Feed and Seed (Heisey Farm), an artwork by Mel Ziegler and Kate Ericson, is composed of seed bags encased in Plexiglas sandblasted with the type of crop and the number of acres sown. It is very easy to walk by the piece and miss the underlying message. In formal aesthetics, it could be compared to the objectification of a soup can by Andy Warhol, but the purpose of this project goes beyond the formal qualities of art. Ericson and Ziegler use their power as image-makers to show the value of small farm labor, by taking an everyday object and inserting into the public sphere. Feed and Seed discusses the relationship between real world economics and the art market.

feed and seed

The work was realized in 1990 through a series of collaborations with seven farmers. The artists subsidized 10 percent of the seed cost in exchange for the empty seed bags. After the work was sold at a New York gallery, the artists donated the proceeds to the farmers in order to continue to assist them in their vital labor. This work speaks of the importance of farming in America. Agriculture was a way of life for many Americans and due to globalization of the markets, it is a dying trend. Many American farmers are struggling to keep their farms open and others have had to abandon farming and work in a different industry. In contrast to the traditional notions of public art, Feed and Seed takes a quotidian object and by encasing it and displaying it in a public space, it assigns a greater value to the process of farming.

Since 1985, Ericson and Ziegler worked as an artistic team exploring the unnoticed aspects of public life.* In Feed and Seed, they bring the public’s attention to the crucial role of the small American farmer and the cycles of food production. By writing the number of acres sown with the seed, Ericson and Ziegler make a direct reference to the farmland, which is iconic of American culture.

Furthermore, their project serves to illustrate the contrast between real world economics and the voracious art market. Jeanne Claire van Ryzin states, “While many artists of the era directed their energies toward feeding a marketplace-driven art world hungry in equal parts for big, splashy paintings and the singular egos behind them, Ericson and Ziegler worked as a team, often involving people and places far outside the art milieu.”** Their choice to expose the struggle of small farmers demonstrates the artists were endowed with a sense of social responsibility. The practical exchange between artist, farmer and art market indicated a direct critique on the shallowness of the all-consuming art market and the role of the artist as a mediator.

In conclusion, Feed and Seed challenges our notions of the art market by contrasting it with real world economics. By focusing on an object of farm labor, Ericson and Ziegler remind us of the importance of American communities and the changing industries around them. Their work effectively demonstrates the notion that artists are citizens and that they carry the responsibility of voicing the concerns of communities.

On view through May 6 @ the Austin Museum of Art.

* Berry, Ian and Bill Arning. “America Starts Here.” Gallery Guide, Austin Museum of Art 2007.
** Ryzin, Jeanne Claire van. “Advocating not-so-permanent public art.” Austin American-Statesman 11 March 2007.