Wish You Were Here: a Localized “Souvenir Shop”

Written by Ruixuan Li

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Storefront of ELL, Wish You Were Here, San Francisco 2016. Photo by Ruixuan Li

Presented at the new exhibition space at ELL, Downtown San Francisco, the collaborative exhibit Wish You Were Here opened its inaugural show October 14, 2016, and will remain open through the end of the year. The works were contributed by a group of talented San Francisco-based artists from Day Dreamers Limited (founded by Kelly Tunstall, Ferris Plock, and Howard Cao, and powered by Form & Fiction). The exhibit includes typical souvenir items such as t-shirts, mugs, a specially designed press penny machine, postcards printed with artists’ drawings and displayed on a spinner rack, and a gumball machine filled with gold leaf fortune cookies, among others.

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Press Penny Machine, Wish You Were Here, San Francisco 2016. Photo by Ruixuan Li

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Installation View of Wish You Were Here, San Francisco 2016. Photo by Ruixuan Li

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Gumball Machine, Wish You Were Here, San Francisco 2016. Photo by Ruixuan Li

With these salable products, the show transforms the gallery space into a gift shop, an effect that is made even more convincing by the gallery’s close proximity to major tourist attractions. The space invites audience participation through the act of purchasing take-home experiences, much like what tourists do. However, many of the attendees at the opening were San Francisco locals who might have never visited tourist traps in the city. Now, visitors can step into this creative spot at the crossroads of Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Financial District and experience neighborhoods most visited by tourists but that are also popular with local San Franciscans. When the Bay Area residents interact with the exhibit and buy the related merchandise, they have the opportunity to re-explore their city and experience the community like visitors do, by discovering what is often overlooked, and asking questions they don’t usually ask:  what are the major landmarks of San Francisco? When were they built? Where is the world’s first fortune cookie factory?

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Storefront of ELL, Wish You Were Here, San Francisco 2016. Photo by Ruixuan Li

Where most museums lead visitors through the exhibitions to the gift shop, Wish You Were Here encourages visitors to learn about the essence of the city in a different way: the creators from Day Dreamers Limited have applied their own aesthetics to traditional notions of San Francisco and those souvenirs, setting the local visitors in motion on his or her journey to seek places of interest. Fine art, popular culture, and commerce meet in the confines of the small room, and together they deliver a complex message to the audience. Traditional art-world insiders may keep distance from such retailing activities in a white cube, but that is exactly what makes the exhibition experimental. Since contemporary art tends to be dense and difficult to understand, audiences may shy away from a storefront with gallery-like works. But Wish You Were Here stimulates people’s curiosities on the history of San Francisco in a different way: by selling products  that visitors are familiar with, such as Chinese take-out food boxes, but it challenges art lovers to rethink the identity of an art gallery.

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Installation View of Wish You Were Here, San Francisco 2016. Photo by Ruixuan Li

The ultimate goal of the exhibition space is to “ go against the flow.” ELL proclaims that the space is “an extension of the arts and design community,” and their curatorial focus is on cross-disciplinary work. The two founders, Jason Campbell and Rafael Vizcaino, brand their space as “a nexus for creators, fabricators and designers of all stripes” and thus provide these groups with a promotion platform to meet the community and collaborate with each other. As such, ELL has provided an alternative portal for local emerging designers and artists to tell their stories and have conversations with the general public. In this space, more people can discover the talents of these artists, which will hopefully turn imagination into profitable business, rather than just daydreams.

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