'America Starts Here' shows how the pioneering artistic team of Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler made the overlooked visible
Just inside the Austin Museum of Art's entrance, four rough-hewn stones, each one a little smaller than a shoe box, are mounted high on the wall. The stones are arranged in a row that's not quite straight, but their placement is very deliberate a look at the wall label reveals the work's title, From the Making of Mount Rushmore (1986), and provides a clue to the stones' arrangement, which mimics the position of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln's iconic portraits carved out of a mountain in South Dakota. These stones were removed from the base of Mount Rushmore by Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, an artist couple who worked collaboratively from 1985 until Ericson's death a decade later. (Ziegler has been a professor at UT-Austin since 1997.) From the Making of Mount Rushmore is the first piece you'll encounter in "America Starts Here," a survey of Ericson and Ziegler's gallery work and public art projects, and it announces several themes that run throughout the exhibition, including coming to terms with the concept of the monument, the use of displacement as a way to make art, and a concern with labor. And like much of the show and a lot of conceptual art this work's meaning is not immediately apparent: The careful wording of the title leads the viewer first to Mount Rushmore, then to the work that went into the memorial's creation during the 1930s and 1940s, and finally back to the artists themselves, who have made their own version of Mount Rushmore out of leftover material from the monumental project.
The kinds of conceptual art strategies evident in the Mount Rushmore piece where the ideas in the work were as important as, or even took precedence over, its aesthetic qualities were also applied by Ericson and Ziegler to public projects in a way that created a space for concerns such as community involvement and the integration of art and the urban environment. Those ideas may be pervasive in public art practice today, but they were still rare in the late Eighties. The same year that Ericson and Ziegler's creative partnership began, a jury voted to remove Richard Serra's Tilted Arc from Federal Plaza in New York City. Opponents argued that the 120-foot-long curved wall of steel, which ran between the street and the building, interfered with public use of the plaza and attracted graffiti, rats, and even terrorists, who might use it as a blast shield for bombs. But since most of the sculpture's detractors worked at Federal Plaza and hadn't been consulted before it was installed, what the controversy really highlighted was the need for community involvement in public art projects and for artworks that addressed the site of their installation formally as well as socially.
That was also the year MIT completed the Wiesner Building, a structure designed by architect I.M. Pei, which was hailed for fully integrating artworks into the site rather than inserting them into or imposing them upon it after the fact. Artists Scott Burton, Kenneth Noland, and Richard Fleischner effectively became part of the Wiesner Building design team, with Burton contributing benches and a railing for the lobby, Noland designing the color pattern for ceramic tiles on interior walls, and Fleischner working out the exterior plaza paving design. The Wiesner Building experiment became a new model for collaboration between artists and architects during the 1980s and 1990s. Meanwhile, Ericson and Ziegler were already working cooperatively with community members to create temporary projects that addressed local conditions. Instead of adding a new object to the environment, Ericson and Ziegler used elements from the extant urban fabric to make their work through displacement or transformation. In both cases, the couple sought to leave the site for their work in better condition than they had found it once the project came to an end.
Their best-known work, Loaded Text (1989), accomplished this ideal with a relatively simple gesture: replacing a broken sidewalk. The couple was invited to create a public art project to coincide with a national public art conference in Durham, N.C. As with many of their projects, first they conducted research by visiting the city and subscribing to the local newspaper (at the time the couple lived in New York). A proposed downtown revitalization plan captured their attention. Ericson and Ziegler were surprised to learn that only two copies of the proposal were available at the public library for review by Durham residents. At the same time, they read that an initial step in Durham's revitalization plans would repave downtown sidewalks in disrepair. The couple decided to copy the 65-page revitalization plan by hand onto the sidewalk in front of downtown Durham's post office, thereby making the document widely accessible. Rather than use their $10,000 art project budget to add a sculpture or other type of artwork to the cityscape, Ericson and Ziegler made their own small contribution to Durham's downtown revitalization by paying a contractor to remove the old sidewalk they had inscribed and to pile the broken fragments into dump trucks, which were parked in front of the Durham Arts Council Building for the duration of the conference. The contractor then repaved the sidewalk and after a few days deposited the inscribed pieces of cement at a local stream for erosion control.
A similar style of intervention characterizes many of the couple's public projects, which were often ephemeral and specific to a particular time and place. This poses obvious problems for a museum exhibition because there are no art objects to put on display; all that remains of Loaded Text are photographs documenting the project. In the past, curators were satisfied with hanging photographs such as these on the walls or putting letters, printed announcements, and newspaper articles about ephemeral projects in glass display cases for visitors to read. Today, however, new technology offers other options, with sometimes unfortunate results. At AMOA, photographs from Loaded Text and other intervention-style works have been condensed into slide shows with limited captions that loop on two flat-screen monitors. Only the most dedicated viewer would want to subject herself to a close cousin of PowerPoint in the museum. There is no time to linger over puzzling details, no chance to move back and forth between images and texts, when a slide show mechanically replaces one image with the next. Furthermore, while the monitors certainly save space compared with rows of display cases or framed photographs, they end up relegating key works such as Loaded Text to the sidelines of Ericson and Ziegler's practice. They barely have a presence, barely register, within the space of the exhibition. This is unfortunate because such works are otherwise widely recognized as the couple's major contribution to public art, as demonstrated in the exhibition catalog, which explores Loaded Text and other temporary projects in great detail.
