In the Lab: Installing "Trust Me" by Moyra Davey
CPI conservation technician Stephanie Miles describes the challenges of installing the work Trust Me by Moyra Davey, along with alternative solutions explored by her team to secure the photographs to the wall for display.
Working in preventive conservation means that I often find myself juggling conflicting priorities. On the one hand, I strive to safeguard the collection against damage, ensuring that each object is protected against the agents of deterioration that could cause irreparable harm.
On the other hand, I have a duty to ensure that visitors enjoy unencumbered and meaningful encounters with a collection that belongs to all Canadians. Neither priority outweighs the other, but reconciling them can sometimes be a challenge. I recently had an opportunity to work on a project that put my juggling skills to the test.
As part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto, the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) recently exhibited a collection of works by New-York based, Canadian artist Moyra Davey, winner of the 2018 Scotiabank Photography Award. The RIC requested Davey’s Trust Me (2011) from the National Gallery of Canada collection, a work comprised of sixteen 12”x18” chromogenic prints.
I began by examining the work with Associate Curator Andrea Kunard — my colleague at the Canadian Photography Institute. She explained the artist’s process, which involved folding each photograph, taping it closed with green masking tape, and mailing it to a predetermined recipient. Davey’s method of displaying the prints is to pin them directly to the wall. This allows viewers to see the wide range of physical changes that have occurred as the prints travelled through the postal system: surface abrasions, edge delamination, handling dents, tape residue, fingerprints, postage stamps, and fold lines.
Kunard explained to me that the use of snail mail is a deliberate part of the artist’s process. On a fundamental level, Davey challenges the pristine vision of reality so easily produced by the digital exchanges of imagery via computers and smartphones. In much of her imagery, the artist emphasizes the material aspect of reality, the clutter of daily life, objects that accumulate over time, and dust. Additionally, her process challenges one of the core principles of conservation. Normally, the standard practice of my profession is to recommend interventions that are intended to halt or even reverse the course of an object’s deterioration, but to do so here would be antithetical to what Davey is trying to show us.
Armed with an understanding of the significance of the creases, folds, and other signs of life on the sixteen prints, I knew that conventional matting and framing would not be appropriate. Although that would be the most secure method for displaying these works of art, it would change their physical and conceptual properties to the point of contravening their meaning. How, then, do we respect the artist’s intentions while simultaneously ensuring the physical safety of the work itself?
Photograph Conservator Christophe Vischi and I started discussing and exploring alternative solutions, