A New Era for Filmmaking in Saudi Arabia

(Published in the March-April 2017 edition of AramcoWorld magazine:

As sunset gilded Los Angeles on November 3, actor Giancarlo Esposito, most recently of Breaking Bad fame, joined a small flock of fellow Hollywood celebrities at Paramount Studios to walk a red carpet in front of an unprecedented backdrop: the logo for Saudi Film Days, the two-day US premiere of seven short movies by seven young directors, all from Saudi Arabia. Esposito, a veteran also of three Spike Lee films who knows a thing or two about new voices in film, was as excited to meet the directors that evening as they were to meet him. “I’m here to support,” he assured them. “I have a feeling I’m going to be blown away by what I see.”

Two hours later, sustained, heartfelt applause from some 150 people inside the plush cave of Paramount’s largest theater seemed to fulfill his prediction.

“Those were the first Saudi Arabian films I have seen,” said actress, writer and producer Karola Raimond. “I was moved. I laughed. I shed some tears. All the films had depth. Honesty.”

Variously dramas, comedies and documentaries, each of the films was set and produced in the Kingdom, and each addresses a subject both culturally specific and universal. Director Ali Alsumayin’s I Can’t Kiss Myself is like a stage drama, a well-acted dialog in which a young man fixated on social media fame is challenged to rethink the consequences of his obsession. Meshal Aljaser’s over-the-top, surreal Is Sumyati Going to Hell? shows a Saudi family treating its Filipina maid, Sumyati, with racist contempt—except for the five-year-old daughter, who loves Sumyati and asks difficult questions. The Bliss of Being No One, produced by Bader Al Homoud, uses long, dialog-oriented shots to portray a grieving man’s chance encounter with an elderly Saudi hitchhiker (played memorably by Ibrahim Al-Hasawi) who turns out to excel at storytelling and deeply candid conversation—or so it seems.

With four additional shorts, Saudi Film Days worked along the lines of Sundance, Cannes and other international film festivals to give the filmmakers a chance to make industry connections and talk publicly about their movies in front of audiences that, in turn, could tell influential colleagues and friends. It was, in Hollywood terms, about buzz.

Arriving in Los Angeles, the filmmakers and actors were supported by Saudi Aramco’s King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, and for many of them, this was their first visit to a major film-production city. Stepping inside Paramount Studios, where generations of acclaimed directors have worked their magic, gave them an up-close look at the tools of success.

“This is a great opportunity for us,” Al Homoud said. “Our main goals are to make connections and to communicate our films. They are pioneers of cinema here. We need to connect with them. We need to learn from them.”

Ali Alkalthami, director of the comedy Wasati, loves the films of Martin Scorsese, who has made five movies at Paramount; Alsumayin admires Woody Allen; Aljaser goes back to Buster Keaton for his inspiration as well to Seth MacFarlane’s television series Family Guy. All aspire to a day when the world knows their works as well. (To date, the best-known international Saudi film may be Haifaa al-Mansour’s 2012 Academy Award-nominated drama Wadjda, about a girl, her family and a bicycle.)

Despite their youth, most of the Saudi filmmakers have been riding the digital video revolution for several years. Worldwide, their country has one of the highest percentages of Internet users—it leads the world in Twitter use and YouTube views per capita—and half its population is under the age of 25.

“Social media helped us a lot as filmmakers because it gave us an opportunity to connect, to find a crew, the actors, and it inspires us to make even better stories,” said Al Homoud.

In addition, the Kingdom has film clubs that screen films in private settings. All this makes for a wide audience for movies despite the absence of commercial theaters. As a co-founder also of the Riyadh-based entertainment company Telfaz11, Alkalthami and his collective of other young directors, technicians and actors produce more than 100 videos a year for an online subscriber base that numbers 12 million. Telfaz11’s popularity is but one example of the Kingdom’s “home-grown” film industry that has to date remained largely invisible to the rest of the world.

