“Smokey moments”: What the giant clouds of smoke at the Golden Gate Park all about

4 mins read

Saturday evening’s Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse saw huge clouds of non-toxic smoke which deployed plumes of color high into the sky – floating as high as the Ferris wheel.

Artist Judy Chicago, 82, was behind one of the largest pieces ever conceived. The project, which is entitled “Forever de Young,” will be exhibited at the de Young Museum until Jan. 9. The artist spent two years planning the project but it was in the 1960s when she started mixing color in the air, SFGATE reported.

The unveiling of the piece was witnessed by hundreds of people of different ages, with masks on and phones ready – all uncertain what they are about to see.

“The artist and the environment become collaborators in a somewhat unpredictable experience,” contemporary art and programming of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco curator-in-charge Claudia Schmuckli, said in a speech before the unveiling.

Present at the event was the purple-haired artist herself, who readied the audience through a recorded speech.

“What you will see is a slow, multi-stage unveiling and unfurling of color, which will be mixed in the air,” Chicago said. 

Judy Chicago greets friends and well wishers immediately following her Forever de Young installation on October 16, 2021. (Kevin Kelleher/Special to SFGATE)

The piece is included in the smoke-based presentation, the performance notes said. “Chicago’s engagements with the landscape offered a vision for the future, which was ephemeral, bright, and distinctly feminine,” it reads.

The crowd waited patiently until the piece was unveiled at exactly 6:45 p.m. The audience saw a series of red flares that lit the scaffolding before the massive smoke billowed, joining with purple, pink, and blue colors in the sky.

The wind blew the smoke over the audience within minutes. A discrete smell of sulfur covered the surrounding area.

Suddenly, it was all dark as the cloud of smoke covered the sunlight. It floated over the crowd like a hitting wave, which gathered “Whoa!” reactions from people. Almost all held their phones high to secure footage of an amazing sight.

“It smells like a barbecue just happened,” a kid who witnessed the unveiling said.

“It’s good we’re all wearing face masks,” another man exclaimed.

It was like a “giant campfire”, a woman remarked.

But 4-year-old Amira Budman had a different reaction. “I did not like it. I was crying so much,” the child said. “I wasn’t scared, I just hated the smoke.” 

“It was cool, but we didn’t know we were going to be in it, which was kind of interesting… You kind of felt like you were in this wonderful, part-toxic experience,” a graphic designer, Brent Couchman, who was with the crowd, said.

Another artist, Ginerva Held, was reminded of the state’s wildfire season, but said it was “exciting to be a part of such an experience.”

“At first, having gone through the wildfires, it was a little disconcerting, the smoke in your face,” she said. “But then, getting to see when the smoke disappeared and you got these color combinations… well, I imagine the drone had the best view.”

“It’s great to celebrate a female artist with other San Franciscans,” she added. “It’s nice we can all be out here and enjoy a public performance together.”