Collaborating with El Anatsui: Perry Hurt & NCMA’s installation and conservation team – Part I

At the opening of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s current exhibition El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa I was immediately intrigued by both the diversity of the artist’s work and the challenges inherent to the presentation.  At the suggestion of museum staff, I sat down with Perry Hurt, one of NCMA’s conservators (and a specialist in painting conservation specifically) who was instrumental in the show’s installation. He has in fact become an expert on the installation and handling of El Anatsui’s work in American museums, gathering input on the process from other museum art handlers and publishing an article on the process referenced by the other institutions during the show’s tour.   Perry assists frequently at NCMA with exhibition installation and conservation of other media in the museum’s collection and he graciously agreed to share with me a few details about the Anatsui show’s extraordinary installation.  Below is Part I of our talk:

Dave Delcambre: I thought we might want to begin with where you started with the installation?

Perry Hurt:  We commissioned El Anatsui for our own sculpture Lines That Link Humanity for the new West Building and that happened well before the building opened. We received it six months or so before the new building opened and it came in a little tiny box just a little bigger than a carryon luggage just packed in there folded up like a sheet.  [NCMA staff] opened it up downstairs and knew they needed to hang it to photograph it, so the board of directors and the people that had kindly purchased it for the museum and everybody could see it.

PH: This was the time when the whole museum was closed to the public so we chose to put it up in one of the galleries where the show is hanging now.   So many of us in conservation and art handling… I was one of many many people who showed up to help that day.  So we started putting it up and the process was really led by Kinsey Katchka—who was an NCMA curator at the time and the one dealing directly with the artist and his agents—and Tom Lopez the NCMA head art handler.

PH: What we knew about it was basically what the agents had told us which was you could hang this [work] any way you want to.  They described certain ways of putting up a board with nails on it or maybe a couple pieces of a foam just anywhere you wanted to, just put it up there and grab pieces of it and push it around and put a nail through it and give it some shape and that was about all the instructions they gave us.

DD:   That must be sort of freeing in a way?

PH:    Well it was but it was also a dramatic departure from doing anything else.  I can’t think of another artwork in the museum that’s like that.  Most artworks, I’d say 99.9%, are done when they leave the artist and we display them with an absolute minimum of intrusion.  You know a painting has a couple of D-rings on the back of a framed artwork and we hang it; a sculpture, we make a pedestal and it might have a little curvy piece of metal that we strategically camouflage with a little paint so you don’t see it just to secure it so the sculpture  can’t be knocked over.  But other than that we don’t put any spin on what the artwork looks like.  We present it without any details or extra context because we don’t want to misconstrue what the artist meant it to look like.

PH: So the El Anatsui –the wall sculpture – is radically different than that in that he finishes the work to his specifications his own view of what the piece should look like but then he tells you to hang it any way you want to , give it whatever shape you want. The idea of an artwork that can be transformed every time you move it to a new site or hang it in a different place it’s a new artwork that’s part of the magic of this particular type of sculpture.   So it’s a very freeing, interesting thing but it’s not something that museum professionals tend to deal with.  We want the artist to tell us, “Do it this way and this is what I mean it to look like.”  Even though it’s a nice thing for the artist to give us this whole new kind of artwork to interpret any way we want to, that’s really outside of our job description so to speak.

PH: So I think we had 12 or 15 people show up that day that we hung it and we already had the wall prepped with some nails and things like that, and we started unrolling it and putting it up there and the whole process was very painful.  Literally because the pieces were made out of metal with rough edges and lots of sharp wire and things like that so we were continually getting poked even though we were wearing gloves, and our clothes were snagging on it and all sorts of issues like that.   But slowly and surely we gradually started getting it up on the wall but we all realized that because of the size of it and its own inherent weight, we were affecting it, we were bending the little metal pieces and separating the wires and affecting the artwork in ways that none of us….

DD:  Just from handling it and moving it around?

