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"Language of the Birds" Created for New Plaza in San Francisco
Language of the Birds by Brian Goggin with Dorka Keehn.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- Language of the Birds, a permanent site-specific sculpture by Brian Goggin with Dorka Keehn, will be installed mid-October, 2008 and unveiled at the beginning of November. Commissioned by the City of San Francisco for a new prominent plaza linking Chinatown and North Beach, this artwork will become a landmark and beacon for SF’s cultural center and tourist destination. In an unprecedented collaboration, the artwork is funded by the SF Arts Commission, SF’s Department of public works and private donors. It will be the first permanent solar-powered public art piece in the United States.

Language of the Birds is a flock of twenty-three sculpted illuminated books, which appear to have just taken flight from the plaza like pigeons scared up by a passer by. Appearing to be in motion, the books have flown open creating various wing positions with the pages and bindings.

Each unique book is fabricated in frosted white translucent polycarbonate. These sculptural elements will be suspended from a geometric web of stainless steel aircraft cables. At night LED lights incrusted in the books will create an array of unexpected visual patterns. The dynamic light patterns of Language of the Birds play in the night sky with the other luminous signs of the area.

Goggin and Keehn teamed up with scientist David Shearer and Lawrence Ferlengetti’s City lights bookstore to power Language of the Birds with solar panels mounted on top of the iconic bookstore.

Passing under the flock, pedestrians will notice words and phrases embedded in the plaza floor appearing to have fallen from the pages. On closer inspection the fallen words are in English, Italian and Chinese and were selected from the neighborhood’s rich literary history. Keehn headed up working with North Beach and Chinatown residents, community organizations, and business owners to select the books. Ranging from the Beats, to SF Renaissance poets and Chinese writers, over 90 authors are represented including Armistead Maupin, Gary Snyder, William T. Vollman, and Jade Snow Wong.

The artists created the design of the plaza floor in Atrium of the SFMOMA. Retaining their original font, individual words from chosen phrases were cast from the third floor gallery of the museum. Words fluttered down 60 feet landing on a paper replica of the plaza thus determining their resting place in the final artwork. Influenced by practices like reading tealeaves and Japanese gardening techniques the artists utilize randomness as a tool to tap into different levels of thought and consciousness. The words intersect in ways that allow for new unique interpretations and meanings.

Goggin conceptualized of the piece during a residency at the Djerassi foundation. “I sat with my understanding of the site, while watching swallows move through the air, they came together to create fleeting compositions. The image of flying books emerged from the idea of culture and nature interconnecting in unexpected ways.” Influenced by the literary movement magic realism, his sculptures bring new life, movement and meaning to familiar objects (as in past works such as Herd Morality where a herd of running tables clamors for escape and Desire for the Other, a centipede like couch that has eaten the rest of the living room furniture.)

Historically “the language of the birds” is referred to in mythology, medieval literature, and occult texts as a mystical, ideal or divine language, or a mythical or magical language used by birds to communicate with the initiated. In Kabala, Renaissance magic, and alchemy, the language of the birds was considered a secret key to perfect knowledge.

Brian Goggin has been creating public artworks, and museum and gallery installations since 1991. His piece, Desire for the Other, was purchased in 2004 by the San Jose Museum of Art for its permanent collection. Goggin first attracted national attention in 1997 with Defenestration, a NEA funded site-specific sculptural installation on a commercial building in San Francisco's South of Market district, which has become an unofficial San Francisco landmark. Among others Goggin created Labyrinth for the Yahoo headquarters in Sunnyvale California, Samson for the Sacramento International airport, Traffic of Ideas for the Seattle Arts Commission, and Herd Morality for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. His portfolio may be viewed at

Dorka Keehn, is a talk show host on her own arts and culture program, KEEHN ON ART, (www. She is an artist who works in many mediums including sculpture, writing, filmmaking and photography. Her documentary OF CIVIL WRONGS AND RIGHTS: The Fred Korematsu Story (PBS POV) won two Emmys in 2001.

The installation of Language of the Birds will take place at Broadway and Columbus over a ten-day period starting on October 20, 2008 and will be an exciting opportunity to document the artists at work. The unveiling of the artwork in early November (date to be determined) will be a spectacular experience, uniquely San Francisco and full of unexpected treats…

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September 19, 2008

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