Revisiting the Hypocrisy of Judy Chicago’s ‘Forever de Young’ San Francisco Performance

Nearly two years ago to the day, Judy Chicago sent plumes of smoke into the air around Golden Park — an ominous haze so large, so worrisome that unknowing San Franciscans assumed Golden Gate Park was on fire.

Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with Judy Chicago’s work up until the de Young Museum announced she’d put on a “once-in-a-lifetime” open-air performance outside the culture center’s main entrance. On hyperbole alone, I was intrigued by the promise of seeing her Forever de Young performance in 2021. The glossy campaign images that showed billows of colorful smoke splayed across social media (and my inbox) only drew me in further.

Chicago — the now 84-year-old artist whose chromatic hair and strong like-colored lip evoke the sense of individuality and self-assuredness that I, too, hope to obtain by that age — works in a myriad of mediums. She paints. She writes. She does performances. Above all, she wields her creativity as a tool for change and has been an advocate for women’s rights and equality across the board. In more recent iterations of her work, Chicago has taken on the task of addressing the climate crisis, most notably human-caused environmental destruction.

That’s great. The more voices calling out Mother Nature’s undoing by the dominant species on this planet, the merrier. In the ever-immortal words of Naild It’s Nicole Byer: Ooo, what a treat.

Harmful art presented without accountability isn’t art at all; it’s an injustice put under the guise of creativity.

But what’s less than sweet is when that activism is, quite literally, clouded in a non-toxic smoke display under the pretense of art.

Chicago’s become widely known for its smoke displays, each existing as an example of how we all yearn to break free from monotony and the pedantic expectations of modern life. Dating back to the 1960s, her Atmospheres performances put Chicago on the map as one of the country’s trailblazers in “land art”: the concept of using an artist’s organic surroundings to enhance his or her or artwork.

Using everything from dry ice to pyrotechnics, Chicago’s Atmospheres became synonymous with larger-than-life land art that played off — you guessed it — the skies above her installations. Chicago’s final atmosphere display of that period (between the 1960s and 1970s) took place near the Oakland Museum of Modern Art, which commissioned the work. A Butterfly for Oakland configured a 200-foot butterfly that went through a 17-minute life cycle, gradually erupting with blooms of color before being extinguished as the sun sank over Lake Merritt.

By comparison, Chicago’s insect-shaped vapor showcase was far more muted than what some 8,000 people witnessed this almost exactly two years ago when a pyramid of ignited chemicals glowed all colors of the rainbow.

I made the trek out that Saturday some 24 months ago and saw Chicago’s exhibit in person. I had intended to stream it on the museum’s YouTube channel, but again: this was a “once in a lifetime” performance. Despite my innate introversion, I still get weak in the knees about artistic FOMO.

I don’t think, however, the environmental implications of this event hit me until I was en route to Golden Gate Park, taking the cheapest Bay Wheels bike available at a nearby TenderNob docking station. The 27-minute trip to the de Young Museum had me riding down to Alamo Square Park and weaving through the Panhandle, all before eventually navigating myself through a car-free JFK Drive to eventually find myself at the feet of the museum.

As active consumers of culture, we must hold its creators culpable for the crimes they commit that, ostensibly speaking, could be misrepresented as creative expression.

Arriving at the de Young Museum’s main entrance, I was flanked by people on all sides who were delighted to have the chance to witness the performance. Children sat atop their parent’s shoulders; selfie sticks bobbed up and down in the shapeless crowd; couples who were fortunate enough to find unoccupied benches sat and drank atop them before the performance began. What we all presumably hadn’t accounted for was how that day’s wind conditions and our position to Chicago’s yet-blistering work would affect our viewing pleasure.

The scene that unfolded in front of us all that was represented through a litany of lustrous campaign images to be a multi-colored smoke display, however, grew to inhabit a completely different reality — one that, instead, mirrored a dystopian hellscape birthed by wildfire smoke. (I remember how long my clothes stank of burnt gunpowder afterward, and I found myself coughing for hours later.)

“Mommy, I’m scared, where’s the color anyways?” a child, who must’ve been no older than three years old, pleaded — a cry that still rings in my ear when I revisit Chicago’s performance in my mind. “I can’t see pretty! My eyes hurt!”

I couldn’t see anything pretty either. My eyes — as well as my throat and nose and nostrils — also stung.

Children continued to cry as the clouds of clay-colored smoke ebbed and flowed in density. Once elated onlookers quickly grew worried, packing their bags and heading elsewhere, hoping to find respite in an area where the smoke had yet touched. Selfie-sticks were put away. Instagram Lives were paused amid coughing fits. Food that wasn’t put back into containers was seen thrown away inside nearby trash cans — “you can taste the smoke.”