“We believe the talent they have is really something that’s worth sharing with the rest of the globe, and we can’t be in a better place than Hollywood,” said Tareq Al Ghamdi, director of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture. “It provides this cultural engagement, through dialog, for people to see what our young Saudis are talking about. And for them, it provides what the rest of the globe is thinking about what we’re doing. It will provide encouragement and support not only to them but to people back home to embrace filmmaking as a career, be it directing or producing or acting.”

The following night, Saudi Film Days screened again a few miles away in downtown Los Angeles, at the historic, baroque-revival Theatre at Ace Hotel. This drew the urban, cosmopolitan crowd, and the lobby beforehand was a chatter of English and Arabic, as well as Spanish and Chinese.

At that evening’s red carpet, as television reporters filmed and interviewed, the directors and actors seemed relaxed and even playful, buoyed by the affirmations of press, peers, celebrities and industry insiders.

“The creative elements of these films were really fantastic,” said Esposito after the Paramount screening. “Each one had its own very specific beauty to it. There were really great messages in these films.” He was particularly taken, he said, with Alkathami’s Wasati, which uses humor to dramatize a serious event decades ago in Riyadh when conservative audience members shut down a theater production in mid-performance; Alkalthami added a fictional character who lends the film both charm and gravitas. “I found it really creative,” Esposito said. “It also made it funny and poignant, and made it more personal.”

Academy Award-winning effects supervisor Craig Barron walked out effusive, too. “I thought they were extremely well-acted and well-designed,” he said. “They make entertaining films that a Westerner can appreciate, and it’s good storytelling.”

“Local but global,” Alkalthami said of his approach to his films. “We’ve been working so much to get our projects out there on the Internet, and now it’s time to make a bit of an adjustment—to try cinema and do cinema. It’s a new platform, a new experience and a chance to get our films seen around the world.”

Raimond echoed him from her point of view. “Watching those films shows how much more we have in common. That’s what art is for. So it’s very important those films are shown in Europe and America.



Cubaist Portrait

Habitually detained by Cuban authorities, Tania Bruguera’s art combines performance with activism. She’s even running for president (although she will not win.)

Published in SF Weekly on June 14, 2017:

The Cuban police and officials who have interrogated Tania Bruguera — and who continue to interrogate her whenever she’s on the island — resort to grossly Kafkaesque questioning, which shows how desperate they are to intimidate and discredit the performance artist.

A Cuban native, Bruguera is an internationally acclaimed political artist whose C.V., which stretches back 30 years, includes a Guggenheim fellowship; big exhibits at the Venice Biennale, Tate Modern, and the National Museum Wales; and plaudits from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which called her “one of the foremost figures in contemporary art” when it bought one of her video works.

But authorities say Bruguera isn’t a real artist. They’ve even said this to her face when, via her own Hannah Arendt International Institute of Artivism, she tried to deliver food, mattresses, and money to an area hit hard by Hurricane Matthew.

Essentially, Bruguera is banned from doing art in Cuba. Cuban authorities consider Bruguera persona non grata because her performances — in Havana and elsewhere — have criticized the government’s policies and treatment of its own people, inspiring other Cuban citizens to speak out, too.

“They take over your identity — and decide they can say who you are,” Bruguera tells SF Weekly on a recent afternoon at YBCA, where her new exhibit, “Talking to Power/Hablándole al Poder,” opens Friday, June 16. “They told me [during my detention], ‘You are not an artist.’ We are playing this game where I use art to open spaces of freedom that are otherwise not allowed.

“Because it’s art,” she adds, “there’s this kind of weird loophole. The first thing they want is to take away my artistic [projects]. I cannot show in art exhibitions in Cuba anymore. I cannot enter Cuban museums anymore. They have all these restrictions for me, as a way to put me into this marginal ‘illegal’ position. I told them, ‘The fact you don’t let me do [my art] here doesn’t mean I’m not an artist. Art is not just a geographical condition. It’s my personal identity and what I do.’”
Bruguera is a product of Cuban privilege — the daughter of a Cuban diplomat, Miguel Bruguera, who was stationed in Lebanon, France, and Panama. During her upbringing, Tania Bruguera had firsthand experience with the Cuban government’s propagandistic spin on its Communist revolution and its aftermath in Cuba.

