The renowned Chinese-American artist Sarah Sze has withdrawn her proposal for a public artwork in Chinatown, a clear favorite among a hundred that were considered. The problem: two groups were at odds over the use of the space, an extension of St. Mary's Square at the corner of Pine and Kearny Streets, which was essentially promised to them both.
A piece in the Examiner tries to sort out the kerfuffle that resulted in the loss of Sze's work, something that Chinese Cultural Center representative Abbey Chen tells the paper is lamentable. “Sarah Sze is a world-renowned artist. We’re definitely saddened she has withdrawn," Leung reportedly said. "It is a loss to not just Chinatown but to San Francisco."
The developer of the St. Mary's Square Extension, 500 Pine Street Company, LLC, had agreed to use the space to highlight a work selected by the nonprofit Chinese Cultural Center with community input, which was one of the terms of them landing the development contract in the first place. Sze's proposal had been selected as of May. In Time out New York, Paul Laster writes that Sze is prized by contemporary arts museums for her "sprawling arrangements of throwaway materials" that contrast "the geometric with the organic, the industrial with the natural, and the domestic with the wild."
Unfortunately, the site of the St. Mary's Square extension was also approved by the Mayor to be the home of a memorial for the women who were sexually enslaved by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII, a group known as "comfort women." Retired judges Julie Tang and Lillian Sing are the co-chairs of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, a group leading the memorial effort. The Board of Supervisors approved its installation last year, though at the time, the Richmond's Lincoln Park, Portsmouth Square in Chinatown, and other locations were under consideration. Eventually the extension of St. Mary's Square in Chinatown was promised in June, as the publication Nichi Bei Weekly reported at the time.
And time was also of the essence according to advocates of the "comfort women" memorial. "A lot of the ‘comfort women’ are dying,” Sing, who was a Superior Court Judge in San Francisco, told Nichi Bei. “We cannot wait.” The Comfort Women Justice Coalition was still raising funds for the memorial at the time of that piece.
Sing told the Examiner that the Comfort Women Justice Coalition and the developer had discussed sharing the site and “thought it was a good idea.” They say that the Chinese Cultural Center should have known that their small "comfort women" memorial would occupy the space too, and that the Chinese Cultural Center should have disclosed that fact to Sze.
The Chinese Cultural Center disagrees. The spot, they say, was granted by them to Sze in May, but they didn't hear about the "comfort women" memorial until July from the Arts Commission.Chinese Cultural Center artist director Abby Chen told the Examiner that “politics trumped the community process.”
The official word from Sze and her people: “Unfortunately, after the selection and before entering into contract, we’ve been informed about significant changes in the original conditions of the project as set by the developers,” her wrote in an email to the Examiner. "This information was not given during the process of the competition. After discussing with SFAC and the developer, we were unable to restate the original conditions."
The "comfort women" memorial will still be installed in the space, along with the runner-up to Sze's work, which was not well-received by the Chinese Cultural Center according to the Examiner. “it’s a huge unfortunate situation that’s occurred,” Arts Commissioner Dorka Keehn told the Examiner.