Installing the Meroogal Women’s Art Prize 2014
For the 2014 Art Prize we wanted to try something new. Sydney Living Museums has a long history of engagement between our houses and contemporary artists. In the mid 1990s a series of highly successful site-specific installations took place at Elizabeth Bay house – Artists in the house!, curated by Michael Goldberg. Featuring established artists such as Anne Graham and Julie Rrap, these installations really set the precedent for artists working directly with collections in our historic houses, reinterpreting their spaces and bringing in fresh perspectives and new ways of thinking. More recent exhibitions such as Jonathan Jones’ fluorescent, illuminated work Gurrajin (Elizabeth Bay) and the crafty and humorous Doilies of Terror! (which saw a collaborative artist team of four create a host of menacing doilies to take over furniture and crockery) at Elizabeth Bay House as part of (Ten[d]ancy) (2006), and Sue Pedley’s ambitious interventions with oyster shells and seaweed at Elizabeth Bay House as part of Spare Room (2007) really cemented SLM’s commitment to working closely with contemporary artists and pushing the boundaries of interpretation at some of our more robust properties.
Decisions To be made
After a lot of discussion and planning, we made the decision to go ahead and hold the exhibition in the house, whilst carefully organising the exhibition in and around the collection. One of the greatest hurdles in doing this was choosing the right number of artworks for the space – too little and the exhibition might have been hard to notice amongst the rich collection of furniture and artefacts, too many works and the exhibition may have overwhelmed the house and made the spaces too crowded and busy.
Once the judges had selected the shortlist of works (the artworks that would be installed in the house as part of the exhibition), we commenced the spatial planning to determine where each artwork would be situated.
As hoped, some artists had made works with specific locations in mind – however in some cases more than one artist had their eyes on the same space! Some works (sound, video and those with light components) needed to be within proximity of a power point, and being a retro-fitted 19th century house, power points at Meroogal are at a premium (luckily, as the exhibition is on display over the Spring and Summer months, we were able to free up quite a few power points where heaters are usually plugged in!).
Other artists were open about the location of their work, and the team at Meroogal worked together to think about where they might go to best accentuate the stories contained within the work, and effectively reflect against the interior and collection around it. All of the works were designated a specific location before installation commenced, however many shifts, changes and bright ideas came up during the installation process, making our plans more of a guide than a detailed script.
After the locations were chosen, we looked closely at those spaces to decide which collection items would need to come off display to make room for the artwork. In deciding this, there were a few considerations: we didn’t want to take down anything that would dramatically diminish the interpretive experience of visiting Meroogal itself. The framed works that artists had submitted as part of the Art Prize needed to be hung from existing hooks in the house (the house is quite fragile, and as part of our conservation approach we do not make any unnecessary alternations to its built fabric – we wouldn’t put in a new hanging device for example), so their locations were primarily chosen by where a similarly sized framed work in the collection was located. But we also needed to check the robustness of these existing hooks in the wall and make sure they would be sturdy enough to handle the temporary installation. In some cases, such as with Brodie Jones’ Inheritance, an installation suspended above the bed in the upstairs bedroom, collection items were taken away and replaced with a temporary replica – in this case a simple modern mosquito net. This ensured that the work could be installed without any potential to damage the existing collection. We decided on ceramics, crockery and trinkets to take away from tables and dressers, to make room for the temporary artworks and protect these smaller items from accidental damage during the busy opening event.
Challenges of installation
Some works were easier to install than others. Works such as Kylie Stubbles’ Chinoiserie, a series of glass jars containing carved vegetable matter and latex, simply needed to be carefully arranged on a shelf. Others were a little more complex - Linda Dening’s Let Your Hair Down was hung from the beam in the laundry using fishing line, which was straightforward enough – but getting the broom to hang face forwards towards the laundry door was a challenge. The slightest touch would dislodge the broom and send it into a spin – a deft hand was required to gently coach the hair into hanging in the right direction.
After all the works were installed, the power cords plugged in and hidden, wall works straightened and levelled and all the removed collection items safely stowed away in storage, we tidied all materials up and gave the house a thorough clean (an integral part of any exhibition installation!), and prepared everything for the judging of the prize winners and the exhibition opening. At the end of January 2015, the exhibition will come down, the artworks will be returned to their owners and the whole process will take place again – in reverse.