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America Starts at the CAC

By Laura James · November 20th, 2007 · The Big Picture
  Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler's

Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler's "Camouflaged History"

One of the current exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler: America Starts Here, has all the (assumed) prerequisites of a great contemporary art show. The work is wide-ranging, with political and environmental themes, an assumed audience and an esoteric beauty.

America Starts Here is cerebral and, conversely, set for a lay audience. That audience will surely need wall labels to make sense of it. I love art that makes me think, but I'm not certain Ericson and Ziegler haven't done all the thinking for me.

The exhibition features the couple's work during the 10-year period (1985-1995) before Ericson's death. They worked in the public realm, focusing on a dialogue with the community. In doing so, they loosened the belief that public art has to be decorated pigs or sculpture made out of baseball bats.

The work is not obvious. In fact, some of it is flat-out brilliant.

Take, for example, "Constitution on Tour," one of the few tangible pieces in the show. In 1991, the Phillip Morris Companies sponsored a tour of the original Bill of Rights document to celebrate its 200th anniversary.

Ericson and Ziegler made their own version of the traveling object: They copied the United States Constitution onto marble -- the same marble that comprises the Supreme Court building itself -- before breaking the marble into hunks of debris. Then they put the debris in a toy version of a train car from the Intercontinental Railroad.

Intellectually, while Americans ooh and ahh at the Bill of Rights, the Constitution is being hacked away.

Much of Ericson's and Ziegler's art was meant to exist in time -- i.e., with an expiration date. The "Camouflage House" in Charleston, S.C., for example, existed in its true form only for the Spoleto Festival, before it was repainted and returned to a "normal" home.

The project now exists as a maquette, complete with the racially charged color schemes (names such as "Moorish Maroon Red" and "Confederate Uniform Grey," the colors allowed within city limits by the Charleston Architectural Foundation). The details in the painted house related directly to the city of Charleston, and yet here it is in Cincinnati.

What's interesting about this dislocation of object is that the artists seem first and foremost concerned with location. Being in tune with the environment in which they worked allowed them to communicated with the community at large. Dislodging the object, which was designed to be temporal, seems problematic.

It leads me to a question I can't answer: Can you recreate performance art? Can you make survive what was meant to erode?

America Starts Here is fraught with references, both within the text and within the art, to Robert Smithson, arguably the most famous earthwork artist. Smithson, for one, was obsessed with the notion of entropy and letting things die naturally.

In an interview published just moths before his death, Smithson said, "On the whole I would say entropy contradicts the usual notion of a mechanistic world view. In other words it's a condition that's irreversible, it's condition that's moving towards a gradual equilibrium and it's suggested in many ways. Perhaps a nice succinct definition of entropy would be Humpty Dumpty. Like Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

"There is a tendency to treat closed systems in such a way ... [an] example might be the shattering of Marcel Duchamp Glass and his attempt to put all the pieces back together again attempting to overcome entropy."

But entropy isn't happening here. The dust isn't settling. The work is not allowed to exist where it was meant to exist. The Duchampian glass is re-created.

America Starts Here belongs to a common category of exhibitions that suffer from a kind of dysmorphia -- is it theoretical art or is it artistic theory?

The problem might be as simple CAC's layout. First, the center has given the show far too much space. Second, they've flipped the matter of importance (art museum-wise) so that the theory comes first and the art comes second.

The art itself seems hidden behind the deep layers of environmental theory. And, worst of all, the theory is printed there for the lay audience, giving them no chance to explore the object-site relationship themselves.

Contact Laura James: ljames(at)citybeat.com



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