'Mel Ziegler: An American Conversation'
through March 1
for Contemporary Arts,
724 S. 12th St.
11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
402-341-7130 or bemiscenter.org
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Mel Ziegler isn't ready to say goodbye.
“An American Conversation,” an exhibit of Ziegler's artwork on display at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, comes to a close at the end of the week. Shortly thereafter he will pack up the show and take it back to Nashville, Tenn., where he heads the art department at Vanderbilt University.
But he won't say farewell to Nebraska just yet.
In late 2013 Ziegler bought a ranch in the Sand Hills, near Rushville. After years of crossing back and forth across the Great Plains, he'll become a part-time resident there this year. His first order of business will be to learn the lay of the land, working with the ranch itself and getting better acquainted with the sparse new community.
Then things could get interesting.
Ziegler, who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, has in mind an ongoing project that addresses environmental and social community needs. He sees it as a union of community engagement, ecology and the arts. He is especially motivated by concerns over the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, as well as the decline in rural populations.
“I think it's an overarching theme,” Ziegler said. “If you look at the census, the towns get smaller and smaller. I would like to find ways we could reverse some of those trends.”
Who is Nebraska's newest artist? The Bemis Center exhibit serves as a good primer. “An American Conversation” is something to see, with stories behind the pieces that provide an even deeper meaning.
The show's standout feature is a row of torn, tattered and faded American flags stretching across the gallery.
For years, Ziegler has kept brand-new American flags in the trunk of his car. Wherever he discovers a damaged flag, he offers a trade.
“The more that I thought about it, the more I liked that act of exchanging flags, as a patriotic act,” Ziegler said. “I also knew I was going to display them as well. Even though I'm displaying these ragged flags, the reality is they were displayed ragged when I found them.”
No one yet has turned down his offer, but the conversations vary. Some people accept enthusiastically — new flags can cost several hundred dollars. Others are skeptical. The damaged flags — a violation of U.S. Code, technically — hold a poignancy. It's part of what draws Ziegler to them and possibly why some people find it hard to part with them.
It's happened that visitors to the exhibit have perceived the flags as a piece of protest, only to learn the reality is closer to the opposite. The space between is what Bemis Center Executive Director Adam Price calls the “exquisite ambiguity” of Ziegler's work.
“Mel is essentially inviting people into a conversation about their neglect,” Price said.
It's part of a larger conversation Ziegler has been having throughout his career.
For 30 years, Ziegler has gone from place to place, spending weeks and months and occasionally years engaging community members in participatory projects.
It was the hallmark of a decadelong creative partnership with his wife, Kate Ericson, who died in 1995 of brain cancer at age 39. The two were at the forefront of a movement called “social practice.” (Ziegler prefers “integrative practice.”)
Their work appeared in museums and galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but it was more commonly associated with conceptual projects throughout the country. One of their most famous installations took residence outside of the historic district in Charleston, S.C., where they painted a house in a pattern of orderly camouflage — hiding it in plain view — using colors from the city's list of approved hues for the more desirable neighborhood nearby.
In 2006, Ericson and Ziegler's work was immortalized in a touring retrospective, “America Starts Here,” and book of the same name.
“We collaborated because we thought of it as the symbolic beginnings of a community,” Ziegler told the online journal Art Art Zine, “and that you have two people and you have to begin to talk before you can even produce.”
The process changed without his primary collaborator, but Ziegler pressed on with community-based work — arriving in a place and recruiting the people there to help him make something meaningful out of the mundane.
“I tend to think of my studio as diners and bars,” he said. “It's where I meet people.”
For a project called “Breathe In Breathe Out,” the artist filled a tank with the air from balloons blown up by residents of Salina, Kan., and then parked it where residents could inflate their tires and anything else that needed air. He contacted a local high school football coach, who agreed to fill a game ball with the “community air,” a fact announced at the game to a big cheer from the crowd.
In Murray, Ky., Ziegler convinced local manufacturers to allow residents to write notes on their outgoing shipping boxes, which were then sent into the world.
For “Catch and Release,” Ziegler collaborated with a Marine stationed in Iraq. The soldier captured air from Iraq in a jar, and upon his return to the United States met Ziegler in South Dakota, at the geographic center of the country, to release it. Both events were documented with photographs now on display with the jar at the Bemis Center.
Ziegler's fascination with geographic centers brought him through the Midwest numerous times, leading to conversations with farmers and ranchers about their land. In 2012 and 2013 he took a series of nighttime photographs using klieg lights to “monumentalize the unmonumentalizable.” In the photos, the towering lights are visible to the viewer, calling attention to the act itself and the conversations behind it.
Now he wants to keep those conversations alive. Buying a ranch in western Nebraska represents a new level of commitment for Ziegler, who also has a proposed sculpture project under review for Temple Israel's new synagogue in west Omaha.
The Sand Hills Institute, as he's taken to calling the future project, might become his swan song as an artist — something for others to continue once he's gone. But he stresses it'll take time, and lots of input, to determine its direction.
“It's at its very beginning stages,” he said.
So for now, it's just too soon to say so long.