a Hayes Valley landmark, an artistic question mark

By Han Zhang

If you ever walk through Hayes Valley in San Francisco, you cannot help but see David Best’s Patricia’s Green Temple, plopped in the middle of a strip of green, sandwiched between a jungle gym, food trucks with some of the most expensive slices of pizza in the world, clothing stores for millionaire skateboarders, and restaurants selling thirty dollar pancakes. Best is famous for building immense temples out of recycled wood sheets for Burning Man and then setting them on fire, in the tradition of that ridiculous hippy festival in the desert. Best’s Hayes Street Temple stands out because it’s so different than everything else around it: expensive boutiques, Victorian apartments, new multi-million dollar Condos, expensive shoe stores, one might say that everything is expensive and for sale on Hayes Street, maybe even including the people. So, Best’s Eastern inspired temple stands out that it doesn’t appear to be selling anything and even seems to tout—in Burning Man tradition—it’s own temporary status. It too will be destroyed.

From the distance, it’s hard to tell what it’s made of. It looks like iron and steel that’s rusted over time. When you get closer to it, you realize that it’s more delicate and that it’s made from wood pieces. It looks a lot cleaner from the inside than the outside. There are countless layers of patterned wood intersecting each other. The first thought that crossed my mind was how Best assembled these pieces so perfectly and with such care. You can tell how well designed and arranged it is by the way the wood chandeliers seem to float within the space. However, it seems missing the function of a chandelier because there are no lights at all. So, right away, Best breaks one of the first rules of good design: that aesthetics should follow function.

Go Inside

Now get closer to it, and as you walk into the sculpture you’ll find thousands of handwritten messages to people and the world. More than anything else, the writing seems to be the purpose of Best’s work: this is art that demands that people deface it. Best says, “When we finish the temple and turn it over to the community it is an empty building. They bring their Mothers, they bring their Brothers, they bring their best friends, their weddings and their celebrations to it. And then it becomes something. It has no life until the community brings that life to it.” Whether this is true or not, we’ll save for later.

But in a way Best is right. “Patricia’s Green Temple” is an interactive art installation. When you are at the temple, people play around with it. They sit and chat it and flirt and eat and get out their magic markers, and laugh, and write messages all over this piece. They do all sorts of casual people things. They are writing messages like: “I love life” and “Sonia was here”, but these interactions might not be what David Best expected.

Notes and Notes
Best’s original intention was to create a memorial place for people to write messages and pray for their lost or loved ones. Instead, people are more likely to treat it as a massage board or a sight seeing spot. When you walk into a temple there are no instructions telling you to be respectful. And yet, you automatically take on a respectful and understated demeanor. Go to any temple around the world and you are unlikely to see people playing and goofing around. Why is that so? I would suggest that it has to do with how the architecture shapes our experiences and makes us act in certain ways. You don’t climb up the walls or take out a pen to write your name in the famous temples of Cambodia. As I said before, aesthetics follows function.

For Best, aesthetics trumps function and so what he’s made looks like a temple but doesn’t act like one. The atmosphere at Best’s temple is missing the meaning of what a temple actually does, which is to make a connection with god and find a way to balance our inner lives with the world around us—that’s what a temple does. It isn’t a space to eat overpriced Gelato and leaves messages for your friend, but one that requires you to do the hard work of taking care of the soul, something that Best obviously does not care about.

©Han Zhang and the CCA Arts Review

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