by Lawrence Gipe
Mel Ziegler’s Flag Exchange transforms the Walter and McBean Galleries at SFAI into a political Rothko Chapel. It may not have been his plan, but the activist art pioneer has created a quiet and contemplative chamber for reflecting on his arrangement of 50 distressed US flags. From 2012-15, Ziegler “barnstormed” each state in the country, replacing weather-beaten flags hanging in government and business locations with identically sized fresh ones. This ostensibly good deed provided Ziegler with the visual grist for his mill – one tattered representative from each state in our Union — that he hangs ominously from the ceiling of SFAI’s chilly Brutalist interior. When the gallery is empty (which it was for my visit) it feels like a mausoleum commemorating the end of democracy.
The Flag Exchange was initiated well before the Trump era, and its message of America being “frayed, yet still unified” has the whiff of an innocent, bygone day (in this case, any day before January 20, 2017). Fortunately, Ziegler’s intelligence and experience designing works that engage on multiple strata pushes the piece beyond its potentially monolithic reading; he constructs a space that is equal parts installation, stage set and public arena. This latter component consists of a platform with a live open mic and bleacher seats arrayed beneath the flags. So, even when you’re alone in the space, there is a sensation of impending discourse. Zeigler imagines the Flag Exchange space – which can clearly hold a sizable crowd — as a “town square”, a safe area for free speech and debate that is open to all comers.
In many ways, this work is an extension of Ziegler’s work with his original partner, Kate Ericson, who died prematurely in 1995 at age 39. The idea of an “exchange”, and the search for equilibrium between those in society who receive and those who provide, is a theme they worked out poignantly through wide-ranging projects that helped define the now-commonplace genre of activist art. A typical example was Give and Take (1986), in which the duo gathered broken tools from employees of Central Park and exchanged them for new replacements. Later, they exhibited their collection of disused implements for sale in a gallery, arranging them on the walls like precious anthropological treasures. When collectors purchased the pieces (which had been reassigned as “sculpture”), the money was funneled back to the park. Ericson’s and Ziegler’s work emitted a sunny insistence that collective problems could be solved, that win-win scenarios were possible and that art was an ideal context for presenting templates of cooperation and enlightenment. It was conceptual art with heart and hope. Carrying on courageously as a solo act, Mel Ziegler continues to carry the flag.
# # #
“Living Thing / Mel Ziegler: Flag Exchange” @ SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries through April 1, 2017.
About the author:
Lawrence Gipe is an artist, art professor and writer living in Oakland. His painting and drawings have been shown in more than 50 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe. Gipe, with his collaborator Sarah Tell, will be curators-in-residence this spring at Pro Arts in Oakland, where the exhibition, Everyone is Hypnotized: Artists Dérive the Bay Area, opens May 2017.