Working with special exhibitions, it’s always fun, if not challenging, to install a work of art that presents more complications than simply placing a sculpture on a pedestal or hanging something 2D. Prior to the actual day or week of installation, it’s often necessary for us to hunker down in our subterranean storage facilities to prep tools, equipment and supplies. So, when we finally surface, we hope to have our brains and our skills tested.
When Nick Cave shipped us three Soundsuits — whimsical suits made of found objects like old handbags, or dozens of ceramic birds from antique shops — it was a great opportunity to do something a little different. The problem we ended up facing was a lack of information. Most often, artwork comes with some sort of instructions, or proven method passed on by people who have installed it before. However, these Soundsuits were made just for us and the body (a mannequin in a tight knit bodysuit) and the bush-like welded metal headpiece were fabricated separately, and, to our knowledge, no one had ever actually assembled it.
At first, it felt a bit odd to have a brand new piece of art handed over with almost no further oversight in regards to handling and installation. In five years working at PEM, in various departments, I don’t think I have witnessed anything quite like this situation, because typically, displaying art is fairly serious business. There are always multiple conservators, curators and external lenders with concerns about the handling and manipulation of objects, and use of heavy equipment in the vicinity. In fact, it’s common practice for lending institutions to send their own representatives to manage, or at least witness the handling and installation of their objects, to be sure that all of the requirements and concerns are being addressed.
After considering Mr. Cave’s theme of inclusive, easy-going fun and celebration, it started to feel like the natural way for this show to unfold. These Soundsuits, and their accompanying performances, are meant to reintroduce some levity into our lives. There was no worry or stress attached to this show. Nick was sure we knew what we were doing, and we did not want to disappoint him.
We began to size it up, and it was clearly not going to be as easy as walking the headpiece up a ladder and lowering it into place. We knew it would have to be suspended somehow. It was also quickly discovered that our regular rigging mechanism was too short to do the job. So, it seemed that our only option was to hang the piece somehow off of our scissor lift.
We took a few dimensions, sketched up a little plan and were able to put together a set of lifting forks using some scrap wood, a metal pipe and several strong clamps. We took turns doing some pull-ups on the bar to test the weight and were quickly flooded with confidence. After that, all it took was some aircraft cable, looped over the bar and crimped inside the wild metal armature of the headpiece, to get this artwork off the ground. Fifteen minutes of slowly descending, making minor adjustments side to side, moving an inch forward or back, descending again, and the headpiece slid right into place on the mannequin’s shoulders.
The next day, as Nick Cave took a tour of the gallery, he looked pleasantly surprised that the piece fit together and stood so nicely. I couldn’t give a direct quote, but he said something like, “Nice job getting that together. I was wondering how it would fit.”
Editor’s Note: As Nick Cave moves to the Denver Art Museum with Sojourn, the museum staff there are having a bit of difficulty with install, as well. Enjoy this blog post on the subject by their staff photographer Jeff Wells.
And this video by the Denver Art Museum says it all.