When you walk into any gallery at the Walker, you’re instantly offered entry points into an artist’s work — a Nástio Mosquito video installation or Dan Madsen and Forrest Wozniak’s hand-painted map of Tangier. This immersive experience is essential, but what is frequently not considered is the road that led to it. The day before the opening of Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take I spoke with one of the people who has spent the last four weeks installing everything from a 342-piece silk flower arrangement to a secondhand denim sky.
Senior Registration Technician David Bartley has been at the Walker installing every kind of art imaginable for the past 21 years. We walked around the galleries discussing how he assembled specific pieces in this exhibition and what it was like working with Hodges. Then he got back to the growing list of last-minute changes. Here, he recounts what it took to install some of the exhibition’s major works.
“First of all, we start by bringing the crates up and placing them in the galleries they’re going to be in. This particular gallery is very open as there are only these two works in here: A Far Away Corner and the massive denim Untitled (one day it all comes true). Untitled was the priority to hang on the wall so Jim could get an idea in terms of height and placement. At first it was hung too high so we had to lower it, which — as you can see — is quite a process.
“Dallas made a template of A Far Away Corner that fits on the wall. It took a long time to determine the height of it in relation to Untitled. Jim and Olga [Viso, exhibition co-curator and Walker director] were thinking of having it low, then thinking about having it really high, not too in the middle of the wall.
“Each web is pinned, each one is numbered, and each point where the web hits the wall is numbered — I had a set of elaborate instructions to read through. There are 13 webs that have to be hung in numerical order, but they don’t necessarily go from top to bottom because they overlap and intertwine.
“First I had to trim the pins down because they’re too long, and Jim likes them really, really tight to the wall so the webs don’t look like they’re hanging from pins. Then you, very gently with a fine hammer, hammer them to the wall. The webs are made of a really fine chain, like a necklace. They’re very fragile but surprisingly heavy. If you wore them like a necklace you would feel them. They have weight.”
“With the denim piece, there are 52 screws that hold it up. Since we had to lower it, and it took eight to ten people to move it, we now have to patch over the old holes before the show opens. It’s a long, involved process, whereas [A Far Away Corner] was just a one-person job, but it took me all day. Because of the nature of the artwork, if two people were working on it they would just get in each other’s way.”
“Jim’s work is interesting because it goes all the way from a very small piece that takes five minutes to install, if even, to something like the dark gate where the installation was part of the building’s architecture. When they were building and constructing walls for this exhibition, that’s when they were constructing the room it’s now in. The whole process of installing that artwork — tearing down old walls, building new walls, painting the insides and the ceiling black, putting in a black plastic floor, installing the art from three huge crates — took almost four weeks.
“For each show, generally, they’ll start with a teardown, because they already have the architecture predetermined for each show. If certain walls can remain they’ll keep them, but otherwise they completely get rid of the walls, open the gallery up, and then build all new walls.
“From my understanding, there are a lot of differences [between the layout here and the one in Dallas]. The room for the dark gate in Dallas was much smaller. Here it will be a totally different experience.”
“For this piece, I did the whole thing by myself. There are 342 individual flowers. As you can see, some are bigger than others, some are tiny little things. Jim outlined the flowers on the template, which helped identify the exact position for each, but it still took me half a day to place. This was one of the first works he wanted up in this gallery because it was going to determine a lot of the other works in the space — what’s in and what’s not.”
“Jim tends to not like things on-center, as you can see in the galleries. With this one being off-center, Jim and Olga would sit on the steps a lot and say, ‘Move it over. Move it here. Move it there.’ Once it was up it was similar to the spiderweb piece: you go through with a tack and put in all of the holes, but because the physical template is up against the wall you can’t put the flowers on. In Dallas they came up with this weird system of being underneath the template and someone handing you the flowers — it didn’t make much sense to me. So I put the template [on a wall to the side] and did it myself. Each flower or petal is numbered in the box with a pin so it makes it easy to look at the #1 hole and match it with the #1 flower. With a very fine pair of pliers you take each of the 342 pieces out of the box one-by-one and force them into the holes. At that point, Jim would just come by and joke with me.”
“Jim is a multitasker. For the wall drawing in the next gallery, he taught John Vogt how to do it and let him at it. But one morning Jim came in and felt like drawing, so he just took over immediately and started drawing on the wall. When he was done with that, John got back on and kept drawing again. That one piece took over a week to do, believe it or not.”
“For this in here, we worked closely together because this is very particular for Jim. We had to build an entirely new structure so we could adjust it—it was on tripods with wheels so we could move it in and out of the space and turn it until he decided where he wanted it. There are certain points where it hangs from and it is literally hanging from tape. The whole thing is made of tape. I’ve never hung an artwork from tape before, but it is Jim’s system, it’s how he’s done it, so we figured it out.
“It took us half a day, for sure, to get this hung up and in exactly the right place. So Jim focused on this, and once this was done, boom, off he went to do something else.”
“In my experience working at the Walker, it’s always much different when you have the artist here for a full two weeks [before the exhibition opens]. You begin to develop a sense of not only who they are but where the artwork is coming from. You get a better understanding of their language. This is opposed to an artist who is no longer living or who just shows up for the opening and makes changes the day before the opening. [Laughs]
“A lot of the time I’m not really that familiar with the body of work of some of these artists, so when they’re here you get a much better understanding. The same could be said working with Thomas Hirschhorn. You understand why he is using tape. He’s got all this energy — he shows up, wraps his tape around himself to keep his pants up, then just dives into the work and starts ripping tape, which is why his work has that haphazard look. But you’d never know that about his process from simply looking. You get that extra little understanding by watching artists handle their work.”