on the north flank of the Music Concourse, its observation tower looming over the park providing a commanding view of the Ferris wheel. The fog hung low over the park, and the constantly-changing view as the wheel spun and our little cabin rotated made it difficult to see much beyond the immediate surroundings in Golden Gate Park.

Julian on the Skystar Wheel
Julian on the Skystar Wheel

This was when I discovered that Julian was afraid of the heights in the wheel, so I guess I know which kid inherited my anxieties.

Jaeger, Kiesa, and Julian on the Skystar Wheel
Jaeger, Kiesa, and Julian on the Skystar Wheel

Before we had a chance to get bored with the ride the wheel stopped to discharge us at the base. We exited through the desultory gift shop and stepped back onto the ground at the Music Concourse.

Monumental Reckoning in front of the de Young Museum
Monumental Reckoning in front of the de Young Museum

I stopped to look at an art installation titled Monumental Reckoning that surrounded a plinth that formerly held a statue of Francis Scott Key; the statue was a casualty of the iconoclastic facet of the Black Lives Matter facet in 2020. The new art installation attempted to put the empty plinth in historical context by surrounding it with figures representing enslaved Africans.

Monumental Reckoning in the Music Concourse
Monumental Reckoning in the Music Concourse

We left the Music Concourse and walked east through the park, past a small group of people who appeared to be drilling with samurai swords, through the National AIDS Memorial Grove (which was filled with music and dancing) and past Robin Williams Meadow (where I saw the AIDS quilt earlier this summer) to the Koret Children's Playground. Julian played in the playground and slid down the concrete slide built into the hillside.

After playing the park we promised Julian ice cream as a mid-afternoon snack. We considered heading to Birite Creamery for ice cream on the corner of Dolores Park in the Mission when we discovered there was a MUNI bus that would take us right there, but it turned out that bus only operated once every half our and by the time we made it out of the park the bus had just left. Our fallback option was The Ice Cream Bar in Cole Valley, which someone in the playground had mentioned when they heard us talking about ice cream. This was a deliberately-retro hipster soda fountain/ice cream parlor with a good selection of ice cream and a great banana split (which was big enough that Kiesa and I split one between us).

N-Judah crosses Cole St
N-Judah crosses Cole St

We caught the N-Judah inbound from Cole Street, transferred to BART at Civic Center to ride back to where we were parked at Daly City, and drove the rest of the way home.

"Clues you're twittering too much : during an interesting dream, you think "I must twitter this", and start looking in dream for your phone."
- Neil Gaiman, via Twitter