The American flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.
In an act of sly and generous alchemy, artist Mel Ziegler journeyed through all 50 United States between 2011 and 2016 and exchanged distressed American flags flying at civic and private locations—city halls, post offices, hospitals, homes, and schools—for new flags. The 50 decayed flags form a work, Flag Exchange, that spans the geography of our union, and represents the spectrum of our allegiance.
At SFAI, Ziegler’s work is the catalyst for A Living Thing, which seeks to create space for common ground within our increasingly fractured civil discourse. Throughout its run, A Living Thing offers a sanctuary for conversations, performances, debate, and acts of solidarity and resistance—through an open mic during all gallery hours, and an open call to students, artists, activists, citizens, residents, visitors, and others that wish to contribute to the life represented by the flag.
Flag Exchange offers a powerful reminder that artists do new and vital things for our public life, even when nothing else works. Art finds the common ground that we've otherwise lost.
SFAI invites participation in A Living Thing. Please visit sfai.edu/flagexchange to submit your ideas.
A Living Thing is organized by Hesse McGraw, SFAI Vice President for Exhibitions and Public Programs; and Katie Hood Morgan, SFAI Assistant Curator and Exhibitions Manager.
About Flag Exchange
Flag Exchange formed the cornerstone of the The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College’s recent exhibition A More Perfect Union, which foregrounded the museum as town square. During its installation at the Tang, Flag Exchange offered an open space to explore the elections and the current state of democracy through classes, lectures, dialogues, debates, performances, lunches, and more. Flag Exchange was first shown at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska as an in-progress work in Ziegler’s 2013 exhibition An American Conversation.
About the Artist
Mel Ziegler is widely known for his collaborative work with his late partner Kate Ericson. Beginning in the early 1980s, Ericson Ziegler were integral to the emergence of socially engaged practice and community engagement as vital forms of contemporary art. In the broadest sense, Ziegler’s work asserts the value of rural identities and aesthetics and locates authentic spaces within the increasingly fragmented American experience. For Ziegler, the American landscape is a place of deep distress and profound optimism, yet his work finds new possibilities through monumentalizing and honoring the everyday.
America Starts Here, the Ericson Ziegler retrospective, was co-organized by the The Tang Teaching Museum and List Visual Arts Center at MIT and toured the country. Ziegler has presented solo exhibitions at venues including Secession, Vienna; Artpace, San Antonio; and Canadian Center for Architecture, Montreal. Ericson Ziegler’s work is held in the collections of SFMOMA, UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among many others. Ziegler is Paul E. Shwab Chair in Fine Arts, Professor of Art and Chair of the Department of Art at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville. He is the founder of the Sandhills Institute in Rushville, Nebraska, which is a catalyst for developing new models of artistic citizenship in America’s heartland. Ziegler is represented by Galerie Perrotin.
SFAI thanks the artist Mel Ziegler and all participants in A Living Thing; Dayton Director Ian Berry and the staff of The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College; Galerie Perrotin and Valentine Blondel; and SFAI board member Bonnie Levinson.
SFAI’s Exhibitions and Public Programs are made possible by the generosity of donors and sponsors. Program support is provided by the Harker Fund of The San Francisco Foundation, Institute of Museums and Library Services, Grants for the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, Winifred Johnson Clive Foundation, Creative Work Fund, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation, The Robert Lehman Foundation, Fort Point Beer Company, and Gregory Goode Photography. Ongoing support is provided by the McBean Distinguished Lecture and Residency Fund, The Buck Fund, and the Visiting Artists Fund of the SFAI Endowment.
Installation view, A More Perfect Union featuring Mel Ziegler’s Flag Exchange, Tang Teaching Museum, 2016, photo by Arthur Evans. Image courtesy of Tang Teaching Museum. Artwork courtesy of Mel Ziegler and Galerie Perrotin.