Tipped off by my friend Heidi, I’d been reminding myself to keep an eye out for Mick Wiggins’ work any time I’ve hopped on BART to get somewhere. Never graced with a sighting, after a while I just figured I was unlucky and promptly forgot about them. Weeks turned into months, until one weekend returning from Balboa Park I spotted Steller’s Jay, feeling like any bird watcher who has spotted an elusive lifer after a long search.
Since I generally take MUNI rather than BART, the story pretty much could have ended there. But on the way back from the 49 Geary building on a subsequent weekend, on impulse I walked down to the Montgomery station rather than catching the 27 Bryant home. Inside, literally every available advertisement display was devoted to a Canadian tourism campaign (which informed the prospective visitor that through some recent shift in Plate Tectonics, the Great White North had been conveniently relocated just a stop away from Lake Merritt). Were Wiggins’ pictures gone for good? Or were downtown BART stations just too valuable to make space for a few pieces of public art? I decided to head back to Balboa Park the next day and see if the artist’s work was still up.
BART’s poster program is an interesting experiment. By reclaiming some of the ad space, the agency demonstrates a willingness to acknowledge the public nature of its enterprise. The hills of Black-Tailed Deer, dotted with lights, are a familiar sight to any Bay Area resident which never fail to fill me with a sense of euphoria, especially when viewed after returning from a trip elsewhere. “I’m home again,” I can tell myself when I see them.
Yet there is the danger that Wiggins’ work, with its smooth graphic richness, will simply vanish into the background noise of the other ad posters. The choice of displaying the name of the flora or fauna in capital letters in the center of each in some ways serves as urban camouflage. It is exactly the approach taken by many an advertiser hustling for your acknowledgment.
One wonders if the visual landscape can make room for such works, just as wildlife in the corridors along BART’s route are often crowded out by our presence. Unlike Shephard Fairey’s work which puts itself in confrontation with its surroundings, Wiggins’ pictures are attempting to coexist and co-mingle. Fairey’s work can easily be torn off a wall, but if you’re that angry it’s already shown its teeth. By contrast, Wiggins’ works have no natural defenses.
I enter at 24th and Mission a little dozy and fixated on the trip to Balboa Park so it takes me a second to realize that Eschscholzia Californica is staring me squarely in the face.
I take out my camera and everyone on the platform begins to shoot me puzzled glances as I enthusiastically snap a few pictures.
No one seems to pay any particular attention though to the picture, which could just be general indifference or evidence of its relative crypsis amongst the plugs for Altoids and Pepsi.
Zipping past Glen Park I catch sight of another Steller’s Jay. I’ll stop by on the way back I tell myself if the next station is now full of blurbs singing the praises of Canada’s bounty.
I shouldn’t have worried. Before I even have time to turn around, the train leaves Balboa Park station on its way to SFO and once again I find one of the works facing me from across the tracks.
I wait for the station to clear out and then take a few pictures of Steller’s Jay on the other side of the platform.
I admire the frames around each work (a nice touch I think) before realizing even the Blackberry ad has one.
I’m still left wondering why I’ve never encountered any of the works downtown, whereas the further along the line I traveled the more I discovered. I have to admit though that my limited use of BART makes a conclusion hard to draw: my travel habits hardly constitute a representative sample.
Attempting to exit the station upon my return I’m baffled that my card is reading insufficient funds. I suddenly realize that I never exited the station at Balboa Park, and now I’m forced to add another fare since I’m certainly not traveling to another station just to reenter again and return. Art: that’s how they get you.
Luckily, Ivy McClelland’s woodcut prints are waiting for me when I emerge at 16th and Mission and so any muttered recriminations are swallowed as I dig into my bag for the camera.