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Carnegie staff plays doctor to International artworks

Thursday, January 20, 2000

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

An occasional dusting and the watchful eye of a museum guard were all that the Carnegie Museum of Art used to provide for artwork in the Carnegie International, a periodic exhibit of the world's best contemporary art.

Christopher McHugh uses a small brush to clean lint and other dirt from the inside of Ernesto Neto's exhibit, "Nude Plasmic," at the Carnegie International. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette) 

Rarely, it is safe to say, would anything overflow, malfunction, fall apart, fall down, rip, dry up, burn out or peel off. Sculptures and paintings arrived at the museum in their finished state and remained on display without incident for the duration of the show.

This time around, because of the unprecedented amount of technology and varied media used in art today, museum staffers monitoring the International are finding themselves refilling a small humidifier daily, running out to replace a broken sewing machine, mending rips in a synthetic material that resembles panty hose and stringing up beads that have fallen to the ground.

They walk through the exhibit regularly making sure plants are not drying up, videos are running smoothly and paper cut-outs are not peeling off the walls. They take 45 minutes to turn on some of the exhibits in the morning and another 45 to turn them off at night.

Even before the show opened, staff members had their hands full as they helped construct some of the artwork that, until then, had existed only in the minds of the artists. It took, for example, four people working full time for five weeks to frame the 2,814 pieces of paper in German artist Hanne Darboven's "Leben, leben/Life, living."

Art today is so high-maintenance.

But "it comes with the territory," said William Real, chief conservator of the museum, whose staff of five is responsible for the preservation of all the museum's artwork. Because more artists are creating large installation art - some of it site-specific - they need help when construction time rolls around.

And because more artists are using mechanical objects and living things in their work - and are inviting museum-goers to touch, pick up or step into the work - more daily monitoring by the museum is necessary.

"The art world has rarely been more eclectic in terms of the media it chooses to communicate with - maybe never been more eclectic," said Madeleine Grynsztejn, curator of the International. She said this has led museums to realize they must be more than a repository for art.

"The museum is a living organism, and its definition changes over time if it is to do its job, which is to properly reflect the development of the visual arts," Grynsztejn said.

Related coverage:

Museum reports vigorous attendance

News Links: Carnegie International


Among the Carnegie's duties has been the repair of one of the International's most popular exhibits - Ernesto Neto's "Nude Plasmic," which visitors have sometimes waited 30 minutes in line to "climb into." People moving around the giant stocking-like compartment have caused rips in the stretchy fabric, and the museum has had to close the exhibit a few times while repairing it.

Similarly, the museum has had to replace some of the household objects that visitors entering Suchan Kinoshita's box-like rooms have handled. A ceiling fan that simply broke down in one of the rooms had to be repaired, and carpeting has had to be replaced.

"It's not that [the artists] don't care, because once you engage them in a discussion about the longevity of the piece, they're interested in how it might last longer," Real said.

Such as Kara Walker, whose paper silhouettes in "The Emancipation Approximation" were peeling off the wall until Real's staff found a way to make them stick. Real said Walker intends to employ the method the next time the piece is displayed.

"More and more, institutions like the Carnegie are playing the role of the artist's assistant," Real said. "We're helping them realize their ideas."

Some artists aren't particular about what the museum uses to fix their work, said Christopher Rauhoff, the museum's exhibitions coordinator. Others, like Neto, have provided the museum with replacement material. A German light bulb had to be shipped here when a bulb burned out in "Haus ur," a piece by German artist Gregor Schneider.

In accordance with Felix Gonzales-Torres' wishes, the museum has stuck to the same color pattern when replacing beaded strings that have fallen from the artist's "Untitled (Water)." People walking through the beaded curtain sometimes tug on the strings.

Sometimes museums consult with each other on how to best install challenging pieces, as the Carnegie did for Ann Hamilton's "welle," a bare wall that "weeps" beads of water. The piece, which required the Carnegie to build a new wall and install IV tubes to bring water to 3,000 tiny holes on the face of the wall, made stops at four museums before arriving here.

Still, it wasn't until water began collecting at the foot of the wall - raising concerns about liability - that a gutter was installed by local free-lance art installer Bob Johnson. Asked whether maintenance of "welle" has been more costly than expected, museum director Richard Armstrong said: "We're not in shock."

The piece had to be closed while the gutter was built.

"Ideally, it would have been better to have the gutter figured out from the beginning, but I don't think any of us knew how much water would come out of there," Real said. "My hope is that we've contributed to the success of any future attempt to do the piece."

Rauhoff likened the installation of the exhibition to the making of a movie, since so many hands were needed to create some of the pieces. Real likened it to dance, where a choreographer (the artist) relies on dancers (the museum staff) to make his art come alive.

Artist Olafur Eliasson of Berlin wasn't even around when his "Your natural denudation inverted" was built using steam from the museum's heating system. It was Rauhoff - keeping in constant contact with Eliasson - who oversaw construction.

"As long as we keep the lines of communication open with the artist, it's not that tough," Rauhoff said. Grynsztejn noted that this relationship between artist and museum requires the artist to trust an institution before letting it construct his or her work.

One piece in the International hasn't relied much on the Carnegie staff but, rather, on outsiders. Gabriel Orozco's "Ping Pond Table," which invites visitors to play pingpong around a bed of water lilies, is maintained by a noted lily grower from Johnstown. Volunteer art attendants monitor visitors who play pingpong on the table.

But the exhibit had to be closed at least one day because there were no art attendants available to monitor people who might have wanted to pick up the exhibit's paddles and balls.

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