Reupholstering "Defenestration"

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 all photos by Erik Anderson

“Can you wait about fifteen minutes?” Brian Goggin asks as he climbs into the harness that will lift him up to the fourth floor of the abandoned building on Sixth and Howard. Out of respect for this remarkable artist (and rapt awe his elevation has on the observer), we wait, standing to the side on the pavement below. Goggin’s restoration of his iconic piece of public art, “Defenestration,” bears witnessing.
Since its installation in 1997, the piece has become a Fellini-esque addition to its rough SOMA street corner. Its canvas is large, rundown building, its doors and windows boarded up since the owner’s renovations stalled in the ‘80s from permit violations. Pieces of furniture -- chairs, lamps, coffee tables with their telephones still clinging to them -- fling themselves from the roof and windows, causing passer-bys to gaze upward, wary of falling sofas. It’s like a free for all from a sinking ship.

But the wooden legs are beginning to rot, the upholstery fraying and tearing from 13 years of exposure to the elements. The area’s been targeted in a beautification campaign, and the city recently seized the property, citing eminent domain. There are vague plans to tear it down to make way for more low income housing, along the lines of the flashy edifice that stands kitty corner to “Defenestration.” Goggin is determined to give the piece a last hurrah. “If the wrecking ball does come, at least it will be dressed up for the occasion,” he says, looking up at his masterpiece.

It’s a labor of love. Goggin had done other public art before, and since “Defenestration” (the flying books on Columbus and Broadway, “The Language of the Birds,” is another one of his works), but few pieces have captured the city’s imagination like the building on Sixth and Howard. He estimated it would take $75,000 to fully restore the work.

“I had done similar pieces before “Defenestration.” my piece “Herd Mentality” in the Yerba Buena Gardens is a bunch of Queen Anne tables climbing up a wall, jumping over, and running across the lawn -- like a herd of wild buffalo roaming through the plains,” says Goggin of the providence of the leaping living room sets at Sixth and Howard. “This one I wanted to do in a neighborhood where people were finding creative ways to uplift their life.”

He originally envisioned the work on an occupied building, explaining to property owners in the area “all I wanted to do was drill big holes in their walls and stick furniture to them. None of them were interested.” Eventually, walking down Sixth Street he saw a sign with a number to call regarding interest in an abandoned building there. He called. The owner was away on a trip to Gujurat, but his daughter was intrigued by Goggin’s preliminary sketches of the project. “She told me I could install the piece if I could do it by the time her dad got back,” the artist remembers.

Eight months later, with the help of somewhere between 30 to 70 volunteers, “Defenestration” was up, making an impression on Sixth Street residents in the process.

One neighbor put a sign in their window that said “get out of the neighborhood art fags,” but for the most part, people were curious about Goggin’s leaping tables. “Everyone seemed to understand [“Defenestration”] without question,” says the artist. “They even started bringing me furniture. I appreciated their eccentricities, and they appreciated mine.”

We chat on the sidewalk while Goggin and his assistant, Valerie Levy, mix epoxy with rubber gloved hands. We are interrupted sporadically by people walking by with questions about all the pulleys and caution tape surrounding us.

“What, you’re tearing this down?” one man asks us in disbelief. “It’s been here for 35 years! It’s a landmark!” “102 years! We‘re putting up condos!” Goggin calls after him with a grin. It must be rewarding to see one’s work become such an accpeted feature in it’s environment.

Though he was working on the site nearly every day when he started in December, Levy and Goggin have cut back to two days a week after a beautiful exhibit of photos taken of the site that was held across the street at 1AM Gallery failed to raise sufficient funds. He’s collected $20,000 now, with an adjusted goal of $10,000 more. “The dream is to rent a boom lift,” Levy confides as she shows us around the interior of the building.

Entering into the gloom inside the metal door, the magic of the site is easy to absorb. Save for the original hotel lobby on the ground floor, it’s an absolute mess. Orange spray paint marks the rotten spots in the floorboards, walls have been knocked down, debris is everywhere. But the filth creates a certain, raw magic.

Large porcelain tubs remain from the SRO’s original residents. A natural camera obscura from holes in a boarded up window projects an image of the sky and buildings across the street, upside-down, on the wall. Pigeons have laid claim to entire floors, particularly the room with the dining room set one of Goggin’s friends arranged for a formal dinner party as a surprise birthday present for his girlfriend. The vast, “over engineered,” steel frames that secure the hanging furniture seem to be the only solid parts of the structure (“they had to do that,” explains Levy. “otherwise, you can’t really have sofas hanging over peoples’ heads”). The squatters that occupied the building before Goggin returned for restoration have cleared out, ingratiating his project to the managers of the property.

The whole thing has an air of the absurd.

Goggin has nurtured, and embraced the oddness of it all. Sideshow freak panels from the “Urban Circus” he threw in 1997 for the piece’s debut still cling to the walls outside and sit in stacks within the workshop.

“The question of restoration was one I pondered for a number of years,” he tells us, a bit tired from another trip up the wall to fix a coffee table. “I liked the idea of revisiting it, of going back to the community to see whether this was something they wanted, if it was important to them.”

But it’s clear, from the smile on his face, and they way he lights up to discuss the job, that “Defenestration” is important to Goggin, as well -- a feeling that is contagious to those around him. “I’m interested in perpetuating the joy, fun, and absurdity of it all,” he concludes, and we leave him to his work.

To donate to the “Defenestration” restoration project, go here.

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