PH :  From moving it around and just handling it.  None of us felt good about that but that was how we had been directed to do it. So we finished that day and by the end of the day I had already started talking to people about how there’s just got to be a better way to do this.  The reason that thought was particularly important was that we all knew this was a temporary installation and it would only be up there about a month before we would take [Lines] down and reinstall it in the new building two months, three months down the road.  So as soon as I got back to my desk I started thinking,”Well how am I going to do this?”  Well the obvious thing was to communicate with other professionals in other museums who had dealt with this type of thing before.  (*see list at end of post below for affiliated museum professionals contacted) 

DD: Yes I was going to ask if there were other people out there that you talked to?

PH:  Exactly, there are plenty of people out there, but these sculptures are quite new.  He’s only been doing them for about ten years and they’ve only been known to the museum world for about five or six years so they really are quite new.  And as of right now, we’re talking this was 2-1/2 years ago now so it was relatively new.  So I had a couple of leads right off the bat and I started calling around. But one of the first places I called was the St. Louis Museum of Art and they had hung quite a few of them and then I called the Metropolitan Museum of Art and they gave me some insights.   The Fowler Museum on the West Coast…there are about half dozen places I called and spoke with specific people that had dealt with these types of things before.

DD:  What sort of things would they tell you?

PH: Oh they would say, we’ve hung 20 or 30 of those but they’re all quite small compared to the one you have. And then once they came out of the [shipping] box—everybody has a story about the boxes they came out of because the boxes by museum standards are quite crude. They’re just basic crates and one even had the old style latch with a stick through the clasp and that was how it was shipped from Africa to the U.S.    Museum quality crates are armored trucks by comparison and maybe they’re over engineered but we have standards and then when you get one of these crude crates that has a major new art piece in it, it sort of sets you back.

PH: But everybody had slightly different approaches. One person would mention, “Oh you need these heavy duty rubber gloves so you won’t be hurt by the artwork” and then the next person would say, “You can’t use any gloves at all because the gloves just snag on the artwork and they get shredded anyway so don’t worry about that.”  And one place, I think it was Kansas City, they had a piece probably twice as large as ours to hang and they had hung it a couple of times so they had a boom system with a long 4-by-4 basically with two mechanical lifts on each side that they would wire the artwork to and literally hoist it up the wall to attach it to the wall and do whatever they had to do.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the conservators that dealt with it there were textile conservators so their approach to this artwork was much more like how you would handle a textile which is really a departure.  Their point was that you have a very large flexible object which really can’t support its own weight so when you go to hang it and display it you need to spread the load over the whole object of the way it’s mounted.  So if you have a very large El Anatsui you can’t hang it from the very top edge because there’s too much weight on it.  It will cause the piece to damage itself just gravity pulling on it.  So how do you avoid that?  You support it all over the face of it every 1-foot or 2-feet on a grid. You want to have something in the piece attaching it to the surface behind it so the weight, the load is all spread throughout the whole piece.

DD:  Can you do that without intervening too much or having to attach other pieces to it to accomplish that?

PH:  Well that’s the trick. For me the trick in all this research was to talk to all these people, ask the right questions, get their input and then pick and choose what worked for one person, what worked for the other person [to find] what would work for our situation.   The thing is that the improved system that we came up with was definitely thanks to the input of all these other people but also keeping in mind every one of these artworks is different, every place you put it is different so you have to pick and choose every time you put one of these artworks up the right system for that one situation. So getting all that information together we came up with a more holistic way we hoped to [use to] put up our piece. So like I said the first time we put it up we had 12-15 people and it took about four hours just to get it up on the wall and then we spent two or three days time after that shaping it and sculpting it giving it shape once it was up on the wall.  With the process that we came up with from all this research [for the reinstallation] we got it up there with about five people and it took us about two hours. It was radically different and it was much, much easier on the artwork. We saw very little stress on the artwork by doing it this way.

PH: One of the fun things that was different about it that I introduced to it was using chopsticks for the process.  Basically we cover the wall with foam [a particular type called Ethafoam] and then we use [a boom] to lift the artwork up there. The type of boom and the way we attach the artwork to the boom varies with the size and construction of the artwork.  Once [the work] is up to the right height and next to the wall you push it to the wall and use chopsticks to go between the various different pieces of the fabric of the piece into the foam.    So you don’t make new holes you just go through an existing hole and you can put a chopstick every 6-inches or 1-foot, whatever you feel is necessary and you put them all over the place just kind of indiscriminately to hold the piece up there. Then once the piece is up there you can start picking out various areas and making folds and mountains or whatever shape you want to give it and then pull out the chopsticks in that area, put them back in [elsewhere] to hold that shape and then keep moving on.