For those who were unfortunate enough to find themselves downwind of Chicago’s performance, this wasn’t art. No. Far from it, in fact. This was, more than anything else, akin to finding yourself in the thick of wildfire smoke — during a year marked by yet another historic fire season.

Spectators who were situated upwind from the event doted over the installation’s dazzling colors and smokey grandeur. A simple scrolling of Twitter and Instagram led to personal accounts of the event that were glowingly positive, never mind the unapologetic climate crime they were witnessing.

The oohing and awing and absent-minded applause conveyed a muted sense of detachment — from the climate crisis at hand, from the wildfires still burning throughout the state, from Mother Nature herself.

Though the smoke bombs that Chicago used for Forever de Young were later described as non-toxic, it doesn’t mean the installation didn’t harm San Francisco’s microclimates and environments.

Smoke bombs — a.k.a. “paint grenades” or “smoke grenades” — utilize a cocktail of chemicals to give them their vibrant, deep colors. Tinted smoke agents use a formula that consists of an oxidizer — typically potassium nitrate, KNO3 — a fuel, which can be as basic as table sugar, a moderator (usually in the form of sodium bicarbonate) that stops the chemical reaction from getting too hot, and a powdered dye to give the smoke it’s coloring. The main differentiating factor between those deemed non-toxic and those not is what kind of dye is used to create the color and what specific oxidizer was chosen.

Although it’s hard to estimate exactly the carbon footprint of Chicago’s Forever de Young display, smoke bombs still exist as another pressing climate crisis culprit.

Chemists have previously found success in removing potassium chlorate from common colored smoke formulations to achieve a cleaner burn. The presence of potassium chlorate, when burned alongside organic substances responsible for the colors in painted smoke, results in carcinogenic polychlorinated compounds, which can cause injury to a person’s lungs, eyes, and respiratory passages.

Consequently, this has resulted in the use of ionic salts (like potassium nitrate) to mitigate that harm.

Instances of smoke bombs causing acute lung damage, especially among young children with underlying health issues, have, however, been observed — but the damage was largely thought to be from the presence of burned zinc oxide and zinc chloride, which are historically smoke bomb compounds reserved for the military. Other chemical agents and irritants, organic or otherwise, burned from the smoke bombs and their containers were expected to play a role in those injuries. (Recent studies into how inhaled airborne particles from wildfire smoke can wreak havoc on respiratory systems, particularly around kids, seems to substantiate this belief.)

Environmentally speaking, the presence of smoke is incredibly disorientating and physically harmful for a number of animal species.

Rodents, ground squirrels, and rats, are known to flee and completely abandon burrows when smoke is present. Amphibians — salamanders, frogs, toads, etc. — are among the most vulnerable animals to airborne and water pollutants because they breathe through both their lungs and epidermis; tree frogs and river frogs are even more susceptible to environmental irritants due to their outer mucosal linings.

Reptiles, as resilient as they are, have much more fragile lungs than us humans. Most colubrid snakes, for example, only have one lung and lack a complete diaphragm — leaving them incapable of coughing and clearing out their respiratory passages. Alas, this is why reptiles can asphyxiate or be maimed by smoke far quicker in some circumstances than mammals.

Oh, and birds? They will fly for miles — tens of miles, sometimes hundreds of miles even — to escape the sound of a loud, firework-like boom or the presence of thick smoke clouds caused by wildfires. In some instances, birds will never return to that area again. Or, should they come back, will they “sing” less? Or later die from stress or pollution, let alone reproduce.

Although it’s hard to estimate exactly the carbon footprint of Chicago’s Forever de Young display, smoke bombs still exist as another pressing climate crisis culprit.

As I wrote in a post on SFist a day prior to the exhibit: Art is subjective. Its interpretations and meanings will always be amorphous. But what can be decided on without objection is how that art’s production occupies a moment in time. And how said art’s intentionality lines up with the creator’s self-expressed ethics and moralities.

What Judy Chicago’s Forever de Young open-air SF performance in 2021 bequeathed to all who were willing to look past the smoke show was a sense of radical hypocrisy. It existed — and still exists — as a complete albatross to the very mantras around sustainably and climate advocacy she purports to champion. And in doing so, Chicago dissolved herself of being able to hold such claims and titles

Harmful art presented without accountability isn’t art at all; it’s an injustice put under the guise of creativity. As active consumers of culture, we must hold its creators culpable for the crimes they commit that, ostensibly speaking, could be misrepresented as creative expression.

The very fate of the planet and the human species depends on it.

Feature image: Courtesy of ArtWork

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