“I was in a position where I was hearing propaganda all the time, and it’s something as an artist that has influenced me,” Bruguera says, adding that she and her father, who died in 2006, had a tense relationship — one not unlike the one that she has with the Cuban government.

“We were not,” she says, “on good terms, let’s say. I think he died believing [in Cuba’s revolution], which was great, though I think he was a little perturbed by how things came at the end.”

Like many Cuban students, Bruguera was forced to attend government rallies as a schoolgirl. And her school forced students to throw eggs at the house of an 11-year-old whose family was leaving Cuba and its revolutionary ways to live abroad. Bruguera refused to toss eggs. Flash forward almost 40 years, and she says that “activism can be when you decide, ‘No, I’m not going to say yes to this.’ ”

If there’s a performance piece that embodies Bruguera’s bravado, it’s Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana version), which she did in 2009 in the patio of Havana’s Wilfredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art. Bruguera set up an elaborate dais where audience members came up and — standing amid a white dove and two soldiers, symbols of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution — repudiated what they said were the revolution’s hypocrisies and double-standards. (Amnesty International has also called out Cuba’s restrictions on free expression and its climate of repression.)

“Cuba is a country surrounded by the sea, and it is also an island walled in by censorship,” said one speaker at the Wilfredo Lam Center, where Bruguera invited every attendee to talk uncensored for one minute. “Internet — and, especially, the blogs — have opened some cracks on the wall of information control. … It is time to jump over the control wall.”

Through loudspeakers, each person’s words were projected on the streets outside the venue, turning the event into a public spectacle. At least one speaker praised the revolution. Bruguera, who was teaching and living in Chicago and flew to Havana for the event, had given everyone in attendance cameras to record the proceedings, which were covered by media around the world.

In December 2014, Bruguera tried repeating Tatlin’s Whisper in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, where Fidel Castro and other Cuban leaders have traditionally held large rallies. Cuban authorities arrested her on the way to the event, prompting a global appeal campaign that put pressure on the government to release Bruguera along with other artists and activists who were detained in the crackdown.

Bruguera was held on and off for eight months before flying back to New York, where she is now doing an art residency. “Talking to Power/Hablándole al Poder,” is a retrospective of Bruguera’s projects that allows her to update them as she pleases.

“Are art projects that are politically and socially inclined able to survive the moment that gave them the need to exist?” asks Bruguera, wearing a swirling ribbon supporting immigrant respect, which each YBCA attendee will also receive. “Here you will see some pieces that have probably died — probably do not make sense anymore — but we’re trying to update them, to ask, ‘If this piece were to be updated, what would be the issues?’ ”

The exhibit also features something unusual for a major metropolitan museum but which fits into Bruguera’s (and YBCA’s) art ethos: an eight-week-long school, called Escuela de Arte Útil (School of Useful Art), that Bruguera and guest instructors will lead and that anyone can attend. The first assignment asks students to “think about a recurrent injustice that affects you, and propose new ways in which the issue could be addressed.”

Bruguera calls her YBCA exhibition and eight-week school “an experiment.” One of her own recent campaigns is called “#YoTambienExijo,” which translates into “I also demand.” That project began on Dec. 17, 2014, after the United States and Cuba announced the resumption of diplomatic relations and the end of the U.S. embargo. That same day, Bruguera wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama, Cuban president Raúl Castro, and Pope Francis (who helped broker the U.S.-Cuba thaw) to go beyond words.

She implored Raúl Castro to implement “a politically transparent process in which we will all be able to participate, and to have the right to hold different opinions without punishment. … As a Cuban, today I demand there be no more privileges or social inequalities. The Cuban Revolution distributed privileges to those in government or deemed trustworthy (read: loyal) by the government. This has not changed.”

