Personal Read, one of Mel Ziegler’s two works at Artpace, is a forty-foot flatbed truck trailer carrying nearly 100 wired and lit standing lamps. Found objects that Ziegler acquired in San Antonio, the lamps radiate warm light, variegated and enriched by the colors of their globes and shades. They are also idiosyncratic physical shapes, composing a chorus of styles—nostalgic imitations of candle- and oil-based lamps predating the electric grid, bulbous ’50s ceramics, elegant spans of modernist stainless steel. Some are short, some tall, some sleek, some homely. Seen in a group, they gain anthropomorphic presence, becoming a crowd of personalities. They further trace decades of history—the histories of domesticity and of design.
At Artpace, Personal Read has a double oddness: standing lamps rarely stand on a flatbed trailer, and a flatbed trailer rarely sits in a gallery. Human in scale, friendly in form and function, the lamps butt up against the massive physicality of the trailer, which through its placement in the gallery itself invites the gaze we use for art. It turns out, as you might expect, to have its own brute integrity. It also points to another aspect of Personal Read: one night at the end of the show, Ziegler plans to park the trailer outside San Antonio’s great historical landmark, the Alamo, and photograph it there. Outdoors, the trailer will seem more at home, and closer to the potentials it embodies: mobility, strength, speed, transience, the highway.
Ziegler’s work, and his collaborations with his late wife, Kate Ericson, mediate between private life and public concerns, between personal aesthetics and the social world. MoMA Whites (1990), for example, a row of jars of paint in subtly different shades of white—the shades preferred by different curators for the walls of New York’s Museum of Modern art—simultaneously indexes the time-honored art of painting, the more recent aesthetic principle of serial repetition, and the modernist gallery space (the “white cube”), while also suggesting that all these are not enough—that in looking at art, one also needs a sense of the web of organization and bureaucracy, and of bureaucratic idiosyncrasy, that provides art’s setting. Personal Read, similarly, invokes not only the private life of the hearth but the encompassing social environment. The Alamo—the mission and fort that Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie died to defend against Mexican soldiers, in 1836—is often called the birthplace of Texas. A monument in the state’s public life, it lies at the core of a large political mythology. It is also, Ziegler points out, “an icon of the San Antonio tourist industry,” and is theatrically lit at night with a hard white light. Juxtaposing this light with the warm light of the lamps, which signify “a whole other space in which lighting operates,” Ziegler sets public against private, charged history against home.
In art terms, the flatbed trailer is an outsized form of dais, or sculptural pedestal, and perhaps a witty reference to what Leo Steinberg called Robert Rauschenberg’s “flatbed picture plane.” It is also a flatbed trailer, and Ziegler has used one before. In 1984, for a piece called Instant Landscape, he parked a trailer supporting eighty live juniper trees on a New York street for a month—a temporary forest, without a wait to grow. Raising Capital, in Warsaw in 1991, was a trailer planted with a vegetable garden. Come and Go, in 1998 in Cleveland, was the first of these works to use light: five street lamps stood on a trailer parked in a once-industrial neighborhood that had moved upscale, so that the city was replacing existing street lamps with fancier ones—historical replicas, which Ziegler set on his truck. In Cleveland, says Ziegler, the flatbed unveiled “this consumer packaging of the history of the site.” At the Alamo, it gently questions a heavily-invested-in public narrative by suggesting that “nothing’s static. History is always flawed, because it comes from a particular ideology, no matter which. But things can move from one place to another, they’re not always the same. There’s always the possibility of the instantaneous alteration of a place. You can pull up and change things.”
Ziegler’s other work in San Antonio, Taking Measure, was a one-night event (also photographed) that placed him alone in the offices of the Frost Bank, in a high-rise visible from Artpace, during the exhibition’s opening. Here Ziegler installed an electronic time-and-temperature display board in the window of a conference room on the twenty-first floor. The board’s thermometer ran not to the outside air but to Ziegler’s body. San Antonio gets hot in summer, and the outdoor temperature is meaningful information to every citizen; driving around town, Ziegler saw many time-and-temperature boards, which banks, stores, any business eager to catch the eye had put up everywhere—everywhere, that is, that looked prosperous. The poorer the neighborhood, the fewer time-and-temperature boards Ziegler found. In the human body, temperature is a measure of health; a time-and-temperature board may be a measure of the health of a place.
In Taking Measure, Ziegler suggested this correlation by replacing the outdoor temperature with his own. At the same time, just as he does in Personal Read, he put something personal in a public space. The one an electronic readout high in a corporate office building, but linked to the interior of the human body, the other a small army of fragile anthropomorphic objects, both works have a peculiar combination of assertion and frailty, oratory and intimacy. And each in its own way affirms the memorial quality of light.
All quotations of Mel Ziegler are from conversations with the author in December 1999.