The one thousand acres that make up San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park seem like a piece of nature in the city, but almost nothing about the park is natural. Designers filled the park–which was originally mostly sand dunes–with tens of thousands of trees in the late 1800s. They brought in non-native plants. Then they shipped in squirrels from the East Coast.
In an art show called (non)NATIVE, now up at the de Young Museum in the park, artist-in-residence Jane Kim considers how the unnatural history of Golden Gate relates to the city as a whole–and the idea of what belongs in San Francisco, whether it’s a plant or another thousand software developers.
“The whole idea of what is really native in San Francisco became an interesting question for me,” she says. “And what I really came to understand is that nothing is actually native. Not the people, not the plants, very few animals that we see here today.”
Most of the pieces have tech industry references. “Combining the two, and using each other to create the narrative and draw comparisons and allegories, became an interesting way to talk about both the environment and also about the sociology of the city,” she says.
In one drawing, overlaid on an 1890s real estate map, an Amazon Prime box full of Eastern gray squirrels arrives in the city, while a California ground squirrel–an unpopular native species–watches.
“The park was developed in the Victorian era, and their focus at the time was to really obliterate everything that would have been native to this current landscape,” Kim says. “So it’s very different than the way that we may think about green spaces and ecology today. They had absolutely zero interest in maintaining what would have been original habitat of San Francisco.”
Even now, people make choices about what native species we want to have around. In a piece called Turf Wars, a fox and coyote fight over a Facebook lanyard–a reference to the fact that a family of foxes lives on the Facebook campus (and have a fan page with more than 100,000 likes). Foxes are seen as cute, while coyotes are often seen as dangerous pests, and many parks, like Golden Gate, don’t really have room for both predators.
In another artwork, ravens weave iPhone chargers into a nest in a eucalyptus tree. The trees, originally from Australia, are being removed in some areas because they compete with native species and may pose a fire risk. But because they’ve been in place for more than a century, many people don’t want to see them go. Ravens and other native species have adapted to them.
The iPhone chargers in the artwork make the connection to social issues: tech companies, like eucalyptus, have shaped San Francisco today. “The eucalyptus, to me, is not good or bad,” Kim says. The question is whether or not the trees should be replanted with something else now, and how the city wants to grow.
“When you start asking those questions about should these plants be here or not be here–native or non-native–and you start making those comparisons to people, it actually I think opens your eyes to adaptation and acceptance and making decisions,” she says. “It becomes sort of a collective, public opinion debate. It’s really about what people collectively in the city are going to accept as ways to move the city forward.”
The show will close on July 3.
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