She says that Cuban authorities detain her every time she returns to Cuba, and interrogate her for at least six hours at a time — either when she arrives at the airport, when she leaves, or during her stay. When, during her most recent detention, the state police prevented her delivery of food, mattresses, and money, she demanded they inform her of which law “that says I cannot do this.”

Bruguera says she turned the questioning around because “it was my chance to ask questions of the system. I wanted them to recognize that what they were doing was completely illegal and completely stupid.”

Bruguera says she’ll continue to go back to Cuba because “I always have this belief that the work about Cuba should be done in Cuba. Positioning yourself that way puts an ethical element on the project. It’s easier to stay outside of the danger zone and say whatever you want. … And I feel that political art is art that deals with consequences. It’s not really about criticizing; it’s about understanding how to challenge power, and in the process understanding what are the consequences of that.”

Another example of Bruguera’s artistic daring: In October 2016, she announced her candidacy for Cuba’s presidency, which Raúl Castro will relinquish in 2018. By voicing her intentions, Bruguera encouraged other Cubans to run, too. They have no chance at winning — none at all, as the presidency is expected to be given to Miguel Diaz-Canel, First Vice President of the Council of State of Cuba. Still, the point is not to win, but to spotlight Cuba’s lack of democracy.

“Talking to Power/Hablándole al Poder” shouldn’t just be seen as an anti-Cuban government exhibit. Nor should Bruguera be considered just as anti-Cuban government artist. Bruguera essentially creates art and performs against all governments that inhibit free speech. Her universalism is implicit in her art. In practical terms, Bruguera says that she brings an international perspective with her when she visits Cuba, and a Cuban perspective when she’s in the United States and other countries. Her art is multicultural, appealing to anyone who’s lived under a regime — or even a household — where “the rules” apply differently to different classes. Bruguera holds a Cuban passport but now lives and works in the U.S, and the YBCA exhibit coincides with the presidency of Donald Trump, who’s trying to implement anti-immigration policies and other legislation whose venality seems familiar to Bruguera.

Curated by Lucía Sanromán, YBCA’s director of visual arts, and Susie Kantor, a curatorial associate, “Talking to Power/Hablándole al Poder” is Sanromán’s first bona fide project at Yerba Buena, and one that she originated from start to finish. Hired by YBCA in 2015, she tells SF Weeklythat Bruguera fits in well with the museum’s vision to being “a citizen institution, to become a more democratic platform for cultural change. It became very important to invite an artist who does that naturally. She’s a remarkable, conceptual, interesting, challenging artist.”

Bruguera blurs the lines between art and activism. Eliminates them, in fact. If she has to go to jail, then fine. If she has to endure truculent comments and interrogation from police, then fine. For her performance called The Burden of Guilt, which references indigenous Cubans who rebelled against Spanish colonizers, Bruguera ate dirt and hung a dead lamb around her neck. In her performance called Self-sabotage, which centers about Bruguera’s lecture about art and politics, she employed a loaded gun that she held to her head. Whatever it takes to get people thinking beyond their preconceptions — beyond the art world into the “real world” — Bruguera will do it.

“Talking to Power/Hablándole al Poder”
June 16 – Oct. 29 at YBCA, 701 Mission St. $9-$10; 415-978-2700 or


Scream and Shout: Edvard Munch at SFMOMA

Edvard Munch, Sick Mood at Sunset. Despair, 1892. Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm. (Courtesy of SFMOMA)

(Published in SF Weekly on June 29, 2017:

Surrounded at an early age by familial deaths from tuberculosis, an ominous fear that he would be “next,” and the worrisome nature of his religiously conservative father, Edvard Munch was on edge through much of his life. This sense of unease infused his work with a psychological and emotional dimension that reached an apotheosis with The Scream, the 1893 painting that has been embedded in popular culture for generations. Munch was not quite 30 years old when he did his first iteration of The Scream (or Skrik, in Norwegian). But he lived another 50 years, until 1944, and he continued to produce work — lots of work — that is as stellar as The Scream for its raw, painterly portrayal of inner and outer turmoil. Can the average art-goer name one of these later works?