Instead, co-curators Bill Arning, of MIT's List Visual Arts Center, and Ian Berry, of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, focus on artworks made primarily for commercial galleries or at the invitation of museums. In many ways, Ericson and Ziegler approached their work for museums in a manner similar to their community-based projects. For example, in the late 1980s, the couple was invited to be a part of the "Investigations" series at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. In the course of their research for the project, Ericson and Ziegler were struck by an overabundance of derelict factories just minutes away from attractions like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. They chose one, the National Licorice Factory, which had nearly all of its windows broken. In characteristic fashion, Ericson and Ziegler improved the factory by swapping a section of windows and old green fiberglass replacement panels with new panes of glass. In exchange, they took the broken windowpanes and fiberglass panels to use in their work at the museum. They sandwiched the windowpanes from the factory between two pieces of clear glass and etched the top layer with sinuous lines that trace rivers, railroads, and pioneer trails, as well as cracks in renowned buildings and American icons, each one identified by name. The panels were then framed and mounted on the gallery wall in the same position as they were in the factory facade. Ericson and Ziegler titled the project America Starts Here (1988) after the official tourist slogan of Pennsylvania.
At first glance, America Starts Here looks like a minimalist grid, albeit one without symmetry or an overarching logic. The work is actually a little too big for AMOA, where it is nearly impossible to stand back far enough to see the whole thing. Up close, however, each panel tells part of the story of American expansion and at the same time implies the conflicts that shaped these efforts via the layer of cracked glass. America Starts Here is also a clever reference to Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), (1915-23), a canonical artwork in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art also composed of cracked windowpanes.
Other museum-based projects deal more explicitly with the institution itself. Throughout the exhibition are glass panels sandblasted with phrases like "Rubin White" and "Riva White." They make up a work titled MoMA Whites (1990) and reference the names given by members of the Museum of Modern Art's painting crew to the shades of white paint preferred by different curators at the museum. In the initial version first exhibited at MoMA, eight glass jars, each filled with one of the white paints, sit on a black shelf. For "America Starts Here," the project has taken on a more ambitious format. Each wall at AMOA has been painted with one of the whites and labeled accordingly, drawing the viewer's attention to a museum convention that is all-pervasive but also nearly invisible. By bringing MoMA's whites to light, Ericson and Ziegler facilitated the questioning of such conventions, which are often accepted without being given much thought, both inside and outside the museum.
The couple adopted a similar strategy for their contribution to "Places With a Past," an exhibition of site-specific art curated by Mary Jane Jacobs for the 1991 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. At that time there were 72 commercial paint colors approved by the Charleston Board of Architectural Review for use in the city's historic district. Ericson and Ziegler arranged for a house just outside the district to be temporarily repainted with a camouflage pattern specially designed by Army camouflage experts that incorporated all 72 colors (a maquette at AMOA reproduces the project in miniature). Each patch of color was labeled with its trade name, some of which were fairly innocuous Iron Scrollwork Black, Cypress Forest Green, Carolina Brick Red while others, including Plantation Red Brown and Confederate Uniform Grey, referenced problematic times in the city's history. Anyone could have seen these colors on any given day throughout historic Charleston, but actually noticing them and understanding their significance is part of the social outcome of Camouflaged History (1991).
Allowing the overlooked to become visible and critically examining taken-for-granted conventions are themes that run throughout Ericson and Ziegler's collaborative work. The tools they used to achieve these goals including mapping, archival research, and community involvement have been taken up by increasing numbers of artists in recent years. This is not, however, the only reason to see "America Starts Here." Over the past few years, the Austin Museum of Art has made an admirable contribution to increasing the dialogue about public art in this city. "Andy Goldsworthy: Mountain and Coast Autumn Into Winter," "Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Würth Museum Collection," and "America Starts Here" all seem particularly relevant to Austin right now as the city undergoes radical changes through an explosion of Downtown construction. Each of these exhibitions has demonstrated different ways art can impact the environment outside of the museum's walls. How we remember Austin's history, what we choose to preserve, and whether art plays a role in our urban development are decisions being made today that will impact the city for years to come. Especially if you missed the others, go see "America Starts Here," and start thinking about the possibilities for public art here in Austin.
"America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler" continues through May 6 at Austin Museum of Art Downtown, 823 Congress.
Mel Ziegler and guest artists will discuss the role of community in public art in a special program, What Is Community? Public Artists Respond, to be held Wednesday, March 28, 7pm, at AMOA Downtown. For more information, call 495-9224, or visit www.amoa.org.