A fire broke out last night at the Queen’s Nails Gallery on Mission Street in Bernal Heights, and the blaze was caused by an art project that went very, very — very — wrong.
According to the Queen’s Nails Facebook page, the gallery was in the process of “placing 50,000.00 matches into the wall so [artist] Claire Fontaine can burn the map of the US.”
Here’s a shot of the work taken on January 18:
With a plan like that, what could possibly go wrong? A person who was inside Queen’s Nails tells Bernalwood:
I was at the gallery on Mission tonight right before the fire started, and I witnessed the entire thing.
The fire was the result of an art installation gone awry. The piece that started the fire was an installation (called “burnt/unburnt”) by French artist Claire Fontaine which was in the final stages of preparation for the opening tomorrow night. The piece was made up of 50,000 matches stuck into a wall in the shape of the United States which would then be lit on fire. I have no knowledge of the fire-proofing that takes place but there is certainly a large degree of preparation involved in order to prevent accidents like tonights from occurring.
Here is the same installation as the one in Queen’s Nails, as seen at a previous show at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art:
Here is how the installation is supposed to look when executed properly (shown here with a map of France):
I was at the gallery when the fire broke out. It was slow-going to attach 50,000 matches, and the show had already been pushed to opening Wednesday night instead of its original date of this past Saturday.
I arrived just as the first matches were being lit. There was a hose ready in the gallery and fire extinguishers around in case things got out of control– I remember feeling relieved to see that. Everyone had their iPhones and camcorders out to document the slow burn of the piece. At first, when the map was lit on fire (intentionally), it burnt slowly and was rather gorgeous.
However, within about 15 seconds of burning, something went wrong and the flame began to surge out of control. We were not sure if it was part of the art piece… however, soon the smoke was billowing over the entire crowd and the sulphur was so hot and thick that it hurt the lungs.
Someone yelled “EVERYONE OUT!!!” and the small crowd stumbled out the front door on Mission Street. The smoke was so thick and yellow that one couldn’t see.
The fire was quickly put out by the hose and extinguishers, but the heat must have been so intense that it continued to steam for a long time afterwards.
At first when the fire trucks showed up, I wondered if they were an intended part of the ‘performance,’ but I was quickly informed that it was DEFINITELY not part of the piece. After sticking around for a short while, it seemed that things were under control. The large amount of smoke came from the matches, but in reality there was barely a fire at all… I just feel sorry for the folks who run the gallery. They were really upset and I can’t imagine what they are going to have to deal with.
Incredible. We can all be grateful that the fire was quickly brought under control, and that no one was hurt. We can also assume that much more will be said about this incident in the days ahead.
Very special thanks to all the neighbor-reporters who provided us with such superb coverage of this story. Great work, people.
UPDATE 1/23 5 pm: Queen’s Nails has been posting about the incident on their Facebook page.
One request seeks to keep documentation about the fire offline:
Please do not post any images or videos of Burnt/Unburnt anywhere on the Internet.Thank you, Queen’s Nails.
Here is a statement about the incident:
In regards to the Claire Fontaine installation of “America (Burnt/Unburnt)” at Queen’s Nails, we would like to assure the community that the utmost precaution was taken during the controlled burning of the piece and that the flame was at no time out of hand.
The burning of the piece, which was not open to the public, has been done by Claire Fontaine seven other times in various venues across the world with the same concerns and care taken into regard.
Due to inadequate ventilation, there was a large amount of smoke coming from the front of the gallery which caused onlookers to call the SFFD. Upon their arrival, there was absolutely no flame burning in the building.
We would like to thank the SFFD for their efforts to help us ventilate the remaining smoke from the gallery. We appreciate their dedication and hard work to ensure that the gallery and onlookers were safe.
Any questions pertaining to the specifics of the installation could be directed towards Claire Fontaine at their artist talk this evening at CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts at 7pm. Inquiries regarding the exhibition as a whole can be directed to the gallery at email@example.com.
We apologize to the community for any concerns they expressed and again would like to thank the fire fighters and officers for their assistance.
Thank you, QUEEN’S NAILS.
UPDATE 1/23 9:50 pm According to the San Francisco Appeal, City officials are rather pissed off about the Queen’s Nails Gallery incident:
A Mission Street art gallery may be in trouble after San Francisco firefighters responded Tuesday night to a fire intentionally set there, apparently as part of an art piece, a fire official said today.
Firefighters responded around 10 p.m. Tuesday to Queen’s Nails, a gallery located at 3191 Mission St. in the city’s Bernal Heights neighborhood, Deputy Fire Chief Mark Gonzales said. [...]
Gonzales said, “This was something we would not permit if it was applied for. It was done more out of ignorance, not maliciousness, as far as we’re concerned.”
He said the Police Department and district attorney’s office will take over the investigation to determine if charges should be filed for the incident.
The fire, which was quickly put out after causing $5,000 in damage, was apparently started on a piece of art shaped like the U.S. and made of matches that was set ablaze, Gonzales said.
“It was a piece of art that this person had lit up thinking it was not a problem,” he said. “It turned out to be a problem.”