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Weird but Useful Stuff

Miranda: Woman

Photo: Darcey Sawicz

It’s the change of the seasons here at ICA. Just as you can feel the approach of autumn out on the street in September, here in the museum I feel the end of Queer Voice approaching and the murmurs of the new exhibition season getting ready to blow in. This Sunday evening the projectors and audio loops will be turned off for the last time. The guards will go home until the new shows open in mid-September, the tour guides will have a few weeks to bone up on some new artists, and the crew will show up to disassemble the silver Andy Warhol listening cube and the Jack Smith chaise longue and roll up the carpeting.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the preparations for Set Pieces (click here to read that piece), guest-curated for ICA by artist Virgil Marti from works from the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). Since then, Virgil and Robert and Darcey have gone over to the PMA to measure some of the objects Virgil is using, especially some marble busts he’s going to put on a pouf. Actually he’s going to make poufs especially for the marbles, which include a bust of Napoleon and another big bust of a woman lying on her back. There are some concerns about the stability of the marble woman, who is actually designed to be displayed upright, but Virgil is confident that any mounts they need to use to secure her in place can be hidden in the fluff of the pouf. He can fluff up the fluff, he says.

Down at the PMA, he asks one of the art handlers to put the woman on a big piece of craft paper so he can trace her for reference when he builds the pouf. She’s so heavy, it takes two people in purple Nitrile gloves to lift her.

Not everything Virgil needs to see is down in storage. Some of it is up in photography already, waiting its turn to have its picture taken—along with a fabulous life-sized silver gander that I can’t wait to see in the show. Other stuff is up in conservation, including two ivory candlesticks that are being cleaned.

This, it turns out, is how you clean ivory candlesticks: with saliva. They have little pots of sterilized saliva up there in conservation, and they dip Q-tips into it and slowly clear away the dirt. Saliva! I go home and tell my husband, and he smiles and says, “Is it elephant saliva?”

Then he tells me about this nuclear fusion experiment he was once involved in where they suspended a tiny, frozen-hydrogen sphere inside a very small gold cylinder, then sent powerful laser beams in. (Doesn’t that sound like it could be a contemporary art installation??) The trick is, how do you suspend such a miniscule sphere inside such a puny gold cylinder without using metal bars that would mess up the experiment?

The answer: spiderwebs. Spider silk (as anyone who’s read Charlotte’s Web knows) is thin and strong and abundant. When my husband asked the guys at the lab if they used any special kind of spider, they told him, “We use whatever kind of spider we find around the lab. When they die, we send out an email asking people to bring in spiders from their offices, or from home or wherever.”

There’s something glorious in this—the way there are still problems nature can solve for us; the way the needs of both art and science can sometimes be answered by common stuff we usually think of as disgusting.

Also, the way people you never see—people behind the scenes—are resourcefully solving problems you never thought of in ways you never would have dreamed.

Do you have a story about people using weird stuff to solve unusual problems? If so, please describe it in the comments section below. I’ll try to drum up some weird ICA prizes for the best weird solutions. Deadline: August 15.