In a word: No.

That may change with “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed,” SFMOMA’s new exhibit that — thanks largely to the museum’s collaboration with Norway’s Munch Museum — looks at the artist’s entire career, leaning heavily on Munch’s post-Scream oeuvre. Taking its title from a self-portrait that Munch did between 1940 and 1943, the show is a revelation for the way it burrows into Munch’s methods of working a canvas and his way of seeing the world.

Throughout his life, Munch had tense relations with women, and his 1925 work Ashes — on exhibit for the first time in the United States — is a compositionally detailed scene of separation and shame. At its center: a voluptuous woman in a forest, whose flaming hair and shirt match the fiery, almost bloody colors behind her, and whose open, white dress melds into the white rocks below her. To her left: A male figure in black, his head turned into his shoulder, covered by his hand. Did she just reject his advances? Tell him he wasn’t good enough? Four years earlier, Munch painted The Artist and His Model, which shows Munch (who would have been in his late 50s) in a bedroom behind a much younger model whose face is burnt-red in color. Munch and the model each look at the viewer in a haze of disquietness. Both paintings suggest relationships that are precarious and dysfunctional — mirroring Munch’s own history.

In 1902, Munch was shot in his left hand while fighting with a former lover, Tulla Larsen, who was distraught over their breakup. Over the next several years, Munch got into numerous public skirmishes with people, some involving weapons. He drank excessively, suffering a nervous breakdown before finally checking himself into a Dutch clinic in 1908. According to Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, art historian Sue Prideaux’s meticulously researched 2007 biography, Munch was diagnosed with alcohol-induced dementia paralytica. The diagnosis and attending help mark an important milestone in Munch’s life, and Prideaux’s book includes a telling drawing of the clinic’s doctor, Daniel Jacobson, and a woman treating a seated Munch. Munch depicts himself content — smiling, even. The caption reads, “Professor Jacobsen passing electricity through the famous painter Edvard Munch, changing his crazy brain with the positive power of masculinity and the negative power of femininity.”

Munch’s “crazy brain” was integral to his art, and Prideaux, whose godmother was painted by Munch, cites a confessional quote that has become an imprimatur of the artist’s life: “For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. Without this anxiety and illness I would have been like a ship without a rudder.”

The Scream is not at SFMOMA. Munch made four versions, and the one owned by the Munch Museum, painted around 1910, is too fragile to travel. (Thieves stole another version in 2004. Still another made headlines in 2012 when billionaire financier Leon Black bought it for $119 million — the most money paid for an auctioned painting up to that point.)

But Munch made many paintings that had Scream-like qualities, with similar haunted figures or blood-sky backdrops and compositions. Several are displayed in “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed” — most notably the 1892 work called Sick Mood at Sunset. Despair. The work has the same perspective as The Scream — two figures in the background, a diagonal walkway, and a bloody sky that crests over a waterway. Instead of a haunted, skeleton-like figure whose hands cup his or her head, a man looks right. His face is featureless, and his downward gaze gives off the impression of someone despondent, in a state of dread and impermanence.

The same year Munch painted his first iteration of The Scream, he painted The Storm, a scene of Norwegian villagers who were huddled against the nighttime ravages of wind and nature’s wrath. The most notable figure, draped in white, has hands cupped against his or her head, à la the figure in The Scream. Almost 50 works — a tiny fraction of Munch’s total output of more than 1,700 paintings — are in the exhibit.

