The ‘install’ – or exhibition installation – is that crucial period of time leading up to the opening of an exhibition. It is the time when the MCA Install Team prepare the exhibition space (wall painting, surface treatment on walls, floor and ceiling), when exhibition display elements are produced, and when artworks are placed within the gallery space. So, in essence, I support and enable MCA artists and curators to realise their projects by providing technical mastery in the preparation, installation and display of artworks.
As part of my role, I also develop opportunities for the MCA Install Team (which includes five full time and up to 15 casual staff) to continue to develop their knowledge and skills. At present, while some sections of museum studies touch on art handling, there is no formal qualification in Australia to become an art installer. So the most effective way to learn these skills is on the job.
I have a varied background that started in industrial arts education, moved into cabinet-making, where I was trained by a female German woodwork master, then owned and operated a furniture design business, working with Sydney’s leading cultural institutions.
Over two decades ago, my sister bought me a birthday present that has continued to bring me happiness – a Membership to the MCA! Seven years later, I started working there as a casual art installer, and, in 2005, I had the opportunity of a lifetime: to install the artwork of my favourite artist, Bridget Riley, the artist who had inspired me to study art in the first place. After I installed her exhibition at the MCA, Bridget personally selected me to continue to install her artworks around the world. Fast forward to the present day, and here I am back at the MCA, having installed over 250 exhibitions both nationally and internationally, and personally escorted priceless masterpieces around the globe. I’ve gone full circle!
I’ll start by meeting with MCA Curators and exhibiting artists some12 to 18 months prior to the exhibition opening. This phase is a fantastic opportunity for me to understand the artist’s vision and the curator’s approach, and for the artist to understand how the MCA Install Team can play a technical role in assisting them.
During the months that follow, we have continued conversations with the artist and curator. This is the phase when potential challenges associated with the display of the works are brought to light. Display challenges are unique to every artwork and can be of a technical, financial, human, legal, medical, ethical or cultural nature. It’s the variety of challenges that makes my job exciting, thrilling and most definitely never dull!
For example, how do you make 180 female figures out of 720 rolls of aluminium foil, and how long will it take? How do you construct a 9-tonne pile of coal in the gallery without it collapsing? How do you make a lotus pool and continue to grow lotus plants indoors?
If an artwork contains organic material, has moving parts, is electronic in some nature or is placed in an open environment, I can say without a doubt it will pose installation and display challenges. Now if the artwork happens to tick all of these boxes, my team and I are in for a serious challenge!
For instance, a few years ago I installed a work by French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, clinamen (2013), which consisted of a 500-litre pool of water, heated to exactly 32°C. On the surface, porcelain bowls floated and knocked into each other, creating a sublime musical score where the temperature of the water dictated the tonal pitch of the bowls as they collided. This was a truly wonderful artwork but it required an exhausting maintenance regime and cleaning three times a day, every day.
Consider the physical life of an artwork has 10,000 touches before it completely disintegrates
More than I can remember! This ranged from low-tech, organic matter such as body waste, DNA and decaying flesh, all the way to high-tech synthetic materials such as polyurea – an ultra-high-strength, energy-absorbing, elastomeric polymer used by the military. Essentially it’s blast/bullet proof paint that is also self-healing to the point where it will meld together after being cut in half! This was used as the pool liner in Tatsuo Miyajima’s 100 Time Lotus (2008).
I confidently believe that with every challenge comes an opportunity. Taking a collaborative approach, the MCA Install Team research and test possible solutions. We are constantly reviewing methodologies to ensure that best safe practice is employed. When the best solutions have been identified and assessed, an install plan is finalised.
For instance, Emily Floyd’s Gulag Archipelago (2016), which was in Telling Tales last year, featured a large onion-shaped timber dome five centimetres too big to fit into our goods elevator. Somehow we needed to resolve how we could move it up three flights of stairs. After weeks of brainstorming, trialling and testing different solutions, we successfully designed and manufactured a system of ramps and winches (somewhat resembling Egyptian pyramid-building methodologies!) to hoist the giant dome up the stairs. What seemed like an impossible task ended up being an extraordinary opportunity for the team to collaborate and expand their knowledge and skills!
What happens to the display elements after an exhibition has closed, for instance. Taking Tatsuo Miyajima’s large-scale installation Counter Coal as an example, how do you ‘get rid of’ a 9-tonne pile of coal? So I contacted Trainworks Railway Museum, south of Sydney, to see if they would be able to use it. It turned out they were delighted to take it. It was a wonderful opportunity for the MCA to support another museum while demonstrating our commitment to sustainable exhibition display