How to dispose of an exhibition.
Posted by Dustin on November 7, 2008 - 10:38am
Categories: Behind the Walls

Many people have asked me how the Kara Walker exhibition was deinstalled and what happens to the works after they are taken down.  Now that the exhibition is down and we had a chance to witness the process, the act of removing the works from the walls is actually very interesting.  Of course the framed works are handled like any other, crated and shipped; the paper silhouettes, however, were handled very differently. 

First, I guess it should be noted how those works that were directly on the walls were installed.  The process begins with Kara Walker creating the original works, made of construction paper.  From those originals, meticulous templates are created so that those silouhettes can be recreated for every new installation.  The finished construction paper cut outs are affixed to the wall using wax as an adhesive.  For those that were in the advertising industry a few decades ago, this process might be familiar.  The paper is coated in the wax adhesive and then is burnished to the wall using a little elbow grease.  There are quite a few benefits to this kind of adhesive process.  For one, the adhesion is not permanent until the burnishing step, allowing the individual elements of a piece to be adjusted.  The mess is minimal and there isn't that awful smell of other adhesives.

Once an exhibition is over and the works must come down, the paper silhouettes are quite literally ripped from the walls.  The process of removing them destroys the paper material.  Even if the crew was meticulously careful in the process, the paper is far too delicate and would be not be able to be recovered completely anyway.  Once the works are removed from the walls, the installation staff has to take the destruction process one step further.  They then tear up each individual piece beyond recognition witnessed by the registrarial staff.  As counterintuitive as it sounds, it is important to destroy them to prevent a secondary market for these exhibition editions of the works.

This act of official destruction is so foreign to the art world.  There are only a few artists' works in the world to which this happens, but when it does it is jarring.  As you saw a few weeks ago, we posted the video of SFMOMA removing their Sol Le Witt from their lobby.  It and the Kara Walker exhibition got me thinking of other artists whose works are destroyed intentionally and then reinstalled in another location.  This kind of situation doesn't apply to every artist whose works are intentionally destroyed.  I thought about the destruction of works by artists like Banksy or other street artists, but then those works are not made to be reinstalled exactly in other locations (are they?).  Other site specific installations by artists are often destroyed when removed, but then since they are site specific, the reinstallation isn't a factor. 

Give us your thoughts on this or other works like this in the comments.