Language of the Birds at Columbus and Broadway Streets

“Words take wing in North Beach artwork” San Francisco Chronicle November 24, 2008
“Bohemian Universe” by Genny Lim – Poem written for the dedication


Language of the Birds, a permanent site-specific sculpture by artists Brian Goggin with Dorka Keehn

“Language of the Birds,” a permanent site-specific sculpture by artists Brian Goggin with Dorka Keehn

Mayor Gavin Newsom and Luis R. Cancel, Director of Cultural Affairs for the San Francisco Arts Commission, are pleased to announce the completion of Language of the Birds, a permanent site-specific sculpture by San Francsico artists Brian Goggin with Dorka Keehn located at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenues, will be unveiled at a public ceremony on Sunday, November 23 at 4:00 p.m. Commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission for a new plaza linking Chinatown and North Beach, Director Luis Cancel notes that “This artwork has garnered a tremendous amount of public support and is certain to become a popular landmark and tourist destination.” In an unprecedented collaboration, the artwork is funded by the San Francisco Arts Commission, San Francisco Department of Public Works and private donors. It will be the first solar power-offset public art work in California.

Language of the Birds is a flock of twenty-three sculpted, illuminated books, which appear to have just taken flight from the plaza like pigeons scared up by a passer-by. Appearing to be in motion, the books have flown open creating various wing positions with the forms of the pages and bindings. The entire artwork appears to be in motion with each book holding its position as a bird does in a flock.

Each unique book is fabricated in frosted white translucent polycarbonate. These sculptural elements will be suspended from a geometric web of stainless steel aircraft cables. At night LED lights embedded within the books will create visual patterns; at different times one might see the flock subtly pulsing or giving off a spectacular zoetropic effect. The dynamic lights of Language of the Birds play in the night sky with the other luminous signs of the area.

Goggin and Keehn teamed up with scientist David Shearer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore to provide solar power to the City’s grid, offsetting the energy used by Language of the Birds. The solar panels are mounted on top of the iconic bookstore, located half a block away.

Passing under the flock, pedestrians will notice words and phrases embedded in the plaza floor that appear to have fallen from the pages. On closer inspection the fallen words are in English, Italian and Chinese and were selected from the neighborhood’s rich literary history. Keehn worked with North Beach and Chinatown residents, community organizations, and business owners to select the books from which the words were chosen. Ranging from the Beats, to SF Renaissance poets and Chinese writers, over 90 authors are represented including Armistead Maupin, Gary Snyder, William T. Vollman, and Jade Snow Wong.

The artists created the text patterns to be imbedded in the plaza floor in the Atrium of the SFMOMA. Retaining their original font, individual words from chosen phrases were cast from the third floor gallery of the museum. Words fluttered down 60 feet landing on a paper replica of the plaza thus determining their resting place in the final artwork. Influenced by practices such as reading tea leaves and Japanese gardening, the artists utilize randomness as a tool to tap into different levels of thought and consciousness. The words intersect in ways that allow for unique interpretations and meanings.

Goggin conceptualized the piece during his residency at the Djerassi Foundation. “I sat with my understanding of the site; while watching swallows move through the air, they came together to create fleeting compositions. The image of flying books emerged from the idea of culture and nature connecting in unexpected ways.” Influenced by the literary genre “magical realism”, his sculptures bring new life, movement and meaning to familiar objects (as in past works such as Herd Morality where a herd of running tables clamors for escape and Desire for the Other, a centipede like couch that has eaten the rest of the living room furniture.)

Historically “the language of the birds” is referred to in mythology, medieval literature, and occult texts as a mystical, ideal or divine language, or a mythical or magical language used by birds to communicate with the initiated. In Kabala, Renaissance magic and alchemy, the language of the birds was considered a secret key to perfect knowledge.

Brian Goggin, whose studio and home are in San Francisco, has been creating public artworks and museum and gallery installations since 1991. His piece, Desire for the Other, was acquired by the San Jose Museum of Art in 2004 for its permanent collection. Goggin first attracted national attention in 1997 with Defenestration, an NEA funded site-specific sculptural installation on a commercial building in San Francisco’s South of Market district, which has become an unofficial San Francisco landmark. Among other projects Goggin created Labyrinth for the Yahoo headquarters in Sunnyvale California, Samson for the Sacramento International Airport, Traffic of Ideas for the Seattle Arts Commission, and Herd Morality for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

Dorka Keehn, also a San Francisco resident, is a talk show host on her own arts and culture program, KEEHN ON ART, ( She is an artist who works in many mediums including sculpture, writing, filmmaking and photography. Her documentary OF CIVIL WRONGS AND RIGHTS: The Fred Korematsu Story (PBS POV) won two Emmys in 2001.

The installation of Language of the Birds is taking place at Broadway and Columbus over a three-week period starting on October 30, 2008 and will be an exciting opportunity to document the artists at work. The unveiling of the artwork on Sunday, November 23rd promises to be a spectacular experience, uniquely San Franciscan and full of unexpected treats.


Tonia Macneil at 415/252-2551,

About the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Public Art Program

Established by charter in 1932, the San Francisco Arts Commission is the City agency that champions the arts in San Francisco. Led by the belief that a creative cultural environment is essential to the City’s well-being, the Arts Commission programs permeate all aspects of City life. Programs include: Civic Art Collection, Civic Design Review, Community Arts & Education, Cultural Equity Grants, Public Art, SFAC Gallery, Street Artist Licensing, and Summer in the City Concert Series.

The Arts Commission’s Public Art Program was established by City ordinance in 1969, as one of the first of its kind in the country. The Public Art Program seeks to promote a diverse and stimulating cultural environment to enrich the lives of the city’s residents, visitors and employees. The Program encourages the creative interaction of artists, designers, city staff, officials and community members during the design of City projects in order to develop public art that is specific to the site and meaningful to the community.

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