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

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Here’s the second part of my recent discussion with North Carolina Museum of Art conservator Perry Hurt on the installation of the museum’s exhibition El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to you from Africa. Additional items discussed here include a few particulars on the dynamic work Zebra Crossing, El Anatsui’s team of assistants and their working methods and a few finer details on NCMA’s own Lines That Link Humanity.

Dave Delcambre:  Was there much in the way of conservation work that you had to do on the wood pieces in the exhibition?

Perry Hurt:  No not at all. That gets into another whole discussion because back to the wall sculptures [discussed in Part I], the conservator’s job is to make things last as long as possible. From a very pessimistic but very realistic viewpoint, the moment the artist takes his hands away from making the artwork it’s starting to fall apart.  It’s just a matter of how long it takes before it absolutely falls apart and becomes dust again.  In many artworks it’s a very long slow process.  And as a conservator we try to slow that process down as much as possible. In a building like ours we designed it so that temperature, humidity and light are kept as stable as possible and that slows down the process of deterioration.  The way you handle an artwork and the way you display it that’s another interaction where you limit how much damage, how much degradation is related to the object so that once again you’re preserving it as long as possible.  When we restore a painting, when we take off dirty varnish and remove dust and grime that’s a visual [effort] try to get back to what the artist initially represented but at the same time it’s also a preservation thing.

PH: So we’re always trying to preserve the artworks but the fact is that some artists are going to use some materials that you can’t do very much to.  You can keep the temperature and humidity stable so that in itself doesn’t degrade the object but there are always certain materials like rusty metal. You can slow down rust. You can put paint on it, you can do all sorts of things to slow down rust. But you can’t do that without visually radically changing the way the object looks.  So especially on a found object like a rusty metal lid you pretty much have to accept that it’s rusty and that it’s slowly deteriorating right before your very eyes because that’s what the artist has given you, that’s the parameters of what he’s given you to work with.

PH: In particular the wooden wall sculptures the way he’s applied the paint and what not. is not the most stable process. He did it to get to the point that he wanted to make the object that he was pleased with but inherently there are problems with it. There are problems with every painting.  I’m certainly not saying that he was not skilled at what he was doing but he chose to do it a certain way and that has ramifications.  So there’s certain instability to the paint on those. We are limited. We can’t even dust it because we don’t want to knock any of the paint off.  But that’s true with a lot of contemporary art.  A Robert Rauschenberg that’s up right now [Credit Blossom (Spread)] has a quilt in it and that quilt is going to slowly but surely fade with exposure to light and that sort of thing.  But there’s nothing we can do about that. We can limit the exposure so we can limit the amount of fading that’s going to happen but that fading is going to happen over time regardless.  It’s just a matter of how fast or how slow that’s going to happen and we just have to accept that to a certain extent.  If you want to enjoy the piece and you want to see it, you have to put it in the light. The light’s going to damage it but that’s the choice that you make so that you enjoy your artwork, so you can experience it.

DD: I guess otherwise it would be in a dark vault or a vacuum.

PH:  Exactly. And that would be great as far as preserving it. Sometimes I wish that would happen to all art where it was in a dark vacuum where nothing would change it so it would last forever. But what’s the point if you can’t enjoy it? If you can’t see it and you can’t experience it then really what’s the point?

DD: You have to strike that balance.

PH: Exactly. It’s always a balance, yeah.

DD: How do you think El Anatsui’s guys work?  I remember in one of the videos I didn’t seem them wearing any gloves.

PH:  No they didn’t.

DD: They must have super tough fingers.

PH: They have young super tough fingers.  It’s interesting because I had gloves on, I had nice wire cutters, I had hammers and I worked at a nice bench. And you see those guys [in the video] sit down with their bare hands and feet and very simple tools just cranking these things out and working very fast.  I mean it took me close to a week to make one of these [mock-ups.]  And a guy described this as being less than a day’s work as far as he was concerned.  But yeah it’s amazing.  I’m sure they get stuck every once in awhile and maybe a little cut here and there but I guess they’re used to it. I guess they have tougher hands than I do.

DD: With the show, have you gotten other interest or have other institutions called you to find out about tricks of the trade or how to go about the work beyond your paper?

PH:  The show previous to here was in Austin [the Blanton Museum of Art at UT Austin] and when it was there they invited me to come down and do a presentation on this.  So these [mockups] traveled down there with me and they got handed through the crowd and all that sort of thing so the word’s gotten around a little bit.  For all I know Denver might ask me to come when it [the exhibition] goes there, just whatever they find most interesting.

