What does it take to install an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art?
The diversity in scale, media, and format of the seventy-some pieces in Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China have tested the talents and ingenuity of the Museum's incredibly resourceful staff. After a number of advance planning meetings, our installation began in earnest on October 30 in the Early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture Gallery (206)—just off the Great Hall Balcony. There, we planned to display three 16 1/2-foot-tall hanging scrolls from Qiu Zhijie's 30 Letters to Qiu Jiawa, (2009) and the five triptychs of Yang Jiechang's Crying Landscapes (2002). Together, these works would announce to visitors to the Asian Wing that they were entering the world of contemporary China, where old and new often come together.
We had earlier placed panels above the skylight in this gallery to lower its light level in deference to the light sensitivity of the works on paper. But before we could install the paintings, the riggers—the Museum's elite team for moving heavy objects—had to move stone sculptures weighing more than one ton in order to clear a wall for Qiu's three hanging scrolls. Once the space was clear and the painters had come through to touch up the wall, metal shop specialists had to devise a way to suspend Yang Jiechang's five triptychs from the skylight. It took more than a week to prepare the gallery and hang the two sets of scrolls, but the effect is breathtaking.
Disparities between the measurements of works of art and the sizes of the frames around them have been a source of many challenges. The image size of a series of woodblock printed maps from Hong Hao's Select Scriptures series (1992–2000) suggested that we could accommodate six prints in an existing case. But the size of the mats framing Hong Hao's maps was too big, so our paper conservation team had to remove the six sheets and re-present them in three mats that each had double windows.
We weren't so lucky with a Liu Dan preparatory sketch for his Ink Handscroll (1990). The artwork is 65 3/4 inches long, but the mat created for the piece by the artist measured 71 inches across—1 inch more than the wall-mounted Hahn case where I had planned to install it. The only alternative was to remove the case from the wall—for the first time in sixteen years—so that the Liu Dan could be displayed in its original frame.
Another instance where the size of a work of art presented unusual challenges was the purple silicone rubber Scholar Rock (2008) by Zhang Jianjun. I wanted the piece to be displayed in the half pavilion of the Astor Chinese Garden Court, but hadn't reckoned on it weighing 700 pounds. Nor did I realize that the silicone was too brittle to be handled or tilted! This meant that it would have to be kept level as it was moved into place. This required that two level platforms be built above the pavilion's stone steps and the granite moon-viewing terrace, which would enable us to move the piece on a power jack. Because the piece and its base measure over seven feet in height, the ornamental latticework suspended from the crossbeam of the pavilion would have to be removed during the installation. What to do? Fortunately, two woodworking specialists from the Beijing Palace Museum were working on our Ming furniture as visiting fellows together with members of our Objects Conservation staff. Mr. Jiao and Mr. Zhao arrived with Met conservator Daniel Hausdorf and proceeded to show us how the latticework could easily be dismantled by simply removing two wood dowels. Most remarkable of all, in spite of all the effort expended to place this spectacular piece, no one ever suggested that I should find an easier place to display it.
Not all dimensions required us to make changes to our display cases. At one point, our Collections Manager Hwai-Ling Yeh-Lewis announced that if the frame for Shi Guorui's 14-foot-long camera obscura image Shanghai, China, 15–16 October 2004 (2004) exceeded 2 inches in depth it might not fit into our display case without removing one of the case's 900-pound glass doors. Happily, the print is mounted on a thin aluminum panel and was easily moved into place.
On the morning of November 19 the installation shifted into high gear with things happening in four exhibition galleries simultaneously. At 9:10 a.m., as we began unpacking Liu Dan's Dictionary (1991), I found myself in the presence of 2 packers, 1 registrar, 1 paper conservator, 2 carpenters, 1 operations supervisor, 1 designer, 2 Asian Department art handlers, 2 Asian art assistant curators, 1 Asian art Collections Manager, and 1 Asian art department administrator—15 of us all playing a role in preparing the work for installation.
Meanwhile, in the adjacent gallery, 2 more Asian Department art handlers, 1 Asian art conservator, 2 couriers, and 3 lighting designers were working to light Xu Bing's Book from the Sky (1987–91) using mockups of the 3 ceiling-hung scrolls.
In the end, it took us over a week to get the ceiling panels in place, set all of the books on the floor with uniform spacing around each volume, and light the entire ensemble properly. The result is an intimate immersive encounter with a sea of imaginary words—a virtual babel of illegible characters!
Next to that gallery, a team of 7 riggers with a forklift and 2 pallet trucks were hard at work positioning 2 Ming stone lions by the moon gate entrance to the Astor Chinese Garden Court. The marble lions had been moved away from the moon gate during the time the Garden skylight was being replaced and they were now ready to be returned to their places. As the "lion tamers" did their work, I felt like the master of ceremonies in a three-ring circus, running back and forth to make sure that everything was progressing smoothly. So when someone from Digital Media came with two electricians to place a monitor, projector, and screen for our video installation, I wasn't fazed a bit!