Take a closer look at those glimmering foothills flanking the main entrance of the Akron Art Museum this summer. That’s right. You’re looking at discarded lids from canned milk.
Up close, there’s nothing attractive about them. But stitched together in rows with copper wire, assembled in 1,000-lid sheets (each 5-by-8-1/2-feet), then carefully sculpted — one on top of the other to play with light and shadow — they become something altogether new and intriguing.
Still, they merely hint at the overwhelming spectacle of ‘Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui,’ an exhibit so large it fills the 7,000 square feet of special exhibition galleries and spills over into the permanent collection space.
“We wanted to seduce people in the lobby,” says Interim Chief Curator Ellen Rudolph, explaining one reason why she and her preparators — Joe Walton and Chris Ross — chose to break tradition by giving passersby a hint of the current show before they ever enter the museum.
Holding on and letting go
Rudolph and her cohorts had a surprising amount of freedom and flexibility to manipulate the 12 monumental pieces (mostly created from aluminum liquor bottles and copper wire), wooden sculptures and drawings in the show. That’s because Anatsui deliberately avoids providing museums with detailed specifications about how his work should be displayed.
Many pieces have no designated top or bottom. They can be hung vertically or horizontally, stretched tight or dramatically draped, flung from the ceiling or cascaded onto the floor. These are choices left to each individual gallery and choices that dramatically change the size, shape and patterning revealed.
What starts out sounding like lunacy (why would an artist give up so much control?) quickly reveals itself as brilliant. The collaboration infuses new life into Anatsui’s work each time it’s displayed.
While the Akron Art Museum is the lead gallery and first stop for the national tour of ‘Gravity and Grace,’ the show will look different in each new city. To see it here is to see something truly original.
“His works reflect the fact that life is changing and dynamic,” Rudolph says of Anatsui. “He’s just supplying the data for other people to create in their space. He awakens the creativity in other people.”
The works in Akron’s lobby are component parts of a larger piece called ‘Peak 2010’ on display in the collection gallery. Inspired by Anatsui’s West African home, where much of the milk is imported in cans from Europe, the piece carries multiple meanings to its creator since the most common imported brand there is Peak Milk.
Groundedness and glory
If you’ve visited the museum’s permanent collection in the last few years, you’ve already seen one of Anatsui’s curtain-like bottle-cap tapestries, ‘Dzesi II,’ unveiled at the museum’s 2007 reopening.
Assembled in abstract patterns, the bold reds, blacks and yellows mirror the colors of Ghanaian kente cloth. Folded, crinkled and crushed during the installation process, the bottle-cap tapestries take on a sculptural quality as well.
Many of the pieces in this exhibit are larger than the 117-by-195-inch ‘Dzesi II.’ The signature piece is 32 feet wide — nearly twice the size of ‘Dzesi II.’
Anatsui doesn’t see his art as recycling. “Recycling has to do with an industrial process, and that’s not what I do,” he said, in an Art 21 documentary about his work. “Rather than turn old bottle caps into new ones, I give them new life — not as utilitarian objects but as objects of contemplation.”
Majestic in scale and arrestingly beautiful, the deeper power of ‘Gravity and Grace’ rests in its ability to engage viewers, encourage playful interaction and ignite a deeper understanding of the precarious coexistence of groundedness and glory. The show runs through October 7.