PH: And that was quite different from the way it was done before because before you put a nail or a screw in when you wanted to hold a shape, then you would pull the next area to make a different shape and as soon as you did that the whole piece would pull against the nails you had put in and the nails would end up damaging the piece.  The other thing is that particularly with our sculpture there are areas that stand out 12-to-16 inches from the wall and the piece has a mind of its own.  When you pull it in one place it wants to pop out in another so invariably if you put nails and screws to attach it then they get buried and lost behind the piece and you don’t know where they are and you can’t get them out and you can’t reach through the piece to get the nail out so inevitably you’re pulling against one place and you’re pulling against a nail that you don’t want to be in there any longer.   The other good thing about the chopsticks is they’re very visible so you can’t lose them.  You can always find them to pull them out if they’re the things keeping the piece from going in the direction you want it to go. You can just pull them out and put them back in when you’re ready to put them back in.

DD:  Had the other museums tried the chopstick method?

PH:  No, they never had never done chopsticks. They had tried many other things but no one had ever thought about it in a two step process the way we did it because you have to get it up on the wall and chopsticks help to anchor it on the wall but then you also have to shape it and the shaping process is where a lot of the damage was happening because once again you were pulling against screws and nails and all that sort of thing. The chopsticks were soft wood but they were hard enough to hold the artwork up there but you can find them and move them and you don’t have this resulting damage in moving it.   The second trick was that once you establish the shape and get it exactly the way you wanted it then you go back and you replace all the chopsticks with clear rods made out of acrylic.  That was relatively new to the process as well because everybody had been using screws and nails and pins and things like that.  The clear rods are just like the chopsticks except that you make them various lengths and diameters and that sort of thing and since they’re clear they basically disappear once they’re in there.

DD: So the base they’re going into, is it a sort of rigid foam?

PH:  Exactly. It’s a rigid foam and you put the rods in at a slight angle so that the artwork rests on top of it and some of the rods are relatively flexible so if you have a big shelf of the material coming out you can kind of bend the acrylic rod to make it kind of like a spring so that it pushes up lightly against the area and you hold the shape that much better since you’re spreading the load.  Where we probably used 100-150 chopsticks to hold the artwork up there during the process we ended up putting close to 700 clear rods in to spread the rod and make sure the whole piece was adequately supported so it wouldn’t damage itself over the long run just fighting gravity.

DD: So then would you come back in and put a longer rod in and then clip it?

PH:  Yes we actually did do that.  We got smart eventually.  I went through and made hundreds and hundreds of rods that were ready at a certain length but then later on during the installation of the current exhibition you didn’t need to do that. You just had a standard length and you put it in there and if it was sticking out a little too far you just clipped it off.  A much quicker process but then you know it takes awhile to figure these things out.  But that was one of the gratifying things about putting this current installation up, that our research on our piece… you know I never intended to publish that  but once I had gotten all this information together and made an internal document to spread this information around the museum then Kinsey Katchka said well you should really publish this because this exhibition, the retrospective, will be on the road soon and this is such a new thing I think people will really appreciate your thoughts about this.  So with all the editing and everything that needed to be accomplished with it, it didn’t actually come out until about the time this exhibition opened at the first venue which was in Toronto I believe.  So even though it had not officially come out yet, Kinsey was very closely associated with the people at the African Art Museum and the opening of the first venue so she was there before it opened suggesting and disseminating the knowledge that we had accumulated. So it did influence the first hanging but now we’re the fourth institution that’s had this show and each institution that it’s gone to since the very first one has appropriated things from my article to match their own situation.

