• Adventures Continue

    The Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth
    Kellen Haak, Collections Manager and Head Registrar
    (Currently Kellen is no longer with the Hood.)

    In 2005 the Hood was the first U.S. museum to acquire a work by El Anatsui:
    Hovor, 2003, aluminum bottle tops and copper wire, approximately 240 x 216 inches. At the time of the purchase, Hovor was traveling in the exhibition GAWU. Kellen didn’t actually see the work in person until January 2007, when GAWU arrived at the Hood. At that point it had already been to five exhibition venues in the United Kingdom and one in the U.S. (Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art). On arriving at the Hood, it had therefore gone through at least six cycles of installation and deinstallation.

    Kellen: Over all, my experience with GAWU at the Hood was delightful. I think there were five or six "cloths" in the show. One of the cloths for the Hood's show was a new work, an add-on to the show to replace a work that was coming out. We received the new work in a truly remarkable crate. I have nearly thirty years experience of opening crates of artwork from around the world, but this was a first for me. The crate came directly from El's studio/village workshop, and aside from being very small for the size of the work and made from recycled wooden components, it was the closing hardware that was particularly remarkable: two rusting (recycled) hinges on one side with a hasp and loop (like you would use for a padlock) on the opposite side. The hasp was "locked" with a stick pushed though the loop. Made it from Africa to the U.S. just fine via the mail.

    With regard to the installation process, the curator was not there for the first days of installation, so the two preparators and I had permission to start installing the cloths and "have fun." We did have fun! It was truly a rare and rewarding opportunity to have free reign to create the new permutations of the works. The “artist’s intention” is that the installation should change each time, so you really can't go wrong. We installed two cloths the first day, including the Hood's piece. When El (a wonderful person and artist, and a delight and honor to work with) and the curator arrived, these first two works were both given the seal of approval. They are very organic and fun to work with—a very interesting medium to deal with on a number of levels.

    For the Hood installation we used a loose wooden latticework, smaller than the cloth, and "roughed" out the shape flat on the ground. We then hung the lattice on large L- brackets that kept it 3 to 4 inches out from the wall. This allowed for additional sculpting in a more three-dimensional matrix. We used drywall screws through existing holes in tabs, and under the copper connecting wires. With the lattice hung out from the wall, we could attach to both the lattice, and to the wall, either around the edges or between the wooden slats to create the folds and 3-D shape of the "cloth" sculpture.

    The object integrity issue is a big one. I had a real problem with the artist's directive to screw through the metal tabs and saw the Hood's "new" acquisition arrive with lots of installation damage from the numerous installations it had already been through. El gave us some new parts and the gage for the copper wire and just said, “Fix it if it’s broken." Clash of cultures (artist vs. museum). It is possible to hook your attachments on the wires between whisky labels, but these are fragile as well and may break. Going through the metal tabs is stronger, and I expect in all cases with these objects there will be existing holes in the tab—so those can also be reused. Nevertheless, the reality of installing these objects, even with the best museum intentions of preservation, is that they are going to suffer damage. I think as a recommendation for museums, get the artist to send you replacement parts as a condition of acquiring the work: it will make the inevitable future conservation all that much easier.

    I love this work, though from a conservation perspective it does raise some complicated issues. Just like the "New Media,” how do you deal with a DVD player that is broken and can no longer be replaced? How is El's work different?

    Saint Louis Art Museum

    Preparation for first installation, Courtesy of St. Louis Art Museum

    Unfolding prior to first installation, Courtesy of St. Louis Art Museum

    Unfolding, Courtesy of St. Louis Art Museum

    Pulling piece onto grid, Courtesy of St. Louis Art Museum

    Preparing to raise grid to wall cleats, Courtesy of St. Louis Art Museum

    Front of piece prior to raising, Courtesy of St. Louis Art Museum

    Sculpture on and being attached to grid, Courtesy of St. Louis Art Museum

    This is a different installation in a very tricky spot, Courtesy of St. Louis Art Museum

    The sculpture being attached to the wall, Courtesy of St. Louis Art Museum

    Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM)
    Kurt Christian, Head Preparator

    Kurt has installed and reinstalled El Anatsui pieces a number of times. He does it differently every time in an effort to minimize the wear and tear on the artwork.

    SLAM has a large work, approximately 10 x 21 feet. Kurt wishes he could put it on a tube, like a textile, but the rolled work wouldn’t fit through the hallways and other parts of the museum if it were moved. When installing or deinstalling, they fold the work (accordion style) with an interleaf of HDPE (food service polyethylene sheeting), which is tear resistant and fairly thin and supple. They had used 4-millimeter polyethylene sheeting in the past for this purpose but found it too slippery and stiff.