DD: Now did you have the benefit …you were able I assume to see the show before it came here?

PH: Oh yeah I saw it at the Davis [Museum at Wellesley College] in Boston and I saw it in Austin as well.  And like we talked about the artworks are different every place they go up.  It looked like a very different show in both places. Of course the pieces were recognizable for what they are but they each looked very different because they’re in a different place with different light and a different shape room and they look quite different.

DD:  Is there a problem over time after the work has been installed for a few months?  Does gravity affect it?

PH:  In some cases.  The acrylic rods especially the long ones that have a fair amount of weight or material on them, they do relax a little bit. But the trick is in those areas you just want more sticks, more rods.  So instead of having one every foot or two feet away, you have one three inches away, you have several of them, you group them together and that avoids that problem.

PH: Now on our piece Lines that Link Humanity, we had one issue on that and it is that purposely we asked for an artwork that is larger than the wall.  The wall that artwork was commissioned for is a floating wall. In other words the outsides and the top are free and we wanted the object to extend just slightly past the wall to make it look even more three dimensional and it’s substantially larger than the wall.

PH: So one of the reasons ours has so much shape, so many wrinkles and folds and that sort of thing is [with] all that area you have to condense it somewhat to make it fit on that wall and all that material has to go someplace so it has a lot of shape to it.  But the one way we were able to extend past the wall is to use some of the thicker clear rods, long ones kind of like fishing poles almost, behind the piece to extend out the edges and when you walk around behind the piece you can see those a bit more obviously especially the top corners.

PH: So you have a rod that’s maybe 2-feet long and it’s holding the piece out there and we’ve wired the artwork to the end of that rod.  And over time, over about a year and a half, eventually I started noticing that the top, some of it was sagging just a little bit. The continual weight of just a few square feet of [wired together metal pieces] and that one rod started bending over just very slightly. So I went back and reshaped those areas to help it keep its shape that we were looking for.

DD: How much would you say the overall piece when it gets that big weighs?

PH:  As I recall we estimated that it weighed between 125-150 lbs. which really isn’t a whole lot.  I mean two people can pretty easily pick up 150 lbs but when you spread it over that large area and you’re asking people to pick it up and put it on the wall and you’re in an awkward position it’s a lot heavier than you might think it is when you start working with it. You put too much weight on those clear rods, they’ll bend, snap off, whatever.  Once again it’s the whole idea of spreading the load, using as many [rods] as you can get away with, so that no one spot is taking very much of the weight.

DD: When you install do you have a team so that several people hold the top and work your way down?

PH:  Not so much because you want to avoid that. If you just hold it from the top all the stress is on that top row. So with that piece demonstrating what we did, we had a boom from one lift to another and we had about four or five people along the top and we picked it up and laid it over the boom  so there was enough of the top part laying over so we didn’t actually have to attach it to the boom it was just laying over the top of it. So then we lifted up the boom so that the bottom was more or less where we wanted the finished artwork to hang then we pushed it against the wall and put in lots of chopsticks so then once all this [bottom section] was supported down here then we could lift this [top portion] up so all this was supported and was in effect much lighter and you push that part against the wall and put the chopsticks in.

DD: So you always work from the bottom up then.

PH: Yeah, you work from the bottom up to avoid loading all that weight on the part you’re working on. Then once it’s up there with all the chopsticks sticking in it then we did that same thing when you start shaping it. If you go up [top] and shape that first then you have a bunch of excess [below] that you could shape the part and then you just move up the wall that way or sideways or whatever.  The video that [NCMA webmaster] Chad Weinard photographed particularly of the installation of Stressed World, he left a camera in one spot and did time lapse photography. It’s posted on the museum’s blog now so you can see two or three different days that we worked on it. But you can see that it goes up there in one fell swoop but then the changing of the shape that takes several days inevitably because you move a little here and a little there, it’s the artistic process and you’re never really sure when it’s finished. So you stand back and take a look to see what you think about it and then you move it a little more and eventually you get stale for that day so you have to walk away from it and the next day you come out and reassess.  Does it look right, does it look good, what can I do to make it look better?

