When visitors enter the special exhibition Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning, the first objects they see are two hulking untitled furniture sculptures—wooden tables and armoires fused together with concrete and steel. Placed in the center of an otherwise empty room, underneath dimmed lighting, the works have a dramatic effect. Their materiality is a study in contrasts: the warmth of wood stands out against the cold, impersonal density of cement, which appears to be “suffocating, stifling, keeping beneath whatever’s inside,” said Mary Schneider Enriquez, the Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art and curator of the exhibition.
Strangely anthropomorphic, the objects evoke a deeply unsettling feeling, akin to the emotional impact of returning to your home after a violent invasion. Everyday objects and routines never again feel normal and instead bear witness to such pain and injustice. These themes are ever-present in Colombian sculptor Salcedo’s work and are in fact evident throughout The Materiality of Mourning.
But there’s another important—and less appreciated—aspect to the story of these two sculptures: with a combined weight of over 1,800 pounds and rather cumbersome dimensions (each more than 8 feet wide), the two works pose a significant logistical challenge to anyone trying to transport them. Staff at the Harvard Art Museums spent months planning for their installation, which essentially culminated in one action-packed morning in late October, just ahead of the exhibition opening on November 4.
“The structure of our building means that it was a highly complex process to even bring these works inside,” Schneider Enriquez said. “We really challenged all of our staff members to the extreme with the installation of these works, and I can’t thank them enough.”
As is needed for nearly any work on loan, extensive planning (meetings, phone calls, emails, paperwork) was the first step in arranging the sculptures’ journey to the museums. Next was bringing the works to the United States from their respective permanent homes, one a private collection in Europe and the other the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
Carefully packaged and protected in custom-built crates, the sculptures were flown to the United States and then briefly stored at the museums’ Somerville Research Facility. Early one morning, two weeks before the exhibition opening, the crated sculptures were loaded onto a truck and transported to the Harvard Art Museums.
A large orange crane was already waiting when the truck pulled up in front of the museums’ Prescott Street entrance. Workers from a fine art shipping company and the museums’ facilities and collections management teams cordoned off part of the sidewalk and propped open the building’s doors as they prepared to unload the crates.
By about 9:30am, the crane hoisted the first crate into the air and set it down on a dolly just inside the museums’ entryway. The crate was rolled into the freight elevator and carried up to the Special Exhibitions Gallery on Level 3.
The second crate, containing the larger of the two sculptures, required more time and effort to transport to the gallery. Because of the sculpture’s dimensions (2½ feet by 8¾ feet by 5⅔ feet), staff had to be especially careful while bringing the crate through the museums’ relatively narrow exterior doorway.
Once on Level 3, the sculpture remained inside the freight elevator as art handlers removed its crate, piece by piece. Without this important step, the object would have been too large to fit through the gallery door.
Finally, using specialized rigging equipment, art handlers lifted the uncrated sculpture up and onto a dolly and carefully rolled it into the gallery. (The sculpture fit through the doorway with mere centimeters to spare.) The entire process, though laborious and occasionally suspenseful, was completed by lunchtime.
Relief and Appreciation
Just a few days later, after Salcedo herself arrived in Cambridge, she oversaw the sculptures’ final placement (along with the installation of the rest of the exhibition). Museums staff breathed a well-deserved sigh of relief.
“Due to the size and dimensions of the furniture pieces, I had been thinking they would be the most difficult to install,” said Katie Press, the museums’ associate registrar for collections, who helped coordinate the installation of all the works in the special exhibition. “But because we were so careful in planning, and because we had all the right people on our team working on this, these objects turned out to be some of the easiest to install.”
As noted by Elaine Scarry, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value at Harvard, during a discussion with Salcedo on the exhibition’s opening night, Salcedo’s works “make gravity palpable.” With their strong emotional resonance and complex installation requirements (not to mention sheer size and weight), these untitled furniture pieces certainly attest to that notion.