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OSU professor considers flock of sheep a work of art

Unlike many of the Wexner Center’s displays, OSU professor Michael Mercil’s exhibit is living and breathing.

Mercil, an associate professor and chair of Graduate Studies in OSU’s Department of Art, displays a flock of Shetland sheep at his “Virtual Pasture” the first Monday of every month.

His display is located on the west side of the Wexner Center and is intended for an audience of passersby, he said.

“Taking something and making it visible to an audience is no different than painting on a canvas,” Mercil said. “All art is a social practice that asks a specific set of questions.”

The “Virtual Pasture” asks questions such as: “Where, when and how do we encounter farm animals now?” Mercil said.

The exhibit answers those questions by bringing farm animals “back into our field of vision,” Mercil said.

Mercil started with a flock of three sheep and, through breeding, the flock has increased to five. He expects to have three more lambs by spring.

“It is my first experience with animal husbandry,” he said.

The flock comes to campus from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. the first Monday of every month. Mercil rents a truck to transport the sheep from where they are housed at the Stratford Ecological Center in nearby suburb Delaware to campus.

“It’s surprising to hear: ‘What kind of animals are those,'” Mercil said.

The LED monitor that sits in the “Virtual Pasture” records the flock 24 hours a day when they are at Stratford. From his laptop, Mercil controls the camera at Stratford.

The “Virtual Pasture” is a project within Mercil’s bigger independent art practice titled the “Living Culture Initiative,” which he said is “a way for me to use campus as a studio.”

“The thing I like about first Mondays is that the entire university is my classroom,” Mercil said.

The “Living Culture Initiative” began in 2006 with the creation of a bean field in the same location as the “Virtual Pasture.”

Like the “Virtual Pasture,” the bean field was meant to provoke questions and conversation. One of its purposes was to increase awareness that OSU was founded in 1870 as a Land Grant University dedicated to research and teaching of the agricultural, mechanical and liberal arts.

The bean field stood for two years and provided 150 pounds of beans for neighboring food pantries.

Mercil decided to put in a pasture in 2008 to renew the area’s soil.

He was inspired to put animals on the scene after running across an image of cows on the Oval in 1887. The image spurred him to reintroduce farm animals to campus. He chose to use Shetland sheep because they are small and docile.

As another project within the “Living Culture Initiative,” Mercil plans to read aloud the daily news on the Oval. He plans to read The Columbus Dispatch 365 times but has no schedule for completing the task.

“It’s a performance piece,” he said. He coins the performance as a “community in-reach” because it is his attempt to localize himself as an artist.

Mercil said he is intrigued because there are frequently articles about OSU in The Dispatch.

“The culture of the university shapes Columbus as a whole,” he said.

Mercil has received more than $100,000 from grants and other sources, he said. Sources include the Battelle Endowment for Technology and Human Affairs, OSU College of the Arts, OSU College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the Harpo Foundation and Ohio Arts Council.

“It folds perfectly with President Gee’s vision for multiple disciples working together” because it is a collaboration between arts and agriculture, said Karen Simonian, director of media and public relations at the Wexner Center. Mercil “sees art as a way to start dialogue … he is devoted to art that gets the conversation going, that makes people question.”

Mercil and Ann Hamilton, Mercil’s wife, also a professor in the Department of Art at OSU, work closely together in their projects and own a studio in Columbus that they also use to host conversational seminars.

Mercil and Hamilton are influential and “brilliant artists that really advocate interdisciplinary dialogue,” said Zachary Podgorny, a second-year in OSU’s Master of Fine Arts Program and graduate assistant to Mercil.

As an assistant to the duo, Podgorny helps them plan events at their studio, transport sheep to and from the “Virtual Pasture,” and with their personal projects.

“They encouraged me to pursue the things that embarrass you most because they said those are the ones most worth exploring,” Podgorny said.

Mercil’s flock will make its next visit to campus Dec. 6.

The “Virtual Pasture” will be on display until the end of the school year. Mercil said he has other projects in mind but wouldn’t discuss them.

“The ‘Living Culture Initiative’ isn’t anywhere near ending,” Mercil said. “As long as I am here, it will be here.”

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