The United States Flag Code, written in 1923 and made public law in 1942, outlines the rules by which U.S. flags may be displayed, saluted and disposed of (perhaps surprisingly: “in a dignified way, preferably by burning”).
But not all flag-flying locations adhere as strictly to the code as its original authors might have intended. Flags fly at all hours, not just sunrise to sunset, and often without illumination. For reasons too many to enumerate, they endure rain, sleet, snow and sun; they fly tattered and faded.
The exhibition A Living Thing, now on view at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries, is a catalog of these hard-working flags. Between 2011 and 2016, Nashville-based artist Mel Ziegler journeyed throughout the U.S. negotiating the exchange of used flags for new flags.
As in their previous presentation at New York’s Tang Museum, the 50 flags of A Living Thing hang vertically in various sizes and states of disintegration around a square stage, a space organizers Hesse McGraw and Katie Hood Morgan plan to fill with an open call for actions, performances, conversation or debate.
For McGraw, Ziegler’s work is rooted in an empathy for the non-urban environment. The story of each flag exchange remains between Ziegler and the anonymous flag owners, many of whom were embarrassed by the state of their stars and stripes. “This unseen thing is the real substance of work,” McGraw says of the exchanges.
The organizers hope to create a forum for multiple perspectives on the gallery stage, acknowledging this will be difficult in a left-leaning city like San Francisco. At the Tang, where the flags were on display during the tumultuous months of July through December 2016, public events included debate-watching parties, a lecture on burkinis, folk music performances and a post-election skill exchange.
Upstairs from A Living Thing — ostensibly a 50-flag archive of patriotic use — SFAI’s own Exhibitions and Public Programs archives spread out for public consumption with the help of a two-year grant from the Institute of Museums and Library Science. Ghosts of the Tower, opening Jan. 26, is the first step in a process of cataloging and digitizing the nearly 150-year-old institution’s bounty of recorded lectures, correspondences, catalogs, images and posters. Favorites include the handwritten board minutes approving the 1878 public presentation of Eadweard Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope.
Section 8 of the Flag Code, the source of Ziegler’s exhibition title, states: “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.” The imperfect, distressed and sun-faded symbols of patriotism on view in the Walter and McBean Galleries reinforce the idea that the United States is far from static. Instead, it seems to argue, our democracy is very much alive, a work-in-progress whose history should be pried open (like SFAI’s archives), discussed and examined — with respect and optimism — if ever we are to move forward as one.
A Living Thing is on view through April 1, 2017 at SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries in San Francisco. Ghosts of the Tower is on view Jan. 26–April 8, 2017. An opening reception for both exhibitions takes place Friday, Jan. 27, 7–9pm. For more information visit sfai.edu.