UPDATED: Fire Damages Queen’s Nails Gallery After Art Installation Goes Horribly, Terribly Awry



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:

Claire Fontaine, U.S.A. (burnt/unburnt)

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 queensnailssf@gmail.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.”

PHOTOS: From top: Exterior fire photos by Jeff Rueppel. In-process installation photo via Queen’s Nails Gallery on Facebook. Portland photo by PICA Press Corps, Interior photo by Bernalwood witness

47 thoughts on “UPDATED: Fire Damages Queen’s Nails Gallery After Art Installation Goes Horribly, Terribly Awry

  1. well at least no one was injured. But I think the….hubris(?) here goes to 11. Just to review… a French artist… in SF… with a piece showing the US map burning…and the art gallery catches fire. We’ll be taking it on the chin in the popular media for this, no doubt. I mean wow. Is this a Portlandia sketch?

    • Hubris isn’t the word I’d choose. I’d say, stupid, moronic, fuckin’ idiots. I saw them installing the piece and asked them if they were actually going to set it on fire, when they said yes I told them they were fools.

      They should all be charged with arson. Stupidity isn’t a defense for any other crime, and it shouldn’t be for this one. In fact, stupidity is frequently the one of the more causative factors in a crime; just like we saw here.

  2. Who could ever have possibly predicted a pile of 50,000 matches might burn out of control.

  3. This would be funny if it wasn’t so terrible. What did your parents used to say – “Don’t play with matches!”

  4. If the project was to be lit on Wednesday, why was it lit on Tuesday night? Also, my understanding is they were shooting BBs at it. There should be lots of footage online in the coming hours/days. Should be interesting to hear how anyone is going to justify this one…

  5. Oh wow. Follow that link to Claire Fontaine’s website, and… enjoy? Claire isn’t just a French artist, she’s a French collective artist. As in, maybe more than one person is involved. Blondie is a band?

    Texts are available in French, English, and Spanish, but all seem to be translated from some ur-language of left-wing academic gibberish:

    Foucault explained it clearly,” she lied. “Power produces more than it represses, and its most important products are subjectivities. Our bodies are crossed by relations of power and our becomings are orientated by the means through which we either oppose this power or wed ourselves to its flux.”

    • Many artists live in their own head, completely removed from any connection to the fact that no one cares about the ideas that they are obsessed with. Conceptual artists and performance artists in particular. They can be wonderful people. This art piece is genius compared to much of what I’ve seen. Thank goodness no one was hurt.

      • Agreed on all counts. I felt kind of bad about writing “she lied” there, when I know some wonderful, decent people who espouse and sincerely believe such gibberish. My only defense is that I thought it was funny.

        “Foucault explained it clearly,” she lied.

        Yeah, still funny.

  6. Play with matches you get burned.
    “ART” that term is used very loose these days !
    Will Claire Fontaine pay the bill to have the SF fire dept come out ??

  7. The gallery owner is a fucking idiot for allowing this. Everyone knows SF is a tinderbox. Totally irresponsible.

  8. Queens Nails gallery should be evicted for allowing such a dangerous stunt. SF is full of very old buildings made of very dry wood. Everybody knows this. What would have happened if the fire went into the walls and burned? It would have taken down 2 or 3 buildings! Totally irresponsible.

  9. except that since the claire fontaine collective is far left, perhaps burning shit down was the point. and i don’t need a grad class to learn me that.

  10. In a city that partially burned to the ground in 1906 and is FULL of wood buildings packed tightly together, I would be shocked if SF didn’t have some criminal statute regarding recklessly setting fires inside a building (other than inside a fireplace, etc.) — regardless of whether one calls it “art.” I hope everyone involved is charged with a crime.

  11. Why are they urging people not to post videos if the flames weren’t out of control? Wouldn’t they want to prove it was under control?

  12. I love how even in the video of where it was done “properly”, it still burns the wall and the heat shatters bulbs on the ceiling above, etc. That’s great.

