• Adventures Conclude

    Deinstallation of the first hanging: the artwork has been lowered to the floor. The tube/boom is being removed from the lifts, North Carolina Museum of Art

    The prepared wall covered with Ethafoam, North Carolina Museum of Art

    The artwork in place at the bottom of the wall, the tube/boom beside it the lifts in place ready to attach the tube, North Carolina Museum of Art

    The artwork halfway up, folded over the boom,North Carolina Museum of Art

    The art handlers are happy with the new hanging process, North Carolina Museum of Art

    The installed artwork supported by chopsticks, North Carolina Museum of Art

    The artwork before sculpting, North Carolina Museum of Art

    Sculpting in progress, North Carolina Museum of Art

    Intermediate stage of sculpting, North Carolina Museum of Art

    Sculpting, North Carolina Museum of Art

    The final state, North Carolina Museum of Art

    Detail of chopsticks in sculpted artwork, North Carolina Museum of Art

    Detail, reverse of top right corner, long acrylic rod with wire supporting artwork, North Carolina Museum of Art

    The final state, North Carolina Museum of Art

    Detail, reverse of lower left corner long supporting rods, North Carolina Museum of Art

    Chopsticks and acrylic rods, North Carolina Museum of Art

    Acrylic rod with supporting wire, North Carolina Museum of Art

    Detail, far left edge, wall with Ethafoam facing, fender washers

    Second NCMA Installation

    Our second installation of Lines That Link Humanity was significantly improved from the first as a result of our research, but it also differed somewhat from the ideal process I outline above. Our Anatsui was just one of approximately 725 artworks being installed in our new West Building during a short span of time. The main variation was abandoning the grid support. It became clear there simply wasn’t enough time or resources to build a grid to support the artwork during its move. Fortunately Head Preparator Tom Lopez came up with a more expedient but safe way to lower and raise the artwork.

    The first operation was to deinstall the work from its temporary display in the old building. Without the benefit of a grid, Tom Lopez came up with the idea of using a long tube between two lifts, similar to Mark Milani’s approach at the Nelson-Atkins. A long tube covered with paper, supported on each end by two mechanical lifts (a powered scissor lift on one end and a hand-cranked lift on the other), was positioned in front of the artwork, as close to it as possible and about two-thirds up its height. Stair towers (four) were stationed along the front of the tube. With a person on each tower, we released the top part of the artwork from the wall and folded it over the tube. By overlapping a large percentage of the artwork over the tube, we found it unnecessary to attach it to the tube, although we did keep hands on it. We then removed all supporting rods, nails, screws, and other attachments to the wall. A wide piece of strong polyethylene sheeting was placed on the floor under the bottom of the artwork. As the tube was slowly lowered, we folded the work accordion style onto the plastic, stopping whenever necessary to insert a strip of poly between each fold. Once the artwork was folded onto the plastic, we were ready to transport it to the new building. Approximately eight of us surrounded the artwork, lifting it by the edges of the underlying plastic.

    Its length could have been problematic if it were rigid (rolled on a tube for instance). Turning corners or riding the elevator would have been impossible. The flexibility of the bundled artwork allowed us to easily maneuver in tight turns and in the inadequate length of our large art elevator.

    The new display wall was covered with 1-inch-thick, high-density Ethafoam 400 polyethylene foam using drywall screws and fender washers. The “floating” gallery wall surface was completely covered top to bottom, edge to edge. At first it seemed desirable to paint the Ethafoam the same color as the rest of the gallery. Unfortunately tests showed that common latex wall paint did not stick well to the foam. We did find specialty paints that might have worked, but another problem was observed: clear rods inserted into raw foam are nearly invisible, and if the rod (or chopstick) is inserted and then removed, the hole in the foam practically disappears. Holes created in painted foam on the other hand are quite visible. And interestingly, clear rods inserted in painted foam are more visible because of the dark interface where the rod meets the painted surface of the foam. Ultimately we abandoned painting the foam because of these problems. The decision was made easier by the fact that our galleries are all painted “Super White,” very similar to the color of the foam. After installation was complete, we painted a few of the visible fender washers to reduce their visibility.

