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The crate measured 36 by 36 by 10 inches. The 120-pound work of art, a “wall sculpture” by artist El Anatsui (born in Ghana in 1944), constructed of mostly discarded metal items like liquor bottle tops and wire, was folded indelicately inside. El Anatsui’s malleable sculptures have been referred to as “cloth” or “tapestry,” and the artist gives very little direction about how they should be displayed.
El Anatsui, Lines That Link Humanity (detail), 2008, discarded aluminum and copper wire, (irregular) 18 x 25 ft., Gift of Barbara and Sam Wells
This particular work, titledLines That Link Humanity, arrived at the North Carolina Museum of Art in 2009 and presented an unusual situation for conservators and art handlers. Rather than just installing the work, they’d be active participants in its continuing evolution, “acting as an extension of the artist, legitimately part of the creative process, whether constructive or destructive,” as Associate Conservator Perry Hurt put it.
The objects El Anatsui uses have already acquired a past—they are broken, discarded, weathered by the elements. But conservators have had to adjust to the idea that the artist intends for his work to be changed or even damaged every time it is installed.
The primary goal for any museum conservator worth his or her salt is to preserve the art—that is, to maintain it in pristine condition, frozen in time since the last moment the artist and creator touched it. It is serious business, protecting an important work of art from threats that assail it on all sides—moisture in the air, oils from wandering fingers, fluctuations in temperature, natural decay—and these threats multiply exponentially when the art needs to be moved, stored, or reinstalled. So, when you’re a conservator and every instinct you have is to prevent affecting or changing the art in your charge, what do you do when that is not only impossible, but when it is in fact the artist’s intention that the work is changed or even damaged every time it is installed?
The objects El Anatsui uses in his work have already acquired a past—they are broken, discarded, weathered by the elements, and energetically worked by the artist to achieve the desired effect. But the idea that the art continues to be created even after it leaves the artist’s workshop goes against the conservator’s grain. Every hard crease created by folding the piece and placing it in its shipping crate, every wire broken or bottle cap lost during installation, and every decision about how the piece will be draped or hung is part of the cumulative history that the art acquires. And, for the professionals at the North Carolina Museum of Art who initially installed this wall sculpture and who twice have had the occasion to move and reinstall it, there have been challenges but, also, a unique opportunity to see themselves and the effects of their labor within the art.
This June the Museum opens its expanded African art gallery in East Building. The new space is three times as large as the old gallery and will allow the Museum to display more works of art, including new acquisitions, spanning 16 centuries of African creativity. The new space also boasts improved lighting controls, which are paramount for displaying light-sensitive textiles and other works—though there is at least one unique piece of art in the new space that isn’t so concerned with preservation. El Anatsui’s Lines That Link Humanity has given NCMA conservators and art handlers another opportunity to be a part of its evolving history.
Watch a time-lapse video of the reinstallation of El Anatsui’s wall sculpture!
Amanda Shafer is marketing manager at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
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