Pieces of Set Pieces

On Monday, Virgil Marti came over to ICA to meet with Robert, Shannon, and Darcey, ICA’s crack team of exhibitions logisticians. Virgil is an artist and a long-time ICA friend. He did an installation for our Ramp space in 2003, and one of his beautiful pink chandeliers hangs in our lobby and is one of the things I like about coming to work in the morning.

Virgil is guest-curating an exhibition called Set Pieces that will open at ICA in September. A collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), the exhibition will be made up of a series of tableaux assembled from objects borrowed from the PMA’s collections. Over the past few months, Virgil has spent a lot of time roaming around vast PMA storage locations and checking out the stuff no one ever sees. He’s selected dozens of pieces, largely from the decorative arts, to use in his installations: urns, oil lamps, busts, sofas, mirrors, portraits. The plan is to arrange them in scenes influenced by some of his favorite movies: Last Year at Marienbad, The Bitter Tears of Petra van Kant, Citizen Kane. I love how mixed up this is—old art objects used to make a new work of art, static scenes evoking the flowing form of cinema. Hidden things exposed.

It’s tricky, of course: making art out of somebody else’s art objects. You have to take good care of them. Part of Robert and Shannon and Darcey’s job is to figure out how to make sure the PMA pieces are protected while they’re at ICA, which means designing and building the right kinds of pedestals and plexiglass covers—things like that. In general, every pedestal has to extend out three feet in every direction from the object sitting on it—even if the object is really big, like a couch. But for one object, a model of Philadelphia’s Waterworks, Virgil wants a pedestal no wider than it is. All these things need to be negotiated.

Then there is the question of what color to paint the walls. Virgil saw some bright orange and purple object tags he liked at the PMA, so Robert called the registrar and asked her to send over some blank ones. She sent over a whole bunch of orange tags, but she said the PMA didn’t use purple object tags. Maybe, she suggested, Virgil was remembering the purple Post-it notes they sometimes used, so she sent some of those over too. Virgil also liked the pink color of some PMA storage crates. He’d taken a photograph of those, so it should have been easy to match the color; but it wasn’t easy.
Miranda: pink crates

Photo: Virgil Marti

Robert got out some color chip books, but none of the colors Virgil liked was in the books. When he started calling around to paint suppliers, he found out that pretty much no one makes a paint as fluorescent as the orange they were looking for, or a pink as bright (though Ralph Lauren’s “Blushing Bride” came close). Sam, one of ICA’s summer interns, suggested trying to match the colors through Photoshop. This seems like a promising avenue, but at the moment the problem lingers.

Another difficulty has to do with lights and shadows. One of Virgil’s scenes will be an arrangement of small bronze antelope throwing outsized shadows onto the wall behind them. These antelope will not be under plexiglass because the plexi would interfere with the shadows. Instead, they’ll be anchored to the pedestals with special clips that the PMA’s mount-makers make. (Is “mount-maker” a full-time job? What other unsuspected lines of work do they use over there?)

The original idea was for ICA to acquire a theatrical light to shine on the antelope. Our galleries have 40-foot-high ceilings, and our normal lights don’t make nice shadows. But it turned out that the theatrical light didn’t work the way we thought it would. Instead of sharp silhouettes, the first test produced big, vague, fuzzy shapes.

This is how it goes when you’re mounting an exhibition.

Next week the team is going over to the PMA to look at Virgil’s design for a pouf (Virgil is known for his poufs). Probably that won’t turn out to be simple, either, but I can tell you one thing for sure: stop by ICA on the evening of Wednesday, September 15 for the opening of Set Pieces, and somehow, some way, everything will look perfect.

Set Pieces is a Katherine Stein Sachs and Keith L. Sachs Guest Curator Program. It will be on view at ICA from September 16, 2010 to February 13, 2011, with the public opening on the evening of Wednesday, September 15.