PH: So the process of hanging the show has evolved as it’s reached here so it was really interesting to see.  The one thing you have to say is that Amanda [Thompson from the Museum for African Art] is the registrar who travels with the exhibition to help with the installation and the de-installation and she knows all the pieces intimately. She knows exactly what the artist expects and she dictates how things are going to be done and what they’re going to look like to a certain extent.  It’s her job to go to every venue and spend two or three weeks and make sure that everything’s accounted for and make sure it’s handled correctly and all that sort of thing.  So she’s seen the wall sculptures in this exhibition go up and down numerous times now and she’s seen the process evolve over time and so the way the ones in the exhibition went up varies because of their own size and their own shape. Some of them are quite small and two people can handle them very easily but then the largest one Stressed World, I think we had eight people there the day we put it up on the wall because it’s quite large and delicate and you have to handle it very differently to get it up on the wall.

DD:  Do you find there’s a difference with the bottle cap pieces versus the longer strips?  Does it vary even in the surface of the piece as far as how you can handle it with the rods and the amount of people?

PH:  Absolutely.  Stressed World is a really good example of that in that the upper and outer parts of it are very substantial and the way they’re made is generally from the longer pieces of metal from the [bottle] tops and they’re wired together.  Those parts are quite strong. But the center and lower right of that piece are made out of the little skinny metal pieces that are left on the neck of the bottle after you take the lid off of it and those are quite weak especially after you put a few holes in them to wire them together. They’re just not very strong at all and they’re like a fishnet in appearance but they’re really quite weak. They can’t take any handling whatsoever or stress or you’ll tear the wire out of them.  Some damage….well because these are all found materials, they’ve all had a life before the artist started using them, you can look at them and say, “Oh there’s a hole in that little metal piece.”  But you don’t know if the hole is new or old if it was there before the artist dealt with it or not so it’s really hard to say what’s new damage and what’s old damage.  But that piece in particular you can see that that weak area has had a harder life than the rest of the piece.  So when you go to hang it you have to  handle it from the strong areas to actually get it up on the wall because that’s when all the weight of the piece is pulling down on it so you have to be sure that you’re holding on to the strongest parts of it to handle it.

DD:  So that adds another dimension…

PH:  Oh absolutely and if you look closely at that piece even the parts that we shaped we tried to only pull at the areas that were strongest. The artist might have made different choices but that’s part of the interesting aspects of this work. Because it’s a living artist even though he says, “Hang it any way you want to hang it” he still has an opinion about what looks best and if you invite him to hang your piece he continues the artistic process just like it was in his studio.  So if he’s standing there and he grabs it and yanks on it and damages it, a wire lets go or whatever, well then that’s part of the artistic process. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  It’s what’s necessary to get the end product that he’s trying   for.  But if he’s not standing there and I want to make the same shape, it’s not in my power to damage the piece just because I want it to look different.  I mean that’s just not my job.  My job is to preserve the art and so that’s another thing that’s very different about that type of artwork, these wall sculptures than any other artwork that I’ve dealt with.  There’s a latitude or maybe an expectation there that’s a hard thing to accommodate.

DD: Now what part in the process did you do the mockups?

PH:  I did the mockups well after we hung our own piece and I did them for two reasons. One is that even though I’d finished dealing with our own piece I knew this exhibition was coming here and I made these probably six months ago now.  And I thought that just by going through the process I would learn more about how strong these are, what they feel like, what kind of punishment they can take.  But the thing was I knew that if I made one then we could do anything to it, we could yank on it, we could pull on it and really have a feeling for how much abuse and stress these things could take without the real thing falling apart.

PH: We don’t care if this [mock up] gets damaged because it’s really just a tool.  The other thing I realized is that since I frequently do public speaking and I knew I was going to be talking about this process, so I thought well it’s really hard for the people sitting in the audience to understand how fragile these pieces are.   How they’re made, what kind of stresses they can take because they’re really just not familiar with them.  If I was talking about a drawing on paper or a painting or a photograph just about everybody in the audience would have some insight into what those materials are and know what I was talking about. But these things are so totally different that I can talk all day about how fragile they are and people really can’t understand it because they haven’t experienced it. And if they come to the exhibition here or they go and look at ours they still haven’t experienced it because they’re not supposed to touch it.   Some people do just because they’re so intrigued but they’re not supposed to touch it.

