Mel Ziegler is an artist known for his collaborations. Famous for the work he did with his partner, Kate Ericson, Ziegler has created a new kind of collaboration as a solo artist by working from within the corporations, groups of people, and societal systems that he is questioning. Recently Ziegler sat down with me to discuss his current show at Cheekwood, Southern art communities, and his history of collaboration.
Laura Hutson: Tell me about the Cheekwood show and project Smell the Flowers.
MEL ZIEGLER: I was invited by guest curator Claire Schneider to do a show for the Temporary
Contemporary exhibition space there. So, I immediately began by responding to aspects of landscape and
American identity as well as issues of boundaries and borders in response to the gated aspect of this place.
Those are big ideas but I got specific with each piece to explore a variety of approaches in regards to these
issues. There are going to be three pieces in the gallery. One I started in 2009 – it’ s called “ Catch and
Release.” I commissioned a marine to help me with it. He was stationed in Iraq at the time, and I sent over
a jar and said the only thing he had to do was collect air from Iraq with this jar and then ship it back to me,
and to document himself collecting the air. I made contact with this guy through a friend, and I couldn’ t
have asked for better documentation of the air collection. I love this shot. But I told him he couldn’ t do it
if there was any danger that he could get hurt. I learned later that they were being mortared all day, and
all day long they were in the bunker. The sun was going down and they were supposed to move out the
next day and he said, “ This is my last chance,” and he ran out opened the jar and a friend documented the
moment. Luckily, neither got hurt.
After Obama announced the end of the war, I made arrangements to meet the same marine in South Dakota,
and we released the Iraqi air at the geographic center of the US near Belle Fourche. We documented that
event as well. So these two images of the same marine with the same jar as he’ s catching and releasing air,
will go in the gallery.
Then there’ s a piece along the back wall that’ s called “ Rock Hard Individualism” . That piece is made up
of rocks that look like faces - a couple hundred of them - that will be installed in the shape of the US.
And there’ s also a fireplace mantle that’ s painted the exact same color as the White House. On top of
it is a landscape model based on Yosemite National Park, and it’ s being infiltrated with soldiers. It’ s
called “ Occupied Yosemite.” I’ m having a professional model builder from Memphis build it for me. So
that’ s the show in the gallery.
I’ m also doing an event, but I’ m not sure how it’ s going to turn out. It’ s a free active military day at
Cheekwood. Originally, I thought of it as being uniformed soldiers occupying the space, but the military
is no longer really allowed to walk around town with their uniforms on, unless they’ re going to and from
work. It’ s funny because I feel like I tend to see them all the time, but evidently they must be on official
business. I spoke to a lot of people about it, I decided that the uniforms weren’ t really necessary. In a
way I still wanted to occupy the space with military but it didn’ t matter whether they were uniformed or
not. It’ s not necessarily for veterans or retired military. It is for active-duty military that could be called
up to action at any time and of course their families are invited as well. So, we’ ve announced it to the
National Guard, to the ROTC and Fort Campbell. I don’ t know how many participants we’ ll get. I was
initially trying to figure out a way to make it an official event and have a couple troops show up but so far
I’ ve not gotten any cooperation, so it’ s been a little frustrating that way. I think that mixing art and the
military is a little bit like oil and vinegar. It doesn’t want to mix unless you shake it up…real hard.
I ’m still trying and won’t give up.
This all started by thinking about the broad idea of botanical gardens. Cheekwood being such.
Historically, botanical gardens began with the notion of studying and perpetuating medicinal plants. Many
monasteries collected these plants and tried to figure out ways that they could be beneficial and treat
various ailments. And as time progressed there was the movement toward European imperialism, and
botanical gardens began to be more about horticulture, asking how can we take plants from other places
and grow them in our own country? The exploratory expeditions came back with various exotic plants,
but they didn’ t know what to do with them at first. So in response to this need botanic gardens became
particular to the scientific study of these plants - trying to keep them alive and to perpetuate them so that
they can continue to produce for economic reasons. But I also like the mixing of cultures. It was about a
type of possession, owning. I like that. We continually see this attitude that in essence is relevant to my
project. Just recently on a trip to London the British Museum had a huge landscape from South Africa.
