For the past four weeks, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth has looked and sounded like a construction site with an unmovable deadline — masons laying cement blocks, workers constructing and painting walls, art installers hanging in harnesses from the ceiling — all to prepare for the most ambitious exhibit in the museum’s history, opening to the public Sunday.
“México Inside Out: Themes in Art Since 1990,” displaying more than 60 works by 23 living Mexico-based artists, has been coalescing for more than three years under the direction of curator Andrea Karnes and assistant curator Alison Hearst.
Karnes says she first noticed the prevalence of Mexican works at international art fairs and big contemporary shows four years ago. Then they began cropping up with solo exhibitions at venerable museums such as the Tate Modern in London and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Karnes said she hadn’t seen any of their work in Texas museums and knew it was time to address the situation.
“It took awhile for me to be brave enough to do the exhibition,” she says. There was a language barrier, and she didn’t have a good grasp of how to present them. She mulled it over, then she and Hearst, who does speak Spanish, began scouring the galleries and museums of Mexico. The two made a list of the artists whom they wanted to bring to Fort Worth.
Several of the artists are well established, with international museum credits; others are new to the demands of a museum show. The emails and texts have been flying between the Modern in Fort Worth and the artists in Mexico; most of the artists (not all of them Mexican nationals) live in Mexico City.
The curators have been working nonstop on this monumental exhibit for the past year.
As conceived, the collection of works would be unlike anything the museum had put forth: Very few of the works in “México Inside Out” simply hang on the wall. Fewer still are paintings. The pieces are piled in the corner, hang from the ceiling, stack on multiple storage racks; one is scattered around town in multiple locations. The artists have nearly abandoned painting in favor of sculpture, found objects, installations, performance videos, photography, drawing and collage.
The curators knew mounting the exhibition in a meaningful way would mean using unorthodox spaces (such as the area around the reflecting pool), and making significant structural changes to the interior. It would mean hiring extra crew and working directly with artists, who would want to assemble their works themselves.
From the outset, Karnes and Hearst knew it was going to be a labor-intensive operation, the likes of which the Modern had never before taken on. And when working with living artists rather than the dead masters, things change — up until the very last minute.
Usually, installing an exhibit takes two weeks; this one was given four. Here is a peek behind the walls of the Modern during the frenzied last month, as they have prepared to showcase its most labor-intensive exhibit yet
Four weeks before opening
Beginning in mid-August, one month from opening day, workers take two days to dismantle and crate up the pieces of the Modern’s permanent collection and walk them to the basement for storage.
A large load of artwork from Mexico City, with two dozen crates, is expected to arrive any day. This will be the largest single shipment, while other pieces are coming from Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and London. As soon as the big truck arrives, Brent Mitchell, the Modern’s registrar, will supervise the unpacking.
“I’ll sign the paperwork, make sure we have everything, then bring the crates into storage vaults or the galleries,” he says at the time. “We won’t open the crates for about a week. Then we look at them one at a time, pull everything out and do a condition report. It’s more than a cursory examination. If it’s a video, there is not much to it; if it’s a newly fabricated piece, that will take longer.” Photographs will be taken to record how the artwork was packed. They will be used when it comes time to prepare for the return journey.
Walls are going up in the galleries, and the second floor is being bisected, as if the large space had suddenly gone condo.
Extra crew have been hired to help Tony Wright, the Modern’s head of installation and design, make structural changes and additions to the museum. Six of the works are videos, so six viewing rooms have to be carved from the gallery space. One piece needs a long hallway with sound mounted behind the walls.
Painters turn the new walls Museum White, a color from Glidden that is formulated especially for the Modern. A mason has been hired to lay cement blocks, art installers to hang in harnesses from the scissor lifts and tie lengths of monofilament to a ceiling grid.
Tools are scattered about and piles of Sheetrock are stacked at intervals.
Any arriving art will have to go into storage; there is too much construction dust swirling to the sounds of electric drills for it to be allowed upstairs.
Three weeks before opening
Many of the artworks have arrived and the artists have begun to dribble in. Some of them need to assemble their installations.
Damián Ortega, one of the most well-known artists, has arrived to supervise the hanging of his piece, Volcán/Volcano, which is going in the gallery usually occupied by Ladder for Booker T. Washington. Pieces of volcanic rock and glass hang from the ceiling and swirl as if being blown from below, creating a vortex of simulated movement.
With a laser pointer, he is indicating pieces to the installer that need to be moved a few inches, to the right or to the left, up or down, to visually separate them from neighboring pieces. It is excruciatingly tedious work, and they have been at it for hours.
A few galleries away, Thomas Glassford is arranging broom handles, stacking them by bands of color on industrial metal shelves. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them. Many have been branded with hand-written notations for their specific use — for the cocina or for the patio. Glassford offered a bounty of 1 peso per handle to garbage pickers, who would salvage them from the Mexico City dump, wash them and bring them to his studio. The handles bear testament to years of use.