PH: One piece in particular in the show was kinda funny. There’s one piece called Zebra Crossing and because there are so many pieces in the show, there’s a danger in hanging them all the same way.  When El Anatsui first started making these pieces, it was enough to just sort of hang them on the wall and everybody went, “Oh my gosh, look at that. That’s an incredible artwork.”  But then once they got used to the idea that they could influence the artwork slowly and surely people started shaping them and hanging them on things to make an even more dramatic statement with the artwork. So over time not only did the pieces get bigger and heavier but people were handling them more and more to make all that shape with all that sculpting. That’s one aspect that was really impacting the way our piece was handled because by the time we got ours, plenty of people had had them already so the idea of just hanging them up and having them hang like a drape was just not enough. I mean people that had more of the control over the piece wanted more of a statement and more shapes in it. They wanted big folds and drama to a certain extent and all that handling just contributes to the stress on the piece so that was one of the things I was dealing with.  But for this exhibition when you have this many of them you realize you can’t use the same aesthetic for every one of them. You can’t just go to it and make lots and lots of shapes because then they all start looking the same you know? So you try to be sympathetic to each piece itself, what it needs to make it interesting but also keeping in mind that you want them all to be as different as possible.

So if you look at the various ones in the show, some of them have very graphic elements, very hard lines or shapes and those pieces in my mind didn’t need a whole lot of shape.  They’ve already got a lot of interest because of these very strong graphic elements so I tried to make subtle shapes in them, to change them relatively little and it’s interesting because you have the happy accident kind of quality in that when they’re first put up there you’re just trying to put them on the wall, you’re not trying to make any shapes but inevitably when you put them up with all the chopsticks in there’s some shape imparted by that and you say, “Oh I like that shape and I don’t like that shape over there so we’ll keep that one and lose that one.”  So there’s a little bit of coincidence involved in it too. There are things happening that you don’t expect and that’s fun and interesting so you want to preserve some of that. So a couple of the pieces that went up that’s pretty much exactly what happened. They went up and I said, “That looks good almost just the way it is and it doesn’t need any more shape. “ There are several pieces like that. Other pieces, particularly the ones that are more or less monochrome that don’t have really obvious lines and shapes in them, to me those are the ones that benefit from having a little bit more drama, a little bit more shape in them.

PH: So we had hung all of them except for the very last one Stressed World and I’d already decided on that one. Unlike the others one I’d already seen a previous installation of it that I really liked and that was one where the artist himself  had done the shaping and I thought that’s really good for that piece. But all the other ones I really just disregarded what it’d looked like at other places and decided on my own what looked good in our space. So I hung all of them except for Stressed World and Zebra Crossing was the last one and in comparison to all the others I thought it looked a little boring. And Linda Dougherty who is the curator of record for the show we walked through because she really had the last word about what they looked like.  I was doing the [installation] work but it was really her taste and feeling about what looked good or not. So we walked through and she’d say, “Change this one a little and that one a little here.” But for the most part she liked them but for Zebra Crossing she said, “It needs a little something in the middle.”  That’s all she said.  So it was late on a Friday and I’d moved it a little bit and moved it a little bit and said, “Well this isn’t working so I need to do something radical.” So I started making big shapes in it and just changing it as much as I could all over the place and I worked on it for about an hour.  Then I stood back from it and realized it looked radically different from anything else in the show.  So then I said, “I don’t know what Linda’s going to say about this. I‘ve just gone way off on a tangent with this one.”

PH: So Monday came along and I said, “Linda what’d you think?”  She goes,  “Oh I love Zebra Crossing, how’d you come up with that?”  And I said, “Oh I just went crazy and made a bunch of shapes in it.”   So someone else at the museum had walked through the exhibition totally cold and not knowing anything about the artwork and caught Linda and told her, “I think one of the artworks is falling off the wall.”  And she was talking about Zebra Crossing. And in the end I realized that was the feeling I was trying to do. I was trying to make it look like it was flying off the wall and that it was really alive and that something was happening there even though it’s totally static. I wanted the feeling that it was really coming off the wall.  That was a fun element.

DD: I was going to say there must be a really fun element to it. Modifying them to that extent?

PH:  Oh yeah. Like I said this quality is not something that is normal in our line of work.  I guess it can be stressful because like that first time we put up Lines that Link Humanity, Kinsey Katchka was a great curator.  I believe she had a big hand in bringing the work to the museum.  She really understood the artist but her profession is not to be an artist.  So when it fell to her to do all the shaping it wasn’t something she was normally used to. Fortunately the head art handler Tom Lopez is an artist a very good practicing artist. So the two of them working together it worked out because Kinsey had an idea of where she wanted to go and Tom is an artist and has refined instincts in that way so it worked out and they were able to make something very interesting out of it.