    Approximately 150 chopsticks were prepared by slightly sharpening the point with a grinder. About one thousand clear, extruded acrylic rods (1/8 to 3/16 in. diameter, http://www.mcmaster.com/#8531k12/=8h3w59) were cut to various lengths (2 to 15 in.). The top ends were rounded and the other end sharpened. The shaping of the ends takes a little practice, since the acrylic softens when pushed into a grinding wheel for too long.

    To begin installation, we laid the long bundle of the artwork at the base of the gallery wall. The piece was left in its accordion confirmation. It’s necessary to be able to stand directly in front of the artwork within reach of the tube over its complete length as it is raised. It was clear that spreading the piece out to its full size in front of the wall would make it impossible to reach the center of the artwork from the front; only the far ends could be reached. The tube and lifts were once again positioned as closely to the wall and as low over the artwork as possible. Approximately four handlers grasped the top of the artwork, raised it, and folded it over the top of the tube, pulling approximately a quarter of the work over the top as counterbalance to the rest of the piece. Handlers slowly raised the tube, sometimes pausing to untangle the artwork. On stair towers they kept a hand on the tube and artwork at all times. The tube was raised to position the bottom of the artwork approximately where it would be when installation was complete. At this point the handlers pushed the artwork hanging below the tube against the display wall and inserted chopsticks into the underlying foam approximately every 2 feet, horizontally and vertically. Once the whole area below the tube was anchored to the wall, the top part was lifted off the tube and anchored to the wall with chopsticks. Installation required approximately seven handlers and took a couple of hours (excluding wall prep).

    Sculpting was primarily directed by Kinsey Katchka, this time with the help of just a few handlers. The process took place over two or three days’ time, spread over several weeks. Working more or less from the ground up, we formed shapes and anchored them with chopsticks. As before, the overall shape ebbed and flowed, changing many times. Ultimately the final shape was established. The chopsticks were replaced with the clear acrylic rods at a ratio of nearly five rods to one chopstick. Care was taken not to change the shape of the artwork during this process. Short, thicker rods were used as much as possible, inserted at a slightly upward angle to support the artwork. These short rods are very rigid and more stable, but, as stated above, they can only be used where the wall sculpture fabric is very close to the Ethafoam surface. With the assertive forms of our sculpting, the majority of the wall sculpture stood well out from the wall, more than 12 inches in some areas. Longer rods were used wherever they could be effectively placed to take the weight of the artwork. The longer, thinner rods are somewhat flexible. Their flexibility can be used to conform and support under shelves in the shape of the artwork, loading them like a spring. All rods were inserted in line with the “grain” of the artwork, which made them less visible. Not all areas could be evenly supported because of their shape or their distance from the wall. In this case the surrounding area received more support to relieve some of the load.

    After all work was complete, any broken wires were replaced with copper wire similar in appearance to the original. There were relatively few damages from the whole process. During this repair some holes and missing wires at first identified as losses or damage were ultimately determined to be original to the artist’s working process. For instance a number of metal elements had holes that were never used, or the artist had removed an element, leaving fragments of wire that suggested a loss. On closer examination a pattern could be discerned in the artist’s process that explained these anomalies.

    The shape of Lines That Link Humanity intentionally exceeds the outlines of the “floating” gallery wall. This gives the artwork a stronger three-dimensional effect. The support of extended, free-standing parts of the wall sculpture was accomplished with longer rods. In some cases several rods were used, inserted at different angles and crossing. But in some places, the fabric of the artwork slid down the smooth rods and would not stay in place. This was remedied by wiring the artwork to the ends of the rods using new copper wire. It was necessary to score the end of the rod to give the wire some purchase.

    Ultimately about seven hundred rods were used. This was actually less than we originally thought necessary. Even fewer rods could have been used and still safely supported the weight of the artwork. But in anticipation of dusting the artwork several times a year, we thought a bit more support was called for. We also judged that added support, particularly in the lower areas, was required to counter any accidental contact from our visitors.