“They have the vibes of so many hands and so much movement,” says Glassford, who confesses a love of devalued materials that can be read in any culture around the world.
The banging of construction is now accompanied by the rattle of broom handles and the shrieking whine of the lift. Scurrying among scenes of activity is Mitchell, who is now in constant motion, moving from the loading dock to the vaults to the galleries, noting where all the pieces are and where they are heading.
Two weeks before opening
More artists have arrived, and Wright is sweating the deadline, taking out his frustrations with a hammer. “Theoretically, there shouldn’t be a whole lot of surprises,” he had said two weeks ago. Now, when asked if he could quit hammering for five minutes so an artist interview could be videotaped, his answer is an emphatic “No.”
Artist Artemio finds his dirt pile. Yes, his work Untitled (Portrait of 450 Murdered Women in Ciudad Juárez)/Sin Titulo (Retrato de 450 mujeres asesinadas en Ciudad Juárez) requires 28,000 kilos of borderland dirt from the Chihuahuan Desert near El Paso. The responsibility of gathering the dirt, before Artemio arrived, had fallen to Mitchell.
How much was 28,000 kilos? An 18-wheeler full? Two pickup-truck loads? No one at the Modern knew for sure. They found out it was one dump-truck load; Mitchell had dispatched a truck to scrape dirt off the desert floor. It would be brought to Fort Worth to be sanitized, so eight-legged surprises would not come crawling out. To move the dirt into the museum, Wright had rented a Bobcat with a front-loading hopper. Loads of the dirt later would be taken to the second-floor gallery, half a ton at a time.
When Artemio arrives, the dirt is sitting outside the loading dock, newly sanitized and ready to go, but it won’t be moved for another week. There are concerns about dust getting into the ventilation system.
The artist has another piece that needs his attention. He has to get over to Neiman Marcus at Ridgmar Mall to pick out some Chanel lipstick. He needs a bright red color to write on the wall: “Yo Soy Libertario!” He uses the Yves Saint Laurent logo and lipstick writing “to represent the left set — the rich people on the left pretending to be revolutionaries,” he explains. He is reassured there is an English term for that as well: limousine liberals.
One week before opening
Artemio’s dirt is in place. It takes six nine-hour days to move it upstairs, dump it on the floor and shovel it high up against a corner. The piece represents the average weight in dirt of all the murdered women who have been found in shallow graves outside Juarez up until 2009, the first time he presented the piece.
Some of the dirt blew away in transit to Fort Worth, some was lost during the move to the gallery, more will be lost when it is taken away at the end of the exhibition.
“This is the nature of our memories,” says Artemio. “With time we lose it. Today the news is all about the cartels and drugs. Next it will be back to oil. Maybe it will return to the murdered women. It’s just a comment; it’s not meant to shock you. It’s just dirt, and nobody cares at the end.”
Teresa Margolles’ cinder-block wall Muro Baleado/Shot Wall (Culiacán) has been reconstructed. Originally it was a nondescript wall, but a gunbattle between police and cartel soldiers left it riddled with bullet holes and marked the site of multiple deaths. Margolles saved the wall.
It now belongs to Museo Tamayo in Mexico City, and each time it is relocated for exhibition, it has to be taken apart brick by brick and reassembled. Wright had to hire a mason who was willing to reset the blocks, each edge carefully wrapped in plastic to lessen the impact of reapplying mortar.
There are now a number of artists on site. The ones with videos are working with John Nuckels, the Modern’s AV specialist, to correct the color balance and sound on their pieces. He had to buy 11 projectors and eight pairs of speakers to supplement what the Modern already owned.
Glassford has come back to hang his ropes of Melamine dishes, strung together like a beaded swag, across the gallery.
Wright is still putting the polish on walls and moving crates to and from the galleries. He pauses long enough to say there are no worries: “We’ve never missed a deadline.”
It is less than 40 hours before the first viewers will be walking through the exhibit. The curators are calm. They have the end in sight. It is coming together. Not everyone can collapse at the same time, though.
There are three openings to sweat: the patrons dinner Wednesday night, the press preview Thursday morning and the members opening Saturday night.
Karnes is giving a talk in the Modern’s auditorium Tuesday evening, so she says she can’t relax till that is complete.
One hiccup already: The exhibit catalog had to be shipped to the printers three months before the opening, and within days of leaving Fort Worth, changes were afoot. Some installations had to be substituted, but it was too late to make the corrections in print. Minerva Cuevas’ stacks of water bottles in her Egalite: Une Condition Naturelle, for example, won’t be coming. The photograph was pulled from the website but could not be ripped from the catalog pages.
Wright has to maintain a vigilant eye for a week after opening just to make sure everything stays upright, on the walls or hanging where it is supposed to. Nuckels will have to be on standby for the duration of the exhibit, because the pesky video equipment can malfunction at any time.
By the time the doors open Sunday, all the art must be in place, the videos running, the floors cleaned. The dollies, drills and forklifts will be back downstairs in the basement.
It’s showtime at the Modern.