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Dueling Pianos of a Grander Scale

An operatic new artwork rises in mid-Market.

Caruso’s Dream, an art installation of glass and steel pianos

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Artists Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn during the installation process

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A rendering and a wooden model of the work

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Steel craftsmen hand-welding the piano frames

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Hoisting the first 2,000-pound piano over Ninth Street

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More than 940 panes of vintage glass were sourced from across the United States

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The supports are made of wood reclaimed from San Francisco Transbay Terminal pilings

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Caruso’s Dream, a new public artwork by local artists brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn featuring 13 suspended, 2,000-pound pianos, didn’t get the typical gallery-goer preview. Though the completed artwork won’t be unveiled until this Sunday, February 23, the installation process has been on full view to the surrounding neighborhood, a gritty stretch of mid-Market (55 9th St., near Market St.). “People would come around the corner super-high and look up, totally agape,” Keehn says, gleefully miming amazement. “This art is really being seen by the public first.” Even for sober passersby, it’s a jarring sight: a 25-foot-high canopy of upright, grand, and baby grand pianos fabricated from steel and vintage glass, mounted askew on the side of a building and illuminated by pulsing LED lights.

The surreal work was inspired by the imagined dreams of famed tenor Enrico Caruso, who, after performing Carmen in San Francisco, was roused from sleep at the Palace hotel by the tremors of the 1906 earthquake. A vision of dangling pianos is one that has stuck with Goggin for 15 years. In his 1997 installation Defenestration, in which furniture appears to be leaping from a four-story SoMa building’s windows, he had originally hoped to have a playable piano hanging off a turret. “This time,” he says, “we’re playing the pianos with light.” From dusk to dawn, undulating lights will correspond to original recordings of Caruso’s operatic performances, which will be audible within a block of the building to those tuning in to 90.6 FM.

Goggin and Keehn’s first collaboration, in 2008, was Language of the Birds, a flock of solar-powered books strung near City Lights in North Beach. (“If something’s hanging off a building, you know brian Goggin is involved,” Keehn jokes.) Caruso’s Dream, two years in the making, is grander in both ambition and scale. Over 940 panes of 60-year-old chicken wire glass—meant to reference factory windows—were sourced from old industrial buildings throughout the country, and a single upright piano took over 100 hours of finish welding alone. Each piano is supported by wood salvaged from the San Francisco Transbay Terminal and reinforced with steel. ”And yes,” Keehn says dryly, responding to a shouted question from a passing construction worker, “they’re earthquake-proof.”

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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