PH: So anyway the other reason I made these is was that I can literally hand these to people and say, ”Here, this is what it feels like and yes, give it a tug and pull on it a little bit.”   I even go so far to say, “Ok, so you can see that it’s relatively strong you can pull on it a little bit and go like this [gives the mockup a strong tug] and it’s really not damaging anything but if you took this and you tied a bowling ball to this end of it what do you think would happen when you waved it around?  It would probably break in here [pointing to the middle] someplace.  And that’s effectively what you have when you have this same kind of construction except it’s 18 feet by 25 feet.  It’s got the same strength here but all this weight underneath it.  That’s why when they get larger they get exponentially harder and harder to handle and to display and to move and all that sort of thing.

DD: Do you know how they handle the exterior ones where he’s done the whole facades?   Those must get monumentally heavier.

PH: Oh they do and what I know is basically from the videos that we have here now. And I wish I‘d seen those earlier because it would have explained a lot of things to me. But especially the one that he hung on the exterior of a building in Venice, that came in sections. It was not one huge piece that shipped. It was made in his studio in Africa and shipped there in parts. I don’t know how many sections maybe six, eight, ten sections I have no idea. So when they put the scaffolding up in front of the building they more or less figured it out and they attached the first ones and then section by section put them together.

So that’s how they avoided dealing with a super large piece, they just had smaller pieces that were maybe 10 feet or something like that they put up there one by one.  And there’s one scene even after they put it up there [El Anatsui] goes up and cuts windows out of it and flops down these shapes that he sees as mimicking or resonating with the windows on the rest of the exposed building. It was really interesting to see him work and the other thing that was interesting to see was his studio workers and how they go through the process of making these things, where they make sections that are all very similar. They make certain sections and certain colors and they just crank out the sections, these repetitive patterns and then El Anatsui himself comes in and they start spreading them out on the floor and putting them together like a puzzle that is something like what he is looking for.  So I always knew about the collaborative aspect that he made the piece and then the owner hung it.  But then the collaboration goes even much farther when he has five or six studio workers that are making individual sections which he is then orchestrating together.  I mean it’s just like a symphony orchestra in so many ways.

DD: Did you find from a conservators’ point of view that you had to go back and repair areas that had been damaged?

PH:  Certainly we did.  I mean El Anatsui has said before…he’s even given owners new little pieces of metal to fill in if they felt that was necessary. Basically he tells you it’s this gauge copper wire and the copper wire in most respects is identical to the copper wire he’s used so that’s not really a problem. If the copper wire breaks or gives way, then you can replace that.  It becomes a little more difficult if one of the little holes in a metal piece has torn out then you have to make the decision do you want to make a new hole? Do you want to try and mend that hole somehow? It gets much more complicated when you do that. But fortunately for the size of our pieces there was very little such damage on it anyway. Most of what happened on ours were the wires giving way so we could put the pieces back relatively easily and without any change to the artwork.

DD: Is the wire thin enough that it’s meant to maybe give way first so maybe it doesn’t damage?

PH: I don’t know that it’s meant to give way first but that’s what it does.  As we were describing before those really skinny little metal pieces, those will break very easily and one of the mockups I did I incorporated some of those and you can already see just from the few people that have handled them so far you can see in that piece that that little area is more stressed than anything else.

DD: Now how about the floor pieces? Like the ones made out of tin can lids? Is there a similar process with those?

PH:  They’re exactly the same process really just the outcome is different since the shapes are different.  It has a little different aspect to them. One thing both constructions have in common is that if you touch one side to another it snags like crazy. That’s really a problem on the wall sculptures because if you let them touch each other you‘re continually having to go back and pull them apart and once again that’s another reason why the wires come undone and whatnot.  Especially on the wall sculptures they’re almost all shipped ,in the show anyway not from the artist himself, they’re s hipped on tubes where they’ve been carefully rolled with plastic in between so that they don’t snag on themselves and you don’t have to worry about that.  But the Peak project is the artwork you’re referring to made out of the can lids. To construct that artwork you take the flat sections, they’ve been shipped with plastic in between each section and flat like a carpet, but you take them and you fold them  and you twirl them around a little bit and you put them down and they hold whatever shape they collapse themselves.  And they snag like crazy all over themselves     So if you try to pick it up and then flatten it back out then you’ve got several minutes worth of work just getting it flat again so that you can reshape it.

DD:  The snags, then that’s actually how it holds its shape?