What more needs to be said?
At the same time that I was thinking about the gardens, another idea that kept coming up. It was the
idea that you drive through the gate to get into Cheekwood, and it reminds me of the border patrol in a
way. This is key to how I see all of this. I started thinking about the whole notion of boundaries and
borders. On one hand it also predetermines that there’ s a certain group of people who might enter the
space, because they’ ve paid, or because they’ re members. This is the resistance. There is always some type
of resistance in relation to borders. There’ s also the whole notion of the tranquility of the place, with the
idea that you go into it and it’ s peaceful. As I’ m thinking about this, there was constant news about all this
other stuff going on with Afghanistan and Iraq and we have these places - these sanctuaries - that we can go
to as Americans. We’ re disrupting something over there yet we have these peaceful places over here. The
military and its role to boundaries and borders and how that affects how we think about a place came into
play for me. I mean, there is no such thing as an apolitical boundary. What better way to deal with this
aspect of resistance then how we normally deal with it, with the military.
I have to admit, I’ m also interested in the juxtaposition to Dale Chihuly work now in place at Cheekwood.
I think, that work pretends to be very passive. It’ s decorative but this particular installation is anything but
passive. Here at Cheekwood it becomes very aggressive by the very nature of its complete “occupation”
of the landscape. It is in total control. I like the idea of juxtaposing the military to that cultural
aggressiveness, even more so than just the landscape. I think that it almost strengthens the piece in a
way, because it’ s also art. It’ s my art in a relationship with his art. And though I initially imagined it
with uniforms, I don’ t think that it matters at this point. I think it’ s even better. We now have our own
possibility of an occupation but it is a passive military occupation. I also like using the term “ installation”
like an art installation verses a military installation. I’ m doing both. It is a conceptual reversal of roles I
am playing with.
I think, however, I’m riding a fine line, maybe a very dangerous line. I’ ve been criticized before,
Kate and I have been criticized, for working with the military. Even the camouflaged house we did in
Charleston, SC, was criticized. The military actually worked with us on that because they designed the
camouflage. I’ ve been criticized for working with corporations, too. My thought and approach is that I’d
rather engage that dialogue if we participate in the tax base for this country, then we' re participants in
the military; whether we’ re willing participants or not, we’ re participating. I think it’ s almost better to
have that discussion or to open up that relationship between those things rather than just shut them up and
pretend we are above it. It is a kind of self-righteousness that disturbs me.
LAURA: It’ s interesting because a lot of the time in art, the rule is that edgier is better, and artists are
expected to be on the frontlines. But a lot of things have already been covered, like sex in art is old
news. It seems like this is a big taboo – questioning the military.
MEL: Especially when you start dealing with the military it’ s easy to be misunderstood. Military personnel
are pretty savvy and understand they are targets of discontent. One particular discussion went downhill
fast. At first all the reasonable questions were asked, “ What is this about, what are you trying to do here?
And why the military?” I told him I am setting up an event, and I’ m juxtaposing two things, the military
and the botanical gardens. However, during the course of our discussion he said, “Well, we can
probably participate in Military Appreciation Day.” And I said “Well, I didn’t say appreciation,
I said Military Day.” Immediately I think I cooled him to the whole idea a little bit. He’ s sending out
information but I don’ t know if he’ ll promote it. Because I said it wasn' t “ Military Appreciation Day," I
think it changed his view on whether he wanted to participate or not. I didn’ t want to frame it that way, and
I wanted to be honest with him. I could have pretended and said, “ Yeah, that’ s what it is,” but I didn’ t want
to falsify it. What I’ m trying to do is set up Cheekwood to invite this group of people and give them a free
day. But it’ s not about appreciation; that’ s not the point. I mean, it is what it is, there it is. At the same
time I want it to be understood it is not anti-military either. There was no judgment here!
LAURA: How do you think it will be different without the uniforms?