    Installing El Anatsui: A Curator’s Perspective
    Kinsey Katchka, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, North Carolina Museum of Art

    El Anatsui’s most recent work, composed of assembled pieces of metal liquor bottle packaging, is groundbreaking in the realm of art history and cross-disciplinary museum practice: its materials defy conventional handling and media and have compelled problem solving among all museum professionals dealing with the work: Where to put it (African, contemporary, textile galleries)? How to install it? How to maintain its physical integrity? (I purposely use the term maintain rather than preserve here, as the need for repairs is certain, especially with works that are sizable, heavily/frequently modeled, or de/reinstalled. At the NCMA, as at all museums that have installed Anatsui’s work, all departments have been implicated in dealing with such questions. In the case of Lines That Link Humanity at the NCMA, appearance and practice were dictated in large part by the architecture and placement of the work in the galleries, where this 18 x 24–foot, malleable sculpture is mounted on a wall with the dimensions 12 x 20 feet, quite small compared to the work’s dimensions. The challenge, then, was not simply handling and manipulating Anatsui’s sculpture—a challenge at any size—but also shaping it to fit on the designated wall, which here required extensive modeling.

    The process was necessarily organic: necessarily, because the work pushed back at every turn. As we worked through the trial run for the installation, Lines That Link Humanity came to seem like an entity as much as an object, determining its own form as if it were an agent in the process. Given the constraints of space and our own inexperience, this required heavier handling and put more strain on it than might otherwise have been the case.

    We brought knowledge gained during the run-through to the current installation. After the raising, mounting, and initial rough modeling (during which preliminary supporting rods were inserted), conservator Perry Hurt and I worked together on the final shaping.

    Several compositional elements manifested themselves in the process, especially in situ with the surrounding works and lighting, and when we inspected the work up close and from a distance—taking in both the object and the fruits of our own labor. For example, once the work was put in place, aspects of landscape and topography emerged. We made no attempt to make it look like a landscape or map, though this became part of the vocabulary Perry and I used as we moved forward in the process: rivers, hills, valleys, horizon. The silvery lines that traversed the entire expanse of the sculpture were of primary concern, as they bind the composition together, give form to the concept on which the work is founded, and suggest its title. Though we had learned from our first installation effort that it was impossible to envision a final form and try to implement it, we did make a deliberate effort to keep these from receding, even if other elements of the work made it difficult to do so. Apart from this one aspect, we attempted to work with the sculpture rather than against it while also ensuring that these lines did not get lost in the modeling—when they were overwhelmed, we would adjust it. The plexirod system permitted this more than other installation methods would have.

    Since the museum opened, people have repeatedly picked up on the element of geography, often referring to it as maplike; perhaps our own engagement with Lines That Link Humanity contributes in some small way to this reading. The works that share the gallery also informed the modeling process. Lines That Link Humanity was commissioned from El Anatsui and resulted from a dialogue with the artist. Our intention was that the commissioned work would be site responsive, responding to the space and light, as well as the surrounding works in the gallery: Gerhardt Richter’s Station (577-2), Anselm Kiefer’s Untitled, and Sean Scully’s Wall of LightPeru. Much as Anatsui created the work with these in mind, we approached the installation in that manner. Also like the artist, we didn’t let it determine the final form, even if they informed it.

    The installation is, and is arguably never, completed or final, as there are infinite possibilities, even given the structural constraints we faced. We stepped away from this modeling process once a certain balance had been achieved—“balance” not in any literal sense but at a point where we were satisfied the different textures and techniques used by the artist were clearly apparent, when the stiff portions of the sculpture didn’t overwhelm the more delicate, meshlike columns between them, and it didn’t look too artificially constructed. This was more easily done knowing we could live with it for awhile, and revisit it again in the future.

    If not before, then we anticipate it will be remodeled in a year and a half, when El Anatsui will visit the museum on the occasion of his retrospective, organized by the Museum for African Art. We have asked him to reinstall Lines That Link Humanity at that time. In a recent conversation, he expressed clear ideas about what he would do differently, and what form it might take.


    Our second installation of Lines That Link Humanity still had some adverse affect on the artwork, but far less than resulted from the first installation. The process was also much smoother, quicker, and required fewer handlers. The innovations of using chopsticks, clear rods, and a boom lift clearly improved the result. Our improved method and materials wouldn’t have been possible without the generous sharing of information from the contributors to this article and the professionalism of the NCMA staff.

