Political art that packs a punch installed in San Francisco’s Presidio park

The curator behind Ai Weiwei’s blockbuster project on Alcatraz has organized a group show on the former military base

A good deal of contemporary art doesn’t carry nearly as much political weight as it thinks, its purported critique proving too weak to detect or too oblique to decipher. But several works in Home Land Security—the group show opening this weekend in San Francisco’s Presidio that was organised by Cheryl Haines of For-Site following her Ai Weiwei show on Alcatraz—avoid that trap by focusing less on faceless socioeconomic or religious forces and more on the individuals who are impacted. These works also belong to a larger tradition of art and literature that manages to capture and perhaps counter the dehumanising effects of war.

The Israel-born, New York-based artist Tirtzah Bassel has just completed a wrap-around work in the Nike Administration Building, one of five former military structures that have been recuperated for the show. Entitled Concourse, the mural depicts the numbingly long lines and invasive pat-down security checks at airports after 9/11, only her medium is not paint. She “draws” on the walls with different colours of duct tape—a material invented during the Second World War for the US army that carries strong military associations and that the artist remembers using during her childhood in Israel: “We used it to seal rooms during the Gulf War.”

Now, in Bassel’s hands, the duct tape has a webby effect that simulates the way an individual can be swept up—whether moved along or detained—by global networks beyond their control. Visitors should look out especially for the work she made on the building’s broken windows, showing an isolated, seemingly powerless figure with his hands up, face blacked out by the tape that gives him form.

Alexia Webster, Refugee Street Studio, Bulengo IDP camp, D. R. Congo, 2014−ongoing (installation view), courtesy the artist, © Alexia Webster. Photo: Robert Divers Herrick

Another room in the same building features large photographs by the South African artist Alexia Webster. They are formally crisp, richly coloured and lushly detailed portraits taken in the least luxurious of settings—a refuge camp in the Congo. For this long-running series, Webster has been visiting refuge camps to take portraits of people at moments of acute physical and emotional vulnerability, when they have been stripped of their homes as well as family keepsakes like photographs. In a simple, restorative gesture, she brings a portable printer to give each sitter a copy of their portrait.

Nearby, a long-disused coastal battery built in 1901—a two-story concrete structure designed for rapid-fire guns—has become home to several installations, including Do Ho Su’s Some/One from 2005. Made out of thousands of soldiers’ “dog tags”, often used to identify casualties, his sculpture takes the form of a hulking cloak or suit of armour. Only, on closer inspection, it turns out the metal tags are not inscribed with soldiers’ names but nonsense strings of letters. And the body implied by the large armour is missing.

While a few artworks were commissioned specifically for the exhibition, Do Ho Suh’s sculpture was not. But it proves more chilling for its placement in this weapon of a building.

• Home Land Security, 10 September-18 December at Fort Winfield Scott, Presidio, San Francisco