There is a wall in San Francisco that astounds me. It isn’t because of the vibrant graffiti one sees in the Mission District. It isn’t part of the unique architecture of places like the Palace of Fine Arts or the Salesforce Tower that rises so elegantly above the city. Mine is a plain wall, in an obscure position, quite hidden — and yet something beautiful happens in this place.
On the route to Corona Heights, atop a steep and windy footpath that runs from State Street below, a small museum is set back in a little enclave surrounded by trees. Its presence is quite unremarkable and it is easy to miss. To add to its mundanity, the site surrounding the museum is currently under construction, and so it is now hidden by dusty vehicles and wire fencing.
I first came across the wall while walking back from the top of Corona Heights Park. I often run here, as I find the merciless hills of San Francisco a physical and mental discipline worth the effort. It was windy on this day, and as I descended the steep incline, I caught in the corner of my eye a puzzling sight — a movement beyond the fence and the bushes; something unusual about the obscure little building peeping out through a hundred diamond frames. I stared and waited, yet saw nothing. Then it happened again. I suddenly became aware that whatever I was looking at had changed in some way, but I couldn’t quite tell how. There — again! I was transfixed.
"It is beauty that keeps us sane. When the world seems to be a mad, ceaseless rush of competing claims on our attention, art reminds us of what it means to be human."
And then I saw it; attached to the outer wall of the building in front of me were hundreds of tiny white rods, all spinning on their own axes. Each time the wind blew, these rods would rotate with the direction of the breeze. At this height above the city, and with all the trees swaying nearby, drafts seemed to sweep in from all directions. Each spinning rod seemed to contribute to a myriad of ever-moving lines, creating a maze-like pattern that changed each second at the whim of a zephyr. What resulted was nothing short of breath-taking; the surface of the wall appeared to move like flowing water, forming new and interesting shapes — sometimes gradually, with a subtle shift in angle, and sometimes so sharp and fast that I could not detect when the change had occurred.
I was riveted. As I observed this quiet, modest beauty, I had the impression that the wall was alive, and that these moving patterns were a private dialogue between the structure and its surroundings. As an observer, my role was merely to gaze at the dance unfolding before me — a creative, autonomous process that needed no human input, no intervention to set its course. It was a gem of human ingenuity submitting to the will of nature.
What is "art"?
This, I thought, was surely the purpose of art. I do not have to step into the SFMOMA to feel that I am surrounded by beauty. This city, with all its madness and confusion sometimes, is a living network of people and buildings and experiences, and intertwined even between the distress and the confusion of a place that has taken over itself, is the emergence of beauty.
Art does so much more than represent things; it speaks directly to the whole person, demonstrating a truth that is revealed only when we are willing to pause, to listen, and to engage with something outside of our own heads. As a foreigner starting university for the first time in a city that is so saturated with activity, where emotional and spiritual suffering are the ragged garments that hang on the backs of almost every passer-by, and where one can drown in the deluge of ideas and excitement, I have appreciated moments like these more than I could have imagined.
Finding the beauty
How do I describe the exhilarating surge of energy you feel when you chance upon something so unique, so understatedly elegant, so quiet and magnificent as this wall? This is why people meditate, or immerse themselves in writing or art. When we partake in these activities, we’re learning to trust the process; we allow ourselves to hover in that space where reality casts us as neither subject nor object.
If you’ve recently felt equally overwhelmed with life, try to find this space. It may be a physical place, a poem, or even a fragrance. Give yourself over, for a moment, to something beautiful. It is beauty that keeps us sane. When the world seems to be a mad, ceaseless rush of competing claims on our attention, art reminds us of what it means to be human.