    Handling, moving, and installing artwork requires actual physical contact with the work. Some alteration of the artwork, even if only on a microscopic scale, is often unavoidable. The nature of El Anatsui’s wall sculptures makes them very difficult objects to work with. But it is possible to limit our effect on these works and help ensure they will last a very long time for the enjoyment and edification of many generations to come.

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    1Ideally through existing holes so that the metal components bear the weight rather than the connecting wires.

    2A short, edited segment of the video of this installation can be found on the MMA’s YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/user/metmuseum#p/u. (Type El Anatsui in the search box.) BE&H was installed in January 2008 with the assistance of the artist himself. Upon arrival, it was removed from its crate and unfolded on top of a padded table covered with 4-millimeter polyethylene plastic sheeting. As a result of folding and compression for shipping, there were many creases in the wide metal pieces; these were reflattened by hand. The differing tensions from folding also caused some of the copper wires to open up. These, too, had to be refastened and twisted closed. Clearly these types of manipulations would eventually work-harden the metal and result in damaged and broken elements. Because this sculpture was flexible, it was rolled for storage on a padded and Tyvek-wrapped, 10-foot archival tube (Archivart). In order to keep the metal and wire from interlocking as the sculpture was rolled and to soften the surface between layers, it was interleaved with Tyvek. However, as the metal surfaces rolled around the tube, the hard and sharp surfaces needed some cushioning to better protect the layers from each other. This problem would be addressed in the future. The outer surface was covered with an additional length of Tyvekand tied with cotton tapes. Two Ethafoam cradles were added at either end of the tube so the metal sculpture would not be crushed under its own weight and that of the tube.

    When we installed BE&H, we attached a flexible textile to a rigid support before raising it to the wall to minimize handling and stress to the structure. A 3 x 3/4–inch-thick piece of sealed poplar and a half-inch-thick piece of 9# (density) Ethafoam were cut to a predetermined length. The Ethafoamwas screwed to the wood surface, thus creating a total thickness of 1 1/4 inches. Two screw eyes were attached to the upper edge for hanging the slat from wall mounted L-hooks. The upper edge of the sculpture would be fixed to the slat by #7 stainless-steel insect pins. They would be bent and inserted between the metal elements. The slat was designed to be considerably shorter than the width of the piece, so the artist could create the appropriate amount of vertical ease along the upper edge.

    The same pins could be used to create the drape desired by the artist. Since it would be impossible to insert these pins into a gypsum board wall, a pinning surface was created from three 1-inch poplar strainers, covered with half-inch planks of 9# Ethafoam and then with fabric. These were mounted side by side, and the perimeter was smaller than the estimated perimeter of the sculpture. They were attached to the wall with hanging cleats. Once both the slat and the pinning surfaces were finished, the metal hanging was unrolled onto plastic-covered tables and the installation began. The artist seemed pleased with the slat, since it allowed him to manipulate the width on a flat surface, and the sculpture was easily raised to the wall without the need for many assistants or the unintended rough handling of the sculpture. The remaining unsecured sculpture was then draped and pinned between the metal elements by the artist, who was assisted by the installation team.

    3Deinstallation of Dusasa II involved finding all the drywall screws and removing them. Then we attached the pulleys and lowered the entire artwork onto a plastic-covered floor. Prior to this, a custom-made 23-foot x 12-inch archival tube was prepared by wrapping it first with layers of Musetex polyester batting and then covering the surface with Tyvek (final diameter was 15 in.). The inner edge of the Tyvek was secured to the tube with staples. The outer edge was left loose. Although the construction techniques used in Dusasa II allowed it to be rolled in either direction, it was rolled in the vertical direction for ease of future installation. The lower edge of the sculpture was placed on top of the loose end of the Tyvek, and the rolling commenced. Because this sculpture is heavy and has some thickness, “pillows” of Musetex encased in Tyvekwere made. The pillow seams were secured with 3M double-stick tape only along the horizontal edges, to allow for air equilibrium inside the pillow. The sculpture was firmly grasped in the Tyvek apron, and it was interleaved with pillows as it was slowly rolled onto the tube. It was covered with an outer layer of Tyvek and (due to its large size and weight, the Tyvek was taped shut). It, too, was stored on cradles to eliminate weight/pressure on the underside of the roll.