PH: Yes in large part that’s how it holds its shape and it’s an integral part of the work. But you can see that quite a few of them shipped with the exhibition and you don’t have to use all of them. You use as many as will fit within your space.  So I believe we used 45 but there were significantly more of them shipped so we were able to pick and choose certain ones.  I’m not certain about this but it appears some were much newer than others. Some were quite pristine looking and shiny and others were very rusty.  They may have even been exhibited outside for some period of time or something like that because they really look weathered.  Some of those very weathered ones had very large gaps in them where the wires had let go. I mean 1-foot to 2-feet of space that had come unraveled.  And Amanda while she was here she mended a couple of them but it became obvious that we had way more than we had to use anyway so we just chose to put back the ones that had deconstructed and used the stronger ones for our exhibition.

DD:  So that worked out sort of fortuitously.

PH:   Absolutely.  But that’s one of the really interesting things about the whole exhibition and about El Anatsui’s work.  It’s very organic. I don’t know how else to describe it without using that word. Almost all the artworks in this show are very flexible in the way that they can be exhibited.  There’s no one way to put them up. Pieces are interchangeable. You can move them around. Every place they’re exhibited they’re going to look different because the individual parts of the artwork are not gonna be in exactly the same place.  His drawings and his paintings and the prints, they are very conventional in a Western art sense in that they’re finished, they’re framed,  they’re gonna go up on the wall. They’re not gonna look very different from one museum to another but the wall sculptures, Peak Project, Akua’s Surviving Children, the wooden sculptures, they all have this variability in that the pieces actually move.  Or they’re not totally stagnant in the way that they go up.  Open Market is another one, with the little boxes, that doesn’t have a specific shape.  It has a specific idea behind it so that you’re intended to group them a certain way but there’s nothing that tells you to put box number one here and box number two there. You put them basically any way that you want to put them to more or less get the idea that he’s suggesting. I can’t remember another exhibition that’s been like that.  It’s not an absolutely new idea from him but it’s an aspect of art that you rarely see so consistently in a body of work where the artwork takes on,….it’s new every time it goes some place.  It’s recognizable because the individual parts don’t change but it’s new, it’s different every time it’s put up in a different place.   If there’s a definition for living art that must be it:  something that’s continuously changing and taking on the character of a new place where it’s being exhibited.

DD:  Is it true…I know that some of the wooden pieces have slats that you can interchange and that can be moved around and Akua’s Surviving Children, I remember [Lisa Binder]said at the press preview that El indicated that they should all face one direction but that it still has that flexibility in that you can change it around.

PH:  Exactly. The ones that look like conventional 2-dimensional paintings but they’re actually wooden boards that have been scored and carved and painted and all that sort of thing. For the travelling exhibition they are anchored in one specific orientation but they were constructed by El Anatsui to be variable.  All those boards can be moved around to basically make a new artwork. One of the short films in the exhibition actually shows him doing that, the creative process of that he has one up on the wall and he goes over and starts moving boards all around and by the time he’s finished it’s a very different looking piece with a different feeling. The constraints of a travelling exhibition you can’t really do that. You can’t change every piece every single time it goes up on the wall if nothing else just from a preservation standpoint. You just don’t want that much handling from one place to another because ultimately the piece starts to suffer.  Just that aspect of this inherent flexibility is really interesting and it’s just a rare thing to me.

*Below are the affiliated museum professionals referenced in Perry Hurt’s article  El Anatsui Wall Sculpture: Adventures in Handling, Installation, and Display published at Preparation, Art Handling and Collections Care Information Network

Kurt Christian, Head Preparator at the Saint Louis Art Museum
Kevin Etherton, Installation Coordinator at the National Museum of African Art,  Smithsonian Institution
Christine Giuntini, Conservator, Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Kellen Haak, formerly Collections Manager and Head Registrar at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth
Kinsey Katchka, formerly Associate Curator of Modern and African Art with NCMA
Mark Milani, Chief Preparator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Rachel Raynor, Collections Manager at the Fowler Museum at UCLA
Kendra Roth, Conservator of Modern and Contemporary Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(Installation photos courtesy Perry Hurt and Natalie Braswell at the North Carolina Museum of Art and  Venice photo courtesy Public Art Network and artthrob)


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