    • then we would all be bored to death- art still needs radicalis, more than ever in fact. not to say this piece is the right kind, but “pretty paintings” are the product of a capitalist market structure focused on commercialism rather than innovation and political thoughtfulness.

      • the early 20th century called and it wants its historically aberrant ideas about the purpose of art in society back

  13. Why isn’t anybody blaming the owner(s) of Queen’s Nail gallery for this situation? They knew what was going on; they knew about the “French artist” or whatever who apparently already had a reputation for setting fire to things. I say that Queen’s Nail gallery should be EVICTED. They are TOTALLY IRRESPONSIBLE for allowing this art project in the first place!

    • On “the news” earlier they said the owner of the gallery lit the thing! Doubt they’ll be there much longer…

  14. What does it mean”to burn”? When Foucault refers to the memory of fire does he forego an innate sense of obduration? “Complicit is the viewer who in moments of strife would flee.”

  15. At least the gallery and the artists are trying to be creative and comment on the fucked up state that our country and the world is in instead of bitching about it on a blog (yes like I am now). I don’t think lazy people should be able to talk shit. This is why artists are forced to make pieces of art that comment on the world – because its filling with self loathing bitter internet savages like all of you. According to their official press release about the incident they had it under control – so mind you own fuckin business and stop being jealous that someone is taking a chance on trying to bring world class artists here that don’t end up at the phony SF Moma.

    • Oh, here is one positive comment. “I don’t think lazy people should be able to talk shit.” …and “According to their official press release about the incident they had it under control”, until. You, just like the rest of those fucking clowns should be evicted for arson. You dumb twit. They had it under control? Huh?
      THERE IS NO EXCUSE!! THIS IS A CRIME, ACCIDENT OR NOT. YOU SHOULD BE EVICTED!!! There are better stores and public places waiting in line to get a spot like that in the neighborhood. The responsibilty is yours and you were not responsible. Shame on you. That is not art. Not even if it did work the way you planned it. BOOOOO!!!! Shame on you!!!

    • What do you know about people commenting? There are hard working artists among us, all of which wish our neighbors would exercise at least a small amount of care to not burn the neighborhood down. I’d guess even Mark Pauline… hell, even Christo—and his art actually killed a woman—would’a know this was a bad idea.

  16. obviously these folks haven’t even read a basic firefighter manual.A flashover is the near-simultaneous ignition of most of the directly exposed combustible material in an enclosed area. When certain organic materials are heated they undergo thermal decomposition and release flammable gases. Flashover occurs when the majority of the exposed surfaces in a space are heated to their autoignition temperature and emit flammable gases (see also flash point). Flashover normally occurs at 500°C (930°F) or 1,100°F for ordinary combustibles, and an incident heat flux at floor level of 1.8 Btu/ft²*s (20 kW/m²).
    An example of flashover is when a piece of furniture is ignited in a domestic room. The fire involving the initial piece of furniture can produce a layer of hot smoke which spreads across the ceiling in the room. The hot buoyant smoke layer grows in depth, as it is bounded by the walls of the room. The radiated heat from this layer heats the surfaces of the directly exposed combustible materials in the room, causing them to give off flammable gases via pyrolysis. When the temperatures of the evolved gases becomes high enough, these gases will ignite, throughout their extent.

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  18. This is not a question of left or right politics.
    Negligence is the issue here and no the artist are not to blame!
    The artists clearly have no idea what they are dealing, with in regards to fire safety, as Mr. Switzer has pointed out. This is not particularly upsetting or a problem in itself. The problem is with the gallery staff, director on down, who are responsible for the execution of the artist vision while keeping the everyone’s safety in mind. Having worked as an art preparator for over ten years I have seen a fair share of questionable ideas. If there is the doubt or hesitation in regards to the safety of my staff or the public, I will ask that the artist reconsider how the work can be manifested. Handled well the audience/patrons will never suspect there was any issue to being with.
    This was clearly not the case here.

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