The last time Munch had a major San Francisco exhibit was 1951, when the de Young showed his art, and “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed” owes its origins to SFMOMA’s recent expansion. The museum contracted with the Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta, which led SFMOMA’s top staff to go to Oslo, where the Munch Museum is located, kickstarting SFMOMA’s idea to bring the artist’s work to San Francisco. After its run in San Francisco, “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed” will go to New York’s Met Breuer (the Metropolitan Museum of Art also co-organized the exhibit) and then to the Munch Museum.

“Ruth Berson [SFMOMA’s deputy director of curatorial affairs] and I were in Oslo with our search committee of the board interviewing Snøhetta, and we popped up with the idea of, ‘I don’t think there’s been a Munch painting shown in San Francisco in many, many, many years, and suppose we can conceive of an exhibition here in San Francisco,’ ” Neal Benezra, SFMOMA’s director, said at the exhibit’s preview.

There remains a dearth of public Munch holdings in the United States. SFMOMA has none of his paintings, while New York’s MOMA has just one: The Storm, which it lent for this exhibit. This has contributed to the impression that Munch’s The Scream was his only seminal work, and “has short-changed us as Americans to understand Munch, and the role he played in 20th-century art,” says Gary Garrels, SFMOMA’s senior curator of painting and sculpture.

Pointing out how Munch influenced later artists like Jasper Johns and Tracey Emin, Garrels adds, “Too often, one work becomes that single icon that becomes a stand-in for the artist’s work itself.”

Besides paintings, Munch made 4,500 watercolors and 18,000 prints. (“He’s really one of the masters of works on paper,” Garrels says.) And he had his own lithographic press, which he used until his death at age 80. Munch painted Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed after the Nazis had invaded and occupied Norway, when he was 76.

Born into strife, his life finished that way. Unlike the bed in other Munch paintings, the bed in this last self-portrait is tidy and made. The clock has no hands. Munch stands next to it. To his far left is a painting of a nude woman. Munch is alone in the room with his art and himself. This is the life that Munch had seemingly envisioned for the end. He’s not screaming. In fact, his mouth is closed, and everything seems perfectly still — as if time had finally stopped for him.

“Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed”
Through Oct. 9 at SFMOMA, 151 Third Street. $19-$25; 415-357-4000 or


Peabrain-ism and a Love Supreme

The new Leonardo Drew exhibit at the de Young. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco)
On a recent Friday afternoon, the de Young Museum’s atrium — the one that a million art-goers pass through every year — was experiencing a radical metamorphosis. Gone was Gerhard Richter’s giant Strontium that, for a decade, had loomed over the space like an artistic Mount Sinai. In its stead was a sea of reworked detritus — newspapers, wood scraps, bent metal, rocks, you name it — that Leonardo Drew was orchestrating into place not just on the former Richter wall but the two connecting walls that are usually completely empty. Museum staff cordoned off the area while Drew put the last touches on a sculptural creation that’s Drew at his best: funky, provocative, and way open to interpretation.


Questions about race? Sure, that seems to be in Drew’s new piece. America’s political issues? That may also be embedded into the reworked flotsam and jetsam that is Drew’s latest international commission. And ideas of beauty? That’s definitely there, as are references to the de Young’s copper architectural bearings. But here’s the thing: In an interview with SF Weekly, Drew said that anyone’s interpretation of his new art is valid. That’s why he gave the work, as he usually does, a formless title (Number 197). Still, Drew strongly hints to SF Weekly that his de Young commission is designed to mimic the notes on a musical score. Not just any score, but a score that’s frenetic and soulful and alive. Something like A Love Supreme by the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.

“You realize key notes and music and how they’re arranged — you can compose,” Drew says, waving his hands as he scans Number 197. “I compose. I could have given you something very serene. But — boom, I’m going to punch you in the face.”

Based in Brooklyn, Drew often shows work at San Francisco’s Anthony Meier Fine Arts gallery, but his de Young exhibit is his largest S.F. venue to date, so more people will discover art that seems like it emerged organically from the environment and the streets — as if Drew picked up items he found on the beach and in parklands and dumps, and tweaked them ever so.

