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Installing Ai Weiwei’s ‘Zodiac Heads’ in the Hall of Architecture

When you first enter the Hall of Architecture at Carnegie Museum of Art, it’s impossible to ignore the grandeur of the space. There’s the towering western facade of the church of St. Gilles from the south of France, believed to be the largest architectural cast in the world. And to its left and right stand the north transept portal of the Cathedral of St. Andre at Bordeaux, France, and the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates from Athens, key artworks in the museum’s extensive cast collection. If you’re familiar with the space, however, you probably noticed that a new installation has grabbed much of the spotlight this summer: Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads sculptures.

Positioned in front of St. Gilles and beneath the hall’s luminous skylights, the Zodiac Heads offer a stark contrast with the plaster casts that surround them. Not only because, like the Hall of Architecture, Ai’s art practice is often grand in scale and scope, but because the bronze heads themselves are formidable in size, weight, and symbolism. The heads, which debuted at New York’s Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza in May 2011, mark the Chinese artist’s foray into public sculpture. A reinterpretation of the traditional Chinese zodiac that once adorned the famed fountain-clock of the Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat in Beijing, Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads is intended to raise questions of looting and repatriation, while extending Ai’s ongoing exploration of fakes and copies in relation to originals. Traditionally exhibited in outdoor spaces, CMOA’s presentation of the Zodiac Heads represents the first time that the sculptures have been exhibited indoors.

Installing Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads in the Hall of Architecture was no small feat. It involved detailed planning and site evaluation. It also required coordination between institutions (i.e., Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s popular Pterosaurs exhibition was being de-installed and shipped out at the same time). Long before the tractor trailer carrying the large scale bronze sculptures arrived, the museum’s experienced staff of art handlers devised a plan. To understand the scope of this exhibition installation, I spoke with Mark Blatnik, chief preparator at CMOA, who supervised the project.

What type of preparation was required before the artworks arrived at the museum?  

Finding a pathway that the crated objects could travel was the primary concern with the show. Dock conditions, turning radii, and door widths coupled with the weight of the crated objects presented a challenge. We also consulted with a team of structural engineers to determine floor load weights to ensure our path through the building and installation site could accommodate the weights.

What were the biggest challenges the art handlers faced when installing Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads?

The biggest challenge in the installation was bringing the sculptures to their upright position. As they travel in a horizontal position, standing them up required the use of a gantry, chain pulls, rigging straps, and harnesses and a minimum of five handlers. Once upright, the sculptures are fairly manageable, but transitioning something that size and with that amount of weight from horizontal to vertical can be difficult.

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Mark Blatnik, chief preparator at Carnegie Museum of Art, removes the straps used to raise one of Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads into place. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

The Zodiac Heads have never been installed indoors. Were there adjustments to consider when placing them in the Hall of Architecture?

In terms of installation, they install the same whether inside or outside. However, due to their size and weight, bringing them indoors presented a number of challenges. Not only were we more limited on space and access paths, but our options in terms of equipment used for handling the objects diminished. Where you can use cranes and high-capacity forklifts outdoors, you are often limited to j-bars, floor dollies, and lightweight gantries indoors. The installation is absolutely manageable in both cases, but location does greatly affect the methods.

The heads each weigh close to a ton. Can you explain what was involved in making sure the marble floor in the museum’s Hall of Architecture could support the artworks?

The heaviest of the pieces weighs around 1,700 lbs. and the lightest about 1,100 lbs. We consulted with a group of structural engineers to determine floor load capacities and identify areas, such as the marble flooring in the Grand Staircase, that were potentially susceptible to damage with the movement of objects of this scale.

In your experience as an art handler, have you worked on installations with similar challenges? If so, can you give an example?

There have been a number of installs with similar elements and challenges, although what made the Zodiac Heads unique was the sheer number. Often, especially with larger sculpture, we deal with singular objects. But in this case we had 12 similar yet unique pieces to install. Each had its own shape, form, and distribution of weight that had to be accounted for in the handling, movement, and rigging, which made for a very interesting and memorable install.

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An art handler fastens heavy-duty strapping to one of Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads sculptures. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)
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Art handlers prepare to hoist one of the Zodiac Heads into upright position in the museum’s Hall of Architecture. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)
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Art handlers slowly tilt one of the Zodiac Heads into position. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)
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Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads installed in Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

The exhibition Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads is on view in the Hall of Architecture at Carnegie Museum of Art until August 29, 2016. Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei is on view at The Andy Warhol Museum until August 28, 2016. 

The exhibition Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads is on view in the Hall of Architecture at Carnegie Museum of Art until August 29, 2016.

The exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei is on view at The Andy Warhol Museum until September 11, 2016.