But like I said before this idea of making an artwork, shaping an artwork is not really in our job description as a museum professional. That kind of creativity is not something we’re expected to exercise on a day to day basis. We do a lot of problem solving but it’s not making art so to speak. So that aspect of this show is very different and its fun and its interesting.  But El Anatsui’s work gave us a lot of liberty to have fun with it and be an artist for a day and that was really refreshing and interesting. And I think that just about everybody that was involved with the installation felt that it is a different kind of thing.

DD: Was there any particular work in the show that was most difficult to install?

PH:  Well certainly Stressed World was because it’s large and fragile and so we didn’t have the liberty with it that we had with the other pieces. That was stressful because it had to be handled very carefully and in a very certain way.   We actually used rigging, pulleys and ropes to get it up on the wall and we didn’t do anything else like that in the whole exhibition.  That was particularly difficult. The people that had to work on Open Market, that was rather difficult because there’s just so dang many of those boxes!  I think four people spent two days putting that one artwork out there.  There’s just so much of it. You have to count all the boxes.  You have to make sure they’re all there. You have to handle each one specifically.  And make sure that everybody’s doing the same thing because you can’t have one person  doing something totally different on one end than on the other end of the artwork. That was just a big project that one artwork.

PH: But it’s one of the great benefits of working here is that we have great people here.  We have people that really know their jobs and they’re very experienced at it. And putting up an exhibition is a gigantic teamwork effort.  It’s teamwork that’s been going on for a year at least if not two years between all the departments. Certainly the curator’s probably been dealing with it for three or four years and the registrar at least a year out. But then when it comes right down to it with the installation we’re talking three or four different departments and 20 people probably and it’s very much an orchestrated dance to get it all done and do it safely with the objects, get it done in a timely manner and make it look good and make it look relatively effortless.

PH: I frequently talk with museum professionals and I talk a lot with the general public and one of the things I frequently want to say but often can’t find a time to say it is that art museums in particular are extremely good at hiding the work that we do.  And that’s intentional in that we want the visitor to enjoy and experience the artwork. It’s really why they’re there and why we’re here.  But the fact is that we’re so seamless in how we get it done that the vast majority of people have no idea how much work it takes to run an exhibition- how many resources, how many people, how much time it takes to simply get the artwork here and put it on the wall and make it a non-distracting experience for the visitor.  In that respect we shoot ourselves in the foot because if people don’t realize how much work and effort goes into it they don’t even think about what it takes to support an institution like this.

DD: They don’t value the resource as much….

PH: Exactly.  I mean I don’t begrudge anybody a visit to the art museum if they don’t have a penny in their pocket. I hope they can come to the art museum but the fact is it does take huge resources to run any museum.   And I think some other museums, I won’t say history or science museums because there’s [also]a lot of work there to make one little exhibit happen.  One little display takes lot of work to make happen but especially in art museums where you supposed to have this contemplative experience of just you and the artwork with no distractions I think we’re particularly adept at hiding all the work we do to make that happen.

DD: Now how about taking the show down?  Are there equally challenging circumstances there – deinstalling as well as putting the work up?

PH: You can imagine what Christmas is like with a big family and everybody’s ripping through their gifts and everything. Well you can imagine what it would be like if you had to put them all exactly back together again exactly like they were and make it appear as if nothing had been opened.  That’s basically what you’re talking about. It’s sort of… the thrill is over, you’ve had your exhibition, you’ve had your fun but now it all has to very seamlessly go back in the box and go on the next exhibition.  And you have to do it pretty quickly because almost without fail within say a week the same space where you’re taking this down will have a new exhibition in it and all that stuff is going to be coming in the door. So everything is very much deadline driven. You don’t really have a whole lot of time to figure it out when you’re there you have to have done it all in advance.

PH: And so Amanda from the African Art Museum will come back and help us get it done in a timely fashion but you have to rely on the professionalism and experience of the people that are here. The registrars will have it all figured out, they’ll have their lists and their checklists and the art handlers will have all the crates up there and have the right crate for the right artwork and we all have to get it back in there and off the wall.   The wall sculptures in particular they will all come down off the wall exactly the same way they went up.  We’ll put the chopsticks back in , we’ll take the clear rods back out and we’ll slowly but surely release them from the wall, gently take them down, roll them back up and put them in their crates.

DD: Do any of the pieces in the show come in sections or were they all one piece?

