Installing Anatsui works proved to be challenging
The magnificent metal wall sculptures made by El Anatsui thrill museum viewers with their combination of breathtaking delicacy and enormous scale.
But it's precisely that combination that poses a challenge to museum installers and conservators.
A few years ago, Perry Hurt, associate conservator at the North Carolina Museum of Art, codified a means of handling Anatsui's fragile wall sculptures, which are created from tiny pieces of pliable metal, mostly from liquor bottle tops that are then woven together with loops of thin copper wire.
Blanton Museum of Art installers followed Hurt's process when installing the current Anatsui retrospective.
After the North Carolina Museum of Art commissioned Anatsui to create a large wall sculpture for its new building, the artwork unceremoniously and unexpectedly turned up on the museum's doorstep in a plain wooden crate about the size of a carry-on suitcase, Hurt said. Inside - amazingly - was an metal wall sculpture that measured about 18-feet-by-25 feet and weighed about 120 pounds.
Hurt was a bit confounded. Just unfolding the piece, called "Lines That Link Humanity," meant putting a strain on the copper wire that held the metal together. Installing it on a gallery wall could mean more wear and tear. And with Anatsui's invitation for museums to drape his fabriclike metal sculptures however they choose, more stress on the artwork was likely.
"The collaborative aspect of Anatsui's work is very important - he's asking others to be a part of his creative process," says Hurt. "But museums do everything they can to slow any degradation of the art, and traditionally when a work of art enters a museum it's not supposed to change."
Hurt's solution was to regard the tapestrylike metal fabric as if it were actually fabric and so developed an installation system that would allow it to first hang from a lattice frame, which, after the work is on the wall, is then replaced by clear acrylic support rods. The undulating folds are supported from underneath by blocks of foam. Wooden chopsticks - which are strong yet a relatively soft material - are used to manipulate the delicate metal fabric.
Says Hurt: "It's exciting (for a museum) to be a part of an artist's creative process."
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