This post is by Perry Hurt, Conservator at the North Carolina Museum of Art, and based on a thorough study of mounting practices for El Anatsui’s works in art museums. Perry is also an instructor for C2C’s upcoming workshop, Preventative Conservation for Visual Arts.
This week a retrospective exhibition of the work of Ghana-born sculptor El Anatsui opens at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Among the most breathtaking works on view are several wall sculptures formed by metal bottle tops, strung together by wire. Mount making for sensitive artifacts is always challenging. But with El Anatsui’s art, NCMA staff had to devise especially creative handling, support, and display solutions.
Perry Hurt and other NCMA staff members install "Lines That Link Humanity."
As a preparatory step, staff covered the display wall with 1-inch-thick, high-density Ethafoam using drywall screws and fender washers. To begin installation, we laid the long accordian-form bundle of the artwork at the base of the gallery wall. A large tube and lifts were 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).
Chopsticks worked well for anchoring because they are strong yet relatively soft and less likely to damage the work than metal hardware. Also, as the work was sculpted, redundant sticks could be seen easily and removed. Working from the bottom up during the sculpting phase avoided excessive pulling and weight loads on the area being manipulated. Approximately 150 chopsticks were prepared by slightly sharpening the point with a grinder. Sculpting took place with a curator and a few handlers over two or three days’ time, spread over several weeks. The overall shape ebbed and flowed, changing many times. In some cases manipulation and shaping required additional building out to create folds and raised forms. In this case blocks of Ethafoam can be slipped behind the artwork and anchored into the existing foam.
For the next phase of installation, staff replaced the chopsticks with clear, extruded acrylic rods (1/8 to 3/16 in. diameter), cut to various lengths (2” – 5”). 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.) Short, thicker acrylic 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.
Not all areas could be evenly supported because of their shape or their distance from the wall. Some areas received more support to relieve some of the load. 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. Staff placed longer rods wherever they could effectively 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. Clear rods do not influence the shadow cast by the work, which in some cases is an important aspect of the installation. Ultimately, the final shape was established.
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 appropriate. We also judged that added support, particularly in the lower areas, was required to counter any accidental contact from our visitors.
Come see the El Anatsui exhibit, admire the artwork, and marvel at its mounts!