Tow motors and powered lifts trundle back and forth across gallery floors, while boxes and boxes of folded material wrapped in heavy plastic sheets are carefully carried by hand to designated spots and slowly, meticulously unwrapped.
A mobile tool chest containing all manner of screws, bits, extra power packs for cordless screwdrivers and other useful hardware sits off to one side.
It’s a handyman’s dream come true. Or his nightmare.
For in this workshop, there are no rules, no blueprints, no patterns. Here, you’re on your own with someone else’s project.
In the center of a long wall, a piece of blue tape marks 5½ feet up from the floor, the point where good preparators know the center of an artwork should hang. This is eye level for the average viewer.
But it won’t be the center of the artwork that’s going on this wall. Oh, no.
Ellen Rudolph, the Akron Art Museum’s interim chief curator, is standing on top of a movable staircase directing a team of preparators to place and reposition the multipaneled work by African artist El Anatsui. From up there, she can look down at the sheets of material unfolded on the floor and decide in what order they should go.
“The tallest piece is 16 feet and that panel is 13 feet,” she pointed out to her crew. “When the visitor walks up to it, we want those continents to be at line of sight or higher, maybe 6 feet. … I wouldn’t go any higher than that.
“These will cover the opposite wall, plus go around the corner. What makes it interesting is the components don’t fit together exactly, and there’s no set way to put them together. They don’t come with assembly instructions.”
So Rudolph must decide the order in which the panels will be hung. This is Anatsui’s wicked way of forcing curators to become involved in the work.
“He said something about museum people being wholly uncreative,” Rudolph said.
Exhibit opens June 16
Since the Akron Art Museum’s expansion in 2007, Anatsui’s Dzesi II, a dazzling metallic tapestry made from liquor bottle caps, has become one of its most popular works. It marks the starting point for the exhibit that Rudolph and crew are working on, Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui. It will be on view June 16 to Oct. 7 in the museum at 1 S. High St.
Gravity and Grace features 12 enormous wall and floor sculptures widely considered to represent the apex of the artist’s career, plus a series of drawings that illuminate his process and wooden wall reliefs that reference his earlier work in wood and can be compositionally linked to the large metal pieces.
The exhibit, consisting of Anatsui’s most recent works — most of which have never before been seen in North America — is premiering in Akron, then going on a national tour.
The panels Rudolph and crew are struggling with belong to a large work called Drifting Continents, which refers to early geography lessons and how the Earth once consisted of a single continent called Pangaea.
These panels are made of tops of schnapps, whiskey, wine, rum, gin, brandy and vodka bottles produced in West Africa. These are linked together with copper wire. The cumulative effect is mesmerizing, especially when the accumulation is thousands upon thousands. The tops glimmer and constantly move, catching the light in bewitching patterns.
“From up here, it looks like a Gustav Klimt painting because of all the squares,” Rudolph said.
Sharp metal edges
Those working on this installation must have their tetanus shots up to date because of all the sharp metallic edges, rusty tin-can lids and wires, and they must wear special gloves for handling metal.
Works called Peak and Drain Pipe have already been installed. These consist of thousands of milk tin lids attached together with copper wire that seem to become sheets of giant gleaming golden coins piled in drifts or aligned in tubes.
“In this exhibit, the works are made from bottle caps, milk tin lids, aluminum printing plates and wooden relief sculptures. There are no instructions for anything,” Rudolph repeated.
“One of the most exciting and challenging aspects of this installation is that every time one of El Anatsui’s shows gets installed, it’s re-envisioned differently. They can be sculpted or draped or expanded to fit the space. They’re almost like bustling a dress.
“There’s one work in the exhibition that has no designated orientation. It could be vertical, horizontal, draped onto the floor. … It’s daunting, and because we have enormous respect for the artist, we want to do right by him, but here we have more to do than usual when installing an art exhibit.”
Arnold Tunstall, the museum’s collections manager, said: “This show doesn’t have anything normal. All our rules are out the window. We think a panel is one height, but when we lift it up, it shifts and extends itself, which is frustrating and exciting all at the same time.”
Anatsui will visit the Akron-Summit County Public Library at 6 p.m. June 16 for a moderated talk, said Rudolph, who will be the moderator. “He will be here a couple of days before that to put finishing touches on the installation,” she said.
Documentary on PBS
To mark the opening of the exhibit, Western Reserve PBS will air the documentary Fold Crumple Crush: The Art of El Anatsui at 9 p.m. June 15.
In the film, Anatsui, a native of Ghana who teaches at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, demonstrates how his works have become a hybrid of painting and sculpture, objects that speak of African history and reach for the ethereal.
The program shows the artist installing work at the Venice Biennale and visits Nsukka. It goes into the studio where 30 to 40 assistants work, showing them stitching together bottle tops, then follows Anatsui into his home to recall his formative years.
Fold Crumple Crush will air again at 11 p.m. June 16, 9 p.m. June 18 and 1 a.m. June 25. Air dates on Fusion can be found at www.WesternReservePBS.org/schedule.htm.
Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or email@example.com.