Agrarian visions

"Land/Use" exhibit examines pastoral lives through a contemporary lens

Amy Franceschini, "Victory Gardens Trike" (2007)

By Cynthia Salaysay

VISUAL ART Artists are makers, though rarely of history. But Fernando García-Dory and Amy Franceschini, two internationally recognized artists, seem to have a gift for it. "Perhaps," García-Dory says, "when you start with a long perspective on history, you start to make history as well."

At the David Brower Center's Hazel Wolf Gallery, their joint show "Land, Use" presents work that is whimsical and futuristic, yet rooted in traditional agricultural values. It's like Disney's Tomorrowland — but on an urban farm, where wheelbarrows are pedal-powered. Or on the rolling green pastures of Spain, where sheep wear GPS transmitters around their necks.

Franceschini is one of San Francisco's own. Her Victory Garden project in 2007 caught the fancy of SF City Hall, with pieces like Trike — a part-cycle, part-wheelbarrow, designed to contain all the supplies necessary to build a small garden. Soon the city began encouraging its residents to grow food, as it did in World War II. City Hall was decked out in raised garden beds, and residents throughout the city began their own vegetable patches.

García-Dory, from Madrid, has worked extensively with the dwindling Basque shepherds of the Pyrenees, where they have lived for centuries. His images and films portray white-haired men stacking golden cheese in ancient caves, or facing the wind, shearing one of their grim-faced flock.

The images come from the Shepherds School he created, and from his World Gathering of Nomadic Peoples (2005), in which shepherds and goatherds around the world came together to talk about their way of life, which has become so rarified in these modern times.

García-Dory's work, in part, uses new technology to protect mobile pastoralism, as it's called. His piece Bionic Sheep sits in the foyer of the gallery. The device emits ultrasound waves to repel wolves, as shepherds in Spain are no longer allowed to kill them to protect their flock. It also has a GPS so shepherds can keep track of their flock without being chained to the pasture. "They can stay at the bar, and have another beer," Dory explains.

Adds Franceschini, "The role of art for us is, in part, utility. It has this negative connotation in the art world, but I think for us it's important for the work we're doing to be useful."

Their first collaboration, Shepherd's Wagon, a Blueprint, is "like the blueprint for a molecule that was sent on the Voyager shuttle to Jupiter," says García-Dory. "It's a way of saying, 'Here, it's a model, and it can be reproduced.'"

A canopy reaches out over the gallery, mimicking the awning of a shepherd's wagon, where they sleep. Wooden chairs and a communal table fold down from the wall. As part of the installation, Franceschini and García-Dory invited young farmers, shepherds, and naturalists to sit together beneath their fragile roof. The forum's purpose: to discuss how to balance the environmental concerns of naturalists with those of farmers and pastoralists, and forge a new network for social activism.

The gallery still holds some of the collective energy of the group. Remnants of their brainstorm litter the gallery like leaves blown over a sidewalk — a chaos of hopeful thoughts and ideas. Phrases like "We all need to come back to understanding the Farm Bill," and "Let's Shadow Each Other Voluntary Exchange Program" hang from the walls.

"Promoting a gathering as we did, it's a way for us to be close to the people and have the direct communication that very often we lack in our lives," says García-Dory.

"I haven't been involved in food politics and land use in the last two years in the Bay Area," Franceschini says. "For me, it's a check in. Here's all the people I've met from the Victory Gardens, here's people I'd like Fernando to meet."