Not so. Like a scientist in the lab, Drew spends months cultivating objects in his studio — cutting, scraping, plastering, painting, and affixing until he finds the right combinations. He’ll reuse his former sculptures.

 “I can point to things and say, ‘That was a piece I had.’ I can even show you images of what these things were before,” Drew says. “You keep adding layers. Accumulated dust on the piece is an additive. People are like, ‘I can blow that off.’ And I say, ‘Don’t do that!’ This is like the layering of history — like the Grand Canyon.”

In the week before the opening of Number 197, the de Young set up a live camera to let website visitors peer in on Drew’s progress. Drew says he didn’t know about the art voyeurism until three days into the installation. Not that he would have behaved differently. Drew is one of the art world’s most gregarious figures — “I’m a people person!” — with an easy laugh that makes strangers feel completely at ease.

In his mid-50s, he can look back at his life — including his mostly fatherless upbringing in a housing project in Bridgeport, Conn., where he lived across from a landfill; his graduation from the Cooper Union with a BA in fine arts; and a career of important commissions and exhibits, including at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden — and say that he’s found an international fan base that appreciates the background and the intensity he brings to his work.

“When I was at the Hirshshorn, there was a security guard there who was running off and telling everyone what my piece meant,” Drew says. “I asked him, ‘Where did you get all that information?’ And he said, ‘From the artist!’ And I kept asking him questions. And he said, ‘You’re the artist, huh?’ I had a friend with me, and he told me, ‘You have to stop him because he’s going all over the place.’ And I said, ‘We’re learning stuff now. Just let him run.’ And I ended up coming out of there saying (about the guard’s ideas), ‘I hadn’t thought of that.’ ”

At the de Young, Drew met with a group of docents who wanted to know everything about Number 197 so they could convey it to visitors. “They wanted to know how I was seeing the work,” Drew says, “and I said, ‘Let’s stop that shit right now. What you want to do is tell me what you’re seeing.’ And it was all over the place — and it was poetic and beautiful.”

Drew has previously referred to the Bridgeport landfill from his childhood as being akin to “God’s mouth” for its wide spectrum of objects and discarded items. More recently, Drew has spent weeks in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen working with porcelain, a material he had never really focused on. Artisans have been working with porcelain in Jingdezhen for a more than a millennium, and Drew’s first experiments there failed and shattered. He stuck with it, helped by an interpreter who was present from morning to night.

“You can never run from yourself — it’s there,” Drew says. “You start out with this base, and then — boom — it branches off into a number of directions. If an artist is open to digest new things, the possibilities are endless, as big as your imagination. If you have this little pea-brain, you stay in ‘peabrain-ism.’ ”

A week after Drew spoke with SF Weekly, the de Young’s atrium barriers were gone, the exhibit officially opened, and people were milling around Number 197, taking pictures with their cameras. Drew was gone, but his work was making a statement for him — even though he almost quit the project. He says the de Young’s administrators decided they didn’t want him using all three of the atrium’s walls after all. At one point, Drew says he told them they should return Richter’s Strontium to the atrium.

“There was a time,” Drew reveals, “when I had to 86 the show because they had approached me about doing the space, and then said, ‘You’re going to focus on this wall.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to do anything like that. Let’s cancel the show. I quit.’ It’s a perfect three-point perspective. I said, ‘If you’re a museum, act like a museum. These walls are for hanging stuff. You’ll fix them later.’ And they said, ‘Oh, no — there will be holes in the walls.’ I said, ‘That’s what museums do. You’re supposed to get holes in your walls. And then you fix them.’ ”

Drew’s laugh filled the atrium as he spoke, just like his art did — cascading here and there in every direction. It was a beautiful thing to witness, and it was in keeping with Drew’s demanding approach, which he applies to himself.

“Institutions should be challenged,” he says. “And artists should be challenged. Every time.”

“Leonardo Drew: Number 197,” through Oct. 19 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. Free; 415-750-3600 or