BAMPFA’s Art Wall presents massive — but temporary — opportunities

At 60 feet wide and 25 feet high, and clearly visible by passersby on Center Street, the Art Wall at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) is eye-catching if for no other reason than its largeness. It is what’s being displayed there, however, that makes the Art Wall unmissable.

Following the lead of some the world’s best art museums, BAMPFA established the Art Wall as a centerpiece facing visitors as they enter its new museum, which opened early this year. The massive space is intended to showcase bold and beautiful — and temporary — works from local, national and international artists. Similar to the Tate Modern’s large-scale space called Turbine Hall, the Art Wall is an enormous canvas in the Berkeley community.

“When I look at that space, I see opportunity,” said BAMPFA Director Lawrence Rinder. “It kind of sets the stage and creates an environment for what happens there. It’s a temporary signature for the museum.”

They are temporary signatures because Art Wall installations, regardless of medium or popularity, are limited to a six-month display. This isn’t an unusual practice in the art world, and the ephemeral nature of the installations can produce work that is unique or more experimental.

“It’s not for everyone,” says Rinder, “but there are others who are excited about it. It’s liberating for them because they’re working and responding to a specific space. I think it does allow a certain kind of experimentation that they wouldn’t necessarily feel under different circumstances. It’s a space for experimental gestures.”

The installation of if you are hit on the head with a kaleidoscope (does that mean you see stars? and an interview with artist Terri Friedman (BAMPFA video)

Radioactive weavings

East Bay artist Terri Friedman, whose brightly colored yarn weaving if you are hit on the head with a kaleidoscope (does that mean you see stars?) was installed on the Art Wall this summer, is precisely the type of artist Rinder and BAMPFA seek out for the space.

An accomplished mixed-media artist who was relatively new to weaving, Friedman has been on Rinder’s radar for some time. Earlier this summer, Rinder was struck by what he saw on a visit to Friedman’s studio and, despite an abbreviated timeline for installation, offered the wall space to her.

“I had no idea [the visit] would lead to an Art Wall installation, but when I saw the weavings I immediately knew that they would be great for the space,” says Rinder. “I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to waste, so I asked her if she would be open to it.”

“My first thought was ‘no way,’” says Friedman. “It’s a huge space… I only had three and half or four months to do this, and it normally takes me a month to do a panel. I didn’t know how I was going to do this, but something in me said ‘yes.’”

The offspring of that ‘yes’ is a multi-paneled installation composed of hand-tinted and commercially dyed fibers that tease out ideas like inspiration, radioactivity, transition, memorial and emergence. It’s a piece that drew upon both the city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley as inspiration.

“BAMPFA resides at the epicenter of a great research institution within a town that has a rich history of revolution and social justice,” Friedman writes in her wall statement about the piece. “The title is a metaphor for inspiration, neuroplasticity and discovery, and it’s a call for action.”

While Rinder says that it is not a requirement that Art Wall installations have thematic ties to Berkeley, the connection between time, place and the work itself is apparent in Friedman’s kaleidoscope.

“During the many hours I spent weaving this yarn painting, I could not ignore the world around me…The climate is radioactive and so are the panels,” writes Friedman. “The panels tell a story about the impact, instability or even violence that leads to insight and inspiration. The electricity that ignites action. Violent pretty. That which is so breathing or horrifying, it does not go unnoticed. It summons movement or action.”

Installation of the first Art Wall project, The World Garden, by Qui Zhijie (BAMPFA video)

Leaps of faith

There is a shared risk that is assumed with taking on a project like this. Museums with this kind of space vet proposals but can never know exactly what installations will look like at scale. And artists are creating works that are, for the most part, larger than anything they’ve done in the past.

“It’s risky to put yourself out there on a 60-foot-wide wall,” said Rinder. “In both cases we’ve had so far, it would have been impossible for the artist to see the work until it’s actually made. There’s considerable risk for the artist, and, I suppose, for us too.”

This risk was apparent with the installation that preceded Friedman’s kaleidoscope, a mural painted by Chinese artist Qui Zhijie titled The World Garden. Rinder had met Zhijie at a conference in China and, through an interpreter, commissioned the Art Wall’s first-ever installation.

“I thought he was great. He had fantastic energy and a dynamic personality,” says Rinder. “We conducted the whole planning and negotiation by email, and he insisted that all he needed was five days and a bucket of water. Leading up to the opening I was curious about his timeline. Maybe he thinks it’s six feet, not 60? I wasn’t sure we were on the same page until the moment he walked through front door.”

With a space like the Art Wall, time will always present some kind of a challenge. With such an abbreviated run time per installation, Rinder and BAMPFA constantly have to keep an eye on the horizon. Rinder, who is in the final stages of securing the next Art Wall project, likes to keep the museum six months ahead.

“Museums aren’t just about preserving the past, but also about looking into the future and taking risks. As part of of a great research university we need to be on the cutting edge,” says Rinder. “I love the way that we, especially with the Art Wall, can be a catalyst by giving artists opportunities they would not have at any other space.”

The Art Wall will continue to be that catalyst for some time. Made possible through significant funding from Frances Hellman and Warren Breslau, the Art Wall project’s future is secured through 2018 at the very least.

For more information about the Art Wall or for museum information, visit BAMPFA’s website www.bampfa.berkeley.edu