• El Anatsui Wall Sculpture: Adventures in Handling, Installation, and Display

    By Perry Hurt, Associate Paintings Conservator
    North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA)

    With contributions by:

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

    Introduction The following article pertains to a particular body of work by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui (b. 1944). Anatsui’s earlier sculpture was generally made from wood or ceramics. Around 1999 he started to create large tapestry-like works out of small discarded bits of metal, mostly from liquor bottle tops, connected by loops of thin, bare copper wire. These large metallic sculptures, constructed much like chainmail armor, have been referred to as cloth, largely because they are flat and flexible, like a textile. Over the years Anatsui has created ever larger “wall sculptures,” as he calls them, and this new, larger work is becoming increasingly popular worldwide. Anatsui now employs a whole village of workers to keep up with demand. This new medium creates an uncommon gray area in the usual approach of handling and preservation as it is practiced in museums. At the North Carolina Museum of Art, we were confronted by this conflict in late 2009, when the museum commissioned and subsequently hung a large El Anatsui wall sculpture, Lines That Link Humanity (approx. 18 x 25 ft.). Our challenges prompted the research for this paper. Ordinarily an artist’s work is considered complete when it leaves his or her hands. A museum or gallery simply displays the work—a painting is hung, or a sculpture is placed on a pedestal. In a museum art handlers, conservators, curators, and other museum professionals are tasked with displaying the art with an absolute minimum of physical change to the work. In most cases that amounts to attaching hooks and wire to the reverse of a painting’s frame or fabricating a very subtle mounting brace for a sculpture or some other nearly invisible modification to display the work. In addition museum professionals are normally very careful to display art in such a way that no additional context is added that could change or influence the interpretation of the work. A museum professional would not dream of flipping a portrait on its head, adding new parts to a Calder mobile, or laying a classical Greek sculpture on its side to give it fresh meaning. Creative self-expression is simply not part of the conservator’s or art handler’s job description. Above all curators, conservators, preparators, and art handlers are expected to avoid damage to artwork under any circumstances. The art is meant to be preserved in its original state for as long as possible. From their inception El Anatsui’s tapestry-like artworks are a very different case. The artist makes it clear these works are an interaction between him and whoever hangs them for display. Anatsui has finished the artwork to his satisfaction, but the process is not finished until the art is installed by owners at their discretion (whether private collector, gallery, or museum). The owner customizes the appearance of the piece by manipulating and articulating it, draping it over other objects or architecture, creating a site-specific work that changes every time it is moved or installed. In some respects El Anatsui is following an established art form of flexible sculpture that by its nature changes when it is handled. An example would be the large soft sculptures by Claus Oldenburg. The difference is that Anatsui’s work is far more fragile. The collaborative aspect of the Anatsui wall sculpture is an important, interesting, and integral part of the artwork and the artistic process. But the receiving end of the collaboration is inherently destructive. Installing and deinstalling requires an extreme amount of handling that stresses the relatively thin and weak component materials of the artwork, often causing breakage and loss of small elements. This is particularly true if the piece is very large and heavy. Handling problems grow exponentially with the size of the wall sculpture. Anatsui and his agents have encouraged owners to use nails and screws.1 Historically most owners hung the early wall sculptures like a drape with very little, if any, sculpting. Increasingly the artworks are being sculpted aggressively, which increases the handling and hardware issues, and subsequently the stress on the work. Multiple cycles of installation, such as in a traveling exhibition, could result in significant damage without careful attention. Our first inexperienced attempt at hanging the NCMA’s Lines That Link Humanity brought all of these aspects into full focus. It was very exciting to be part of the creative process, moving and sculpting the artwork to create dramatic shapes and texture. But we also experienced broken wires, bent metal, and small parts falling away. Well less than one percent of the artwork was affected, but it was still quite worrisome. By comparison, would we accept a loss of one percent of the artwork every time we moved our Canova sculpture, Monet, or Picasso painting? Clearly the interactive aspect of the Anatsui installation process was at odds with the mission and preservation goals of our museum.

    In an attempt to formulate a kinder, gentler approach, I interviewed professionals
    from other museums who have dealt with these handling, installation, and display issues. These individuals were chosen because their museums share similar preservation and exhibition priorities with the NCMA. Their input is related below; their direct quotes are in italics. A summary and commentary on their approaches follow. Finally, our experience at the NCMA is documented, as our second installation was greatly enhanced by the generous input of these contributors.

    Several comments were made by contributors about Anatsui’s approach to display and handling and how it differed from traditional conservation practice. It is clear the background, training, and goals of museum professionals and artists are often very different on the most essential levels. This may be the heart of the issue regarding the collaboration with El Anatsui wall sculptures. The artist is, of course, the creator of the artwork. Like every artist, Anatsui has become very familiar with his materials and how to manipulate them to reach his goal in the finished work. Bending, cutting, making holes, joining, and taking away, he has constructed and deconstructed as the spirit moved him. It has often been noted that destruction is part of the artistic process. Anselm Kiefer is well known for intentionally “damaging” his canvases. In the NCMA’s Untitled (1986), Kiefer used oil paint, acrylic, shellac, lead, charcoal, straw, stones, and steel cable on top of a fairly standard stretched canvas to create his work. The final touch was to burn the work’s surface with a torch. Kiefer has even been known to invite visitors to his studio to walk on developing artworks to contribute a certain amount of wear, a way for the work to acquire a sense of age and use. El Anatsui constructs his wall sculptures with found materials that have already acquired a past. As in works by Robert Rauschenberg, found materials come with wear and even obvious damage from an earlier life and purpose. While wear and tear might be part of an artwork’s history, once it enters the museum, the museum professional’s job is to preserve the object through careful handling, display, and storage, no matter how the artist created the artwork or the condition of the materials used.