    Kurt uses a grid to install the work. They first installed it on a stone wall where the grid remained part of the support. In subsequent installations they used drywall screws inserted through existing openings in the fabric of the artwork.

    Kurt: Sometimes the grid we use is a small section attached to the top 2 or 3 feet, and the rest is rolled or folded around cardboard spacers also using the HDPE, just to get things started, after which we begin to slowly unfurl the piece and place enough screws to stabilize it before manipulation. In the ideal situation, I do prefer to open it up and attach it to a grid on the floor, which is then attached to the wall and manipulated, as it seems to cause less stress on the piece. Unfortunately the ideal world is not always the case, so it is always a different (and not ideal) situation.

    One last point about the El Anatsui installation [artwork 126 in. x 21 ft.] is that the grid shown in the photographs was the first time we installed it, and the piece was not manipulated that much. If we are to work off a full or ¾-height grid in the future, I would make the grid much tighter or try to use a solid, lightweight material to attach to the front of a strainer, as that would give us more flexibility and strength.

    The institution that was very helpful when we first got our El Anatsui was the Hood at Dartmouth, who I believe was the first U.S. museum to acquire a wall sculpture.

    Kurt also referred me to a video from the Indianapolis Museum of Art that chronicles the installation of their El Anatsui work with the help of the artist: http://www.artbabble.org/video/el-anatsuis-duvor-new-ima-installation.

    Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Dusasa II as it appeared afterh the 2008 installation, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Detail of Dusasa II bottle caps, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Back side of the MDO hanging slat, showing affixed D-rings and metal cleat, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

    2008 deinstallation showing pulley system,Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Dusasa II being rolled onto large tube, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Detail of metal straps affixed to MDO hanging slat for 2010 installation, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

    2010 installation: taring machines support the tube while Dusasa II is hoisted up the wall, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Dusasa II after the 2010, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, N.Y.
    Kendra Roth, Conservator, Object Conservation
    Christine Giuntini, Conservator, Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas

    Between November 2006 and March 2008, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) purchased two of El Anatsui’s flexible metal wall sculptures, Between Earth and Heaven (BE&H) and Dusasa II. The relatively small scale of BE&H (86 3/4 x 128 in.), its flexibility and light weight, suggested methods used for the installation of textile hangings might be adapted for it.2

    Dusasa II was much heavier and larger in scale (236 x 288 x 2 in.). The fishnetlike appearance also featured numerous attachments that gave the piece additional depth. While the surface texture was very different from BE&H, the same raw materials were employed. The enmeshed passages of dense and open structures were either crushed screw-top bottle caps or their neck rings, all interconnected with copper wire.

    Dusasa II was to be initially installed in a temporary exhibition. A large area of the gallery floor was covered with plastic sheeting, onto which the textile was to be unfolded. This unfolding proved to be more problematic than expected because the twisted neck rings became entangled onto other elements they touched. This caused some minor damages, of which only a few around the perimeter could be repaired before installation (the center of the large textile being inaccessible).

    The wall surface was prepared with a pinning surface by mounting several planks of 2-inch-thick 9# Ethafoam to cover the area that would be occupied by the artwork. Because this work was large and heavy, it was secured to the wall by a two-part metal cleat system. A 6-inch-wide slat of 3/4-inch MDO plywood was covered with half-inch Ethafoam and three D-ring straps fastened to the plywood. The upper cleat was attached to the back of the slat, and its mate was attached to the wall. While still in a horizontal position, the metal surface was gathered and secured to the slat by large T-pins inserted between the elements. Using a pulley system, we then raised the slat/sculpture ensemble onto the wall bracket and guided it by hand as it slid across the plastic and up onto the wall.

    We encountered two serious problems during this process: The long slat flexed dramatically because of its length and the weight of the piece. And the overall weight of the sculpture was too great for the T-pins, which began to bend. Anatsui’s gallery representative recommended we insert rows of drywall screws through the interstices and into the wood. Once the cleat was secured into the wall bracket, the representative directed manipulation of the fabric to introduce additional folds and drapes. These were secured with additional screws through the preexisting holes in the bottle caps and into the underlying Ethafoam. We were surprised by the recommended handling methods.

    At one point during the exhibition, Anatsui came to visit the MMA. Even though the shaping of Dusasa II was directed by his gallery representative, Anatsui showed some discontent with how the piece was displayed.

    In August 2010 Dusasa II was reinstalled. Before this occurred much discussion took place about how to both improve our methods and avoid previously encountered problems. The MDO mounting strip was increased from 6 to 8 inches wide, in order to make it more rigid while it was being raised along the wall. The three D-rings were replaced with four heavy-duty metal straps that kept the backing board in plane, in both dimensions, as it was raised. The Ethafoam wall covering was eliminated, since the screws would grab directly into the wall.

