Ringling Installs Yearlong Exhibition

Visual Arts

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY MAY 26, 2017

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s traveling exhibition, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, may not officially open at the Ringling Museum until June 9, but the great task of installing the 12 monumental cast-bronze sculptures is already nearly complete. Arriving on a fleet of flatbed trucks—two per pallet, mummified in protective packaging—and weighing in at 1200–1400 pounds each, installation was never going to easy, but Ringling managed the feat in less than a week. “It’s all run very smoothly,” says Ringling Museum Chief Conservator Barbara Ramsay, “but it’s a very high-risk operation.”

Technically the process began a few weeks ago, when 12 reinforced concrete medallions were poured and set in a gentle crescent on the green opposite the Ringling Courtyard, but the 10-foot-high animal-head sculptures made their first appearance this past Monday. Each would have to be individually installed, its mammoth weight hefted by crane to get the arrangement just right.

Before the crane can even begin to move any sculpture, the team has to find a way to safely rig it—how to arrange the straps and ties to lift the statue without fear of slippage or excess sway. For this, Ringling hires professionals to work with the preparator staff. “Teamwork is essential,” says Ramsay. “A little bit of miscommunication and that’s a lot of weight coming down on someone or on the object itself.” And each statue must be moved more than once. The first time it’s laid on the concrete, the preparators help maneuver it to the proper angle and then mark the concrete where support clamps will be installed. Using the crane to remove the statue, another team steps in to drill into the concrete and install metal clamps to hold the sculpture in place. Replacing the statue with the crane once again, the clamps are bolted down and one installation is complete.

But even losing a day to rain, Ramsay projects the installation will be complete within the week, if not this morning. Setbacks have been minimal. The snake head proved a bit of challenge to rig with its smooth surfaces and lack of catching protuberances, but nothing the team couldn’t surmount. And they’re learning tricks along the way, such as laying sheets of high-density polyethylene (plastic squares) under the statues at first placement so they slide for easy adjustments with minimal crane-work. “We’ve been making refinements as we go,” says Ramsay.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads opens at the Ringling Museum June 9 and will be on display until June 1, 2018.

Photo by Phil Lederer.

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