PH:  They’re all one piece and I think that’s generally the case for the metallic wall sculptures. I think they’re all one piece unless they’re extremely large like the exterior piece in Venice. That’s the only one that I know of specifically that was shipped in individual pieces and then put together on site.  For all I know, all the extremely large ones…in St. Louis the Nelson-Atkins has a very large one and the Metropolitan Museum  also has a very large one that as far as I know I [both were] a complete piece and came that way.

DD:  You mentioned the tangles when you roll it, are they always wired the same way so you don’t get tangles on the same face?

PH:  They’re generally all twisted on the back but I know of at least one that is double sided. It’s meant to be seen from both sides [it’s at] the Blanton in Austin.  Their piece is meant to be shown both sides. I didn’t get a really close look at it and they still hang it on the wall now like a conventional one.   We talked for a very short period about the idea of suspending it so you could see both sides of it and I think that’s an interesting project. I hope they call me back on that one.

DD:  How do you think that one would proceed?

PH:  There are a number of different ways you could do it. I started thinking about clear fishing line and all sorts of stuff like that. I mean there’s certainly ways to do it and I think it’d be very interesting to see one of these suspended in the air. It’d be a very different piece.  One of the things that’s interesting about these, like Stressed World in particular is that the openings, that kind of fishnet quality and whatnot, the way the light works with that it can be really interesting, the shadows that are created by it, that sort of thing. And especially when you are talking about suspending one so you can walk around it, so then everything that you can see through it [and] the shadows that it casts become that much more a part of the artwork.

DD:  The lighting would play a huge part in it too.

PH:  Absolutely.  It’s hard to see you might have to pause it but on the time lapse video part of Stressed World, when we put the exhibition in we just have working lights. The rooms are evenly lit. We don’t have the spotlights on the walls. It’s just the easiest way to see what we’re doing. We actually have task lighting we can roll around if we need to but the wall sculptures went up in that flat lighting and I gave them some shape and everybody asked, “Is it done?” and I said, “No, it’s not done. You’re not going to know if it’s done until you get the exhibition lighting on it.” Because these things are so three-dimensional, you give it a shape in this flat lighting, you see a shape but you don’t really don’t see how dramatic it is until you get that exhibition lighting on it that really creates the sparkle and the shimmer and the shadows in particular .  Because you get the slightest little variation in the surface then the exhibition lighting really gives it a dramatic shadow.  It looks very, very different.  In the middle of that video you’ll see the artwork suddenly change from looking rather flat to dramatic, but this is just a change in the lighting.  No one’s touched it and it’s a quick thing because it’s just one picture difference so you have to be kind of expecting it and look for it.

DD: It becomes a very critical part of the whole exhibition then.

PH: Absolutely and I’ve noticed that with every exhibition I’ve been a part of here. The artwork goes up and everybody is interested in every artwork that goes up and seeing it. But then you stand back and it just has a sort of bland quality and then the exhibition lighting technician goes through and changes all the lights and the next day when you walk in its lit like an exhibition.  It’s like magic overnight. Certainly it’s a theatrical thing but the change in the lighting can be just magic the way it changes the way everything feels and looks and gives it that punch that you expect from an exhibition.

PH:  Talking about the nuts and bolts and practical things of conservation and exhibitions, it can sort of take the magic out of it.  Exhibitions can be dramatic in feeling and transportive for the viewer.  But when the little details are pointed out, it somehow detracts from the experience.

DD:  You mentioned working with other sculptures earlier, have you gotten involved with sculpture conservation as well?

PH: I’m a painting conservator. It’s what I’m trained in so I understand paintings and if you hand me one I know how to do the job and don’t have to ask questions usually.  Working on one of these metallic sculptures was quite a stretch which is why I did the research because I was more uncomfortable with it so talking with other people was important.  But there’s lots of things to be done here and we don’t have a specialist in everything so when the Rodin gift came to the museum 2-1/2 years ago a lot of that Rodin sculpture maintenance has fallen to me. Before that I knew very little about metallic sculpture but now after a crash course in it that’s my responsibility so the Rodin sculptures that are outdoors particularly I have to wash and wax and maintain those sculptures. We’re getting ready to do it in the next month or so. We do it two or three times a year. There’s plenty of other jobs that keep me busy here.  The conservation lab is just a natural for showing people what goes on behind the scenes. It does give people insight into how things change and are being done here at the art museum.

El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa is on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh through July 29, 2012

(Installation photos courtesy NCMA with special thanks to Perry Hurt and Natalie Braswell.)

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