    The conflict comes when the work enters the museum, because at that point, traditionally speaking, the artwork is no longer supposed to change. It moves beyond the artist’s reach in almost every respect. For the hanging procedure, Anatsui continues the same working process he used to create the sculpture. But museums have preservation mandates that demand attempts to minimize damage. For instance Kurt Christian, of the Saint Louis Art Museum, agreed the artist’s approach of manipulating the artwork was appropriate for the artist’s own objectives. Kurt understood that Anatsui had instructed art handlers to put nails or screws through the artwork, but Kurt always used existing openings. He did not create new ones. Destructive processes are rightly within the artist’s power and judgment, but they are diametrically opposed to the museum professional’s. The wall sculpture collaboration allows museum professionals to share in the creative process, but it’s easy to be carried away. We cannot and should not physically change the artwork in any permanent way, if at all possible. An important exception to this is if the artist is present and directs actions to be taken (as related below). The museum professional in that case is acting as an extension of the artist, legitimately part of the creative process, whether it’s constructive or destructive. This is a very fine line to draw and easy to step over, clearly part of the gray area that compelled our research.

    In sharing our experience, we hope Anatsui’s extraordinary body of work will be afforded the care and respect it deserves. The wall sculptures have become highly coveted in the last few years as major museums across the country move to acquire them. As preparator Kurt Christian noted, the issue of handling Anatsui’s works is soon becoming a matter of wide concern.

    El Anatsui, Lines That Link Humanity, 2008 First Intallation, discarded aluminum and copper wire, 18 x 25 ft., North Carolina Museum of Art, Gift of Babara and Sam Wells

    Lines That Link Humanity (detail), with two clear rods in place. Area pictureed is approximately 5 x 5 in., North Carolina Museum of Art

    Same detail with skewers marking the position of the acrylic rods, North Carolina Museum of Art

    The sculpture spread out, North Carolina Museum of Art

    The wall prepared for the first installation, North Carolina Museum of Art

    Carrying the Sculpture, North Carolina Museum of Art

    First installation, unrolling and untangling the sculpture, North Carolina Museum of Art

    First installation, North Carolina Museum of Art

    First installation, starting up the wall, North Carolina Museum of Art

    It takes a village to make; it takes a village to hang, North Carolina Museum of Art

    Sculpting, North Carolina Museum of Art

    Sculpting, inserting nails, North Carolina Museum of Art

    The NCMA’s First Installation

    Our first installation of Lines That Link Humanity predated the research presented in this article. Our approach was based on communication with Anatsui and his agents, and our experience with a wide variety of traditional artwork. This was a temporary display to allow the artwork to be photographed and viewed by staff and board members while our new West Building was under construction (the artwork’s eventual home). In many ways this installation was viewed as an experiment.

    Lines That Link Humanity (approx. 18 x 25 ft. and 120 lbs.) arrived from El Anatsui’s African studio compactly folded and fit into a surprisingly small crate. The crate measured approximately 36 x 36 x 10 inches on the interior, about the size of a common suitcase. This initial folding and packing created a number of hard creases and tangled wires.

    The wall was prepared by installing a line of three narrow wooden boards approximately where the top of the work would be positioned. The boards had a single projecting row of stout finish nails like a comb but angled up slightly. This was meant to hold the majority of the artwork’s weight throughout the process of installation and display. Below this we installed several scraps of Ethafoam, mainly to facilitate the sculpting process. A narrow strip of thick polyethylene sheeting was placed along the bottom covering the gallery carpeting.

    The accordion folded wall sculpture was placed along the base of the wall. Approximately eight handlers fanned out along the width of the work, grasped the top edge, and started to lift it while untangling snags. The wall sculpture was brought up to shoulder height and passed up to five handlers on stair towers, who then lifted the sculpture toward the row of nails on the wall. Although the artwork weighs relatively little, it was not easy to lean out from the towers and lift the sculpture. It was difficult to get a grip on the fabric without bending the small bits of metal foil or putting one’s fingers through openings, distorting the metal and stressing the joining wires. Ultimately it was necessary for handlers along the bottom to grasp and raise the lower parts of the wall sculpture as best they could to reduce the weight the tower handlers were lifting to secure the top on the row of nails. This initial part of the installation took approximately half a day, requiring a dozen people (excluding wall prep).

    With the artwork up, curator Kinsey Katchka and Head Art Preparator Tom Lopez directed sculpting the piece. As handfuls and armfuls were raised, pushed, and prodded into shape, finish nails were inserted through available openings and hammered into the wall. Sculpting was a rather organic process of moving and shaping, anchoring, and standing back to plan the next move. Shapes were created, deconstructed, changed, and reestablished over many sessions during several days. As shapes were changed, nails were pulled against and sometimes lost behind the work, often snagging and stressing the “fabric” as we pulled it into a new shape. It was difficult to find the offending nails, since they were relatively small, thin, and easily camouflaged in the artwork. Once the final shape was established, a few additional nails were inserted to spread the load of the weight.

    The sculpture was impressive and created a great deal of excitement with the museum staff. But we felt certain the handling and display could be improved to reduce the stress on the artwork. We learned a great deal from the first installation and had several improvements in mind. It was also clear we could learn from others with more experience installing Anatsui’s work. We would be moving the sculpture in just a few months, so it was imperative to gather information as quickly as possible. At this point I started contacting my fellow professionals at other museums.

    Note: Direct quotes from contributors are shown in italics.

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