MEL: I think the aggressive aspect would almost undermine the whole thing. I could dress up 50 people
and have them pretend to be military, but I don’ t want them to be a prop. I really just want them to be
people. I want them to enjoy Cheekwood and be part of it. I think it opens up the possibilities. Uniforms
are too direct, too aggressive and too didactic... It’ s free for all active military. They have to just show
up. It’ s free for them and their immediate family. We are going to distinguish their presence by giving
them a different color wrist band. That will be the only way one could tell they are with the military.
LAURA: You’ ve worked in New York, Nashville, and Austin. How do you feel the art world is different in
the South vs. New York?
MEL: I lived almost 18 years in New York. And from there I moved to Austin, and it’ s just really
different. It’ s not New York. I mean that' s why I take students to New York, there’ s just so much there. I
did a whole Maymester there and every day we did something new. Every day.
Austin really changed in the ten years that I was there. When I was first arrived the visual arts scene was
really struggling. They had a great music scene, and they had a great film scene, but for some reason the
visual arts scene was not very dynamic. I think what happens in these small cities is that it takes a certain
group of people to change things. Soon after I arrived it seemed like suddenly there was movement. Austin
was on the verge of something: the University of Texas did five or six new hires of some really good
artists, and the museum changed directors and hired Dana Friis-Hansen. There was a place called Texas
Fine Arts, it was sort of a watercolor society and then Sue Graze came, she turned it into this place called
Art House and started showing interesting international contemporary art. And slowly graduate students
didn’ t just graduate from UT and take off to go to New York. They started sticking around. There was
beginning to be a dialogue, because Dana was building a really good program, Art House was building an
interesting program as well, galleries were opening up, and then places like OK MOUNTAIN opened up,
which was an art collective. It just seems like suddenly there was this new younger scene happening, and it
kind of snowballed. Suddenly there were a lot more interesting things going on. And then of course Glass
Tire started running great criticism that was sophisticated and well-written. That was a great thing—it was
causing all this dialogues between the different cities, people knew what was going on elsewhere and they
could have this interesting conversation. Nashville feels to me the way Austin felt ten years ago.
We’ re all trying to raise the discourse here in Nashville. I sense a lot of new energy. It’ s the younger
generation that always has this energy to make things happen. I personally just don’ t have the time, so it’ s
nice to see things like Open Lot. It is great to see younger artists come in to town, and the say okay I’ m
going to do something, I’ m going to create this buzz. What I did and could do in my position at the time
in Austin was offer the collective OKAY MOUNTAIN a space priced below normal rent, I was acting very
much like a patron, to give them the opportunity to do something. I basically offered my studio to them
very inexpensively. I also got very involved in city politics and the arts. I was on the arts commission for
six years and helped make some very important changes to policy including raising the one percent art in public
places to two percent . I am very proud of that. So I’ m hoping that things will start happening here a little more,
better discourse, eventually have even more contemporary art venues, maybe, hopefully a contemporary
institution which is very much needed here in Nashville. I can help do things with my institution like
create a great visiting artist program and invite the community or hopefully, God willing, create an MFA
program in conjunction with several other institutions here in town. All these things add to the mix. That’ s
LAURA: What other projects are you working on?
MEL: I finally feel like an artist again, which is nice because I’ m producing some work that I really
like. There’ s been this project called “ Messages from Murray.” In Murray, Kentucky, there are many
major manufacturers perhaps because labor is cheap in rural Kentucky. These manufacturers seemed to
be community-oriented companies. I went to the major manufacturers there, and unfortunately didn’ t get
everyone to participate, but I did get Briggs and Stratton, Pella Windows, and a place called South Eastern
Books that distributes books all over the country, and another place called Sportable Scoreboards, and they
produce scoreboards that also get shipped out all over the world. I asked each of them to give me boxes
that they use to pack their things in. In the gallery I had tables set up like workshop tables, and shipping
pallets with piles of these boxes. And then I gave an open invitation to anyone from Murray, Kentucky who
wants to write a message on a box. As they’ re finished we put them on the walls. There are 800 boxes and
800 potential messages. Then, after the exhibition, all the boxes go back to the companies and are used like
they normally would be, to pack their stuff and ship it out, distribute it all over the US. There are going to
be little stickers on each box announcing it as an art project.
