Hidden Cities at SOMArts Cultural Center

Hidden Cities ambitiously takes on the urban experience through a wide variety of artists and media. Produced through the SOMArts Commons Curatorial Residency, Pireeni Sundaralingam—an accomplished cognitive scientist and poet—tackles her first curatorial project. Despite some unevenness in the works and curatorial voice, the exhibition poses many pressing questions about curatorial practice, the role of arts and artists within the changing landscape of San Francisco, and the nature of urban experiences.

While the exhibition’s many interactive and sound works compete for viewers’ attention, as a microcosm of the city, the show’s cacophony of activity aptly reflects its content. Cities are noisy, bustling, and crowded places, which is both appealing and daunting. On the more subtle side of interactivity, the exhibition nicely features two of Anja Ulfeldt’s sound sculptures. In Obstacles (2013), Ulfeldt invites viewers to interact with her teetering cement blocks, rewarding them with the amplified sound of thumping concrete. Likewise, in Dwellings (2014), a network of absurdist plumbing prompts viewers to pump a lever, thereby triggering the amplified sound of the gurgling water in its pipes. Contrastingly, Christian Cerrito’s Chorus (2012), an installation of garbage cans and debris, acoustically dominates the gallery. Viewers entering the gallery trigger the motion sensors attached to Cerrito’s garbage cans, causing the lids to pop open and close while belching. In addition to the lively pieces that occupy the gallery during regular hours, the opening (which I unfortunately did not attend) featured a bustle of activities with Ilana Crispi tea service, Lize Mogel’s chocolate cake tasting, a parkour team, and the Kearny Street Workshop group.1 While some of the works are more compelling than others, Sundaralingam presents a broad range of activities and artists to reflect San Francisco’s vibrancy.

In declaring that the exhibition seeks to present novel ways of seeing and experiencing the urban environment2, Sundaralingam’s curatorial statement avoids the specificity of considering the different types of cities (historically, geographically, or culturally) or vantages (citizen, business owner, cultural, etc.). While as an exhibition Hidden Cities seems unwieldy, it resonates with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), in which he devotes sections to Hidden Cities. Like Calvino’s unraveling and self reflexive narratives, Sundaralingam’s exhibition presents many urban experiences, which in fact are one and the same place. Illustrative of this multiplicity, Matilde Cassani’s lenticular images juxtapose mundane urban storefronts with the discrete religious worship that occurs inside. Moreover, Christina Seely’s spectrographic images present San Francisco as abstract light from the distance of space. While each of the artists tackle different—and not readily apparent—terrain, together they build a multi-vocal representation of the city.

As a community based arts organization with ties the San Francisco Arts Commission, SOMArts strives to reach beyond the narrowly defined contemporary art scene and integrate community activities. The additional programming for this exhibition (the opening night events and additional curator’s talk3) really compliment the show nicely, rather than merely executing their public outreach component. The city and its inhabitants present the perfect model for programming, such that they are able to address ethnic communities, recreational activities, and innovative design approaches through a single exhibition.

While the exhibition falls short in some of its ambitions, Hidden Cities is a commendable attempt at very complex content. Moreover, SOMArts provides a rare opportunity for emerging curators to tackle really ambitious projects. While small artist-run spaces have been creating strong small shows, the city needs more mid-sized exhibition spaces for local artists and curators to thrive. In the wake of many gallery closures and relocations, San Francisco artists and arts organizations are reassessing and remodeling our approaches in these economically challenging times.


Hidden Cities, curated by Pireeni Sundaralingam, is on view at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco, CA February 22–March 22, 2014.

Images courtesy of SOMArts Cultural Center. Photos: Michelle Lagasca

  1. Derived from military exercises, Parkour is a mix of spiritual and physical discipline that uses the urban environment as an obstacle course. Practitioners acrobatically hurdle and climb over staircases, railings, verandas, etc.
  2. She explains, “Hidden Cities is a chance for us to see our city in a completely new light. Whether investigating covert religions, hidden wildlife, or the way the human body navigates urban space, exhibiting artists challenge us to rethink the way we touch and listen, smell and taste, and really look at the city we call home.”
  3. The curator was joined by John Bela (of the innovative Rebar Art & Design Studio) and Kim Epiphano (Epiphany Dance productions)

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