    T-pins, although discreet and noncorroding, were not used. The number required to secure the piece caused the upper edge to look too rigid. Instead, we used stainless-steel screws to affix the gathered edge to the mounting board, being careful not to create new holes in the fabric. Because these directly grabbed the wood, rather than just the Ethafoam, fewer were needed.

    An 8-foot length of the sculpture was unrolled onto plastic, just enough to allow for the gathering of the top end and affixing it onto the mounting board. In a manner similar to that used at the MMA for the installation of heavy woven textiles, the tube with the remaining rolled sculpture was then moved to the wall, and the pulley hooks were attached to the four straps. In order to keep weight and stress on the piece to a minimum during installation, two tearing machines were used to support the outer ends of the tube (on square MDO end caps) and raise it off the ground. As the mounting board was raised on pulleys, the tube was slowly unrolled, and only at the very end was the complete artwork allowed to drape to the floor. Two scissor lifts were then used to maneuver two teams of two installers (one to position the fabric, one to insert screws) while visual directions for the draping came from someone on the ground.

    In the end we felt these modified installation procedures were successful in both safely mounting the artwork and effecting a better interpretation of the artist’s intent for the piece.3

    National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
    Kevin Etherton, Installation Coordinator

    Kevin mounted an entire exhibition of El Anatsui’s work. Many of the pieces were smaller than the NCMA’s Lines That Link Humanity (18 x 25 ft.). Generally they started installation by rolling the artwork onto a blue tube (common textile conservation storage tube) with an interleaf of plastic sheeting. With the artwork on the tube, the top part was temporarily attached with common picture hooks to a “grid” constructed of 1 x 1–inch furring strips. The artwork was hoisted and the grid temporarily attached to the wall. The piece was unrolled down the face of the wall. Approximately every 2 feet, nails and screws (painted wall color) were inserted through openings in the artwork, anchoring it to underlying Ethafoam (attached to the wall in advance). After the artwork was attached overall, the grid at the top was removed and the upper part of the artwork anchored to the wall. The piece was then manipulated into its final shape.

    Kevin: The one object we hung by unrolling from a blue tube was quite a bit smaller than [the NCMA’s]. The others were much larger and came in folded. We unfolded them onto a large sheet of plastic and carefully dragged the plastic with the object on top over the wood structure, nailed the top, and then lifted it in place. Also, there was no Ethafoam underneath. It was attached directly to the wall. The Ethafoam was used to prop out the textiles in certain areas where El thought it looked best. We ended up hanging about six or seven “textiles,” all of varying sizes. The biggest was probably 12 x 18 feet.

    El Anatsui helped with the final installation of the large exhibition. Kevin said that Anatsui changed the shape of many of the pieces after they had already been mounted to the satisfaction of the museum representatives. He noted the artist was not at all uptight and a pleasure to work with, but somewhat casual about his approach to the piece as he placed Ethafoam blocks behind it.

    Fowler Museum at UCLA
    Rachel Raynor, Collections Manager

    The Fowler has exhibited numerous El Anatsui works, and their staff has worked closely with the artist. They were a venue for the traveling exhibition El Anatsui: Gawu from April 22 to August 26, 2007, and El Anatsui was present during installation. Rachel has similar thoughts about the artwork as we do at the NCMA. The artwork takes a beating during installation and handling, but measures can and should be taken to limit wear and tear. A large piece for them was 8 x 14 feet.

    The Fowler’s installation process included the use of a trellis support along the top edge. This was attached to the artwork with screws. The artwork was lifted by the trellis and attached to the wall via cleats (previously mounted to the wall). The piece was then manipulated. Forms in the artwork were anchored with nails or screws. After the shape of the artwork had been finalized, they went back and spot repaired wherever damage was found (broken or lost wire connectors, bent elements, etc.).

    Rachel strongly encouraged using lightweight Kevlar gloves. They are resistant to cuts and scratches but also thin enough to allow good hand movement and sensitivity to the feel of the materials. She thought the materials, including rusty metal and found objects, could be a health issue.

    Rachel said El Anatsui had a very casual approach to installation. She commented that he had a natural artist’s approach to changing and manipulating the piece with little regard for physically affecting the piece. He encouraged them to put screws through the elements of the artwork (creating new holes), not just through existing openings. He made remarks about the apprehensive or light touch of the museum professionals (conservators, etc.). He said, You have to step on it, man-handle it; that’s the way it is. Rachel noted:

    The piece El Anatsui encouraged us to step on was Waste Paper Basket, which had to be constructed from multiple pieces on site, fabricated out of discarded printers’ plates for obituaries, not the more textilelike pieces we have hung on the wall.

    El Anatsui also supervised their repair of the artwork after installation. Rachel did speak very positively about the experience of working with the artist but observed that his concerns are very different from the museum’s.

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