It kind of goes along with the way that Kate and I worked, and the way I continue to work: finding things
that, as an artist, I can infiltrate and use temporarily. I want to be part of these conventional systems,
without necessarily disrupting it. So you make an artwork out of this system that’ s already in place.
Somehow, I like the idea of this small rural town having the ability to send out messages. You can easily
do that through Twitter, and you can do it through the internet, but I wanted to do it in a way that was much
more tactile and almost humanistic.
I am also working on a major public art commission in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called The Giving Project. I took
my working budget and created an endowment to generate funds for this high school to mix art with other
subjects. The projects that will get funded must always be collaborative with the arts and some other
subject. And I have been working on an arts master plan for Lake Como in Fort Worth. We are about to
publish that document.
LAURA: I read a quote about you and Kate that Ian Berry wrote. He said you “ display a thirst for
researching arcane areas of knowledge and exploring unnoticed aspects of public life.” How has your art
changed since she died?
MEL: That was 1995. In some ways it’ s changed quite a bit, and in other ways it hasn’ t changed at all. I
think I was surprised that her death also ended my career at that point. People knew us as Kate Ericson and
Mel Ziegler and that’ s what they were interested in. I don’ t think I realized that until after the retrospect
and after the book came out. I don’ t think that I realized it was an entity in itself; it was neither her work
nor my work but it was this thing that we created through our collaboration. So in that way it was very
difficult for me to get back to work because I liked collaborating. We collaborated because we thought
of it as the symbolic beginnings of a community and that you have two people and you have to begin
to talk before you can even produce. So in a way it was a double slap in the face - I mean I lost her and I
also lost my career. I kind of had to reestablish myself. But the reality was that I wasn’ t being asked to do
anything, the invitations were far and few between. Inside of those collaborations I could see strong parts
of me and strong parts of her, and some of the things I repressed came out when I wasn’ t working with her.
LAURA: Were there any pieces that you planned together that you finished after she died?
MEL: I finished a few that were in the works when she died. We tried to continue doing stuff but it was
almost impossible. She was sick for about two years - she had a brain tumor. We had three or four
shows lined up, and a museum show in Germany, and we put it off because she was sick, and after she
died I wrote them and said, “ Okay, I’ m ready to do this project,” and they wrote back, I think I got a fax,
somewhere I still have it. It just said, “ Sorry, you are no longer Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler we are not
interested in doing an exhibition with just you.” This is when I realized what I was up against, and it was a
real slap in the face. That’ s when I realized I had to reinvent myself and move on.
LAURA: It seems similar though. You used to collaborate with Kate, and now it seems like, even though
you’ re working alone, you still collaborate, but now you do it with corporations or specific groups.
MEL: Well we always collaborated with other groups. What happened was, for a while I went interior.
I didn’ t want to deal with anybody. I was sitting at my studio and I didn’ t want to see anyone. I didn’ t
want to deal with people. There’ s a deep psychology there that I haven’ t even figured out yet, because
I basically turned away from all my friends. I don’ t even see most of the people who had a relationship
with Kate and me. I don’ t know why, but that’ s what’ s happened in my life and I just sort of changed
who my friends were. I went through this period in my life where I really didn’ t want to do community
projects. Everything changed. Slowly I’ ve worked back into it because that’ s what I like doing.
That’ s what I think I’ m best at. I really enjoy that dialogue. Now when I work on a project I start that
collaboration with the curators. Claire Schneider, the curator who invited me to do the Cheekwood project,
spent hours with me discussing the ideas as they developed. It leaves me a bit vulnerable. As Kate and
I worked we always allowed ourselves to put on the table even the worst ideas… but sometimes this
generates new good ones. I am not a big proponent of the mythological artist genius working alone. I want
to be part of the community and actively engage the world and I don’ t mean just the art world.
Laura Hutson is an independent writer and curator based in Nashville, Tennessee.
Messages from Murray:
Vanderbilt Senior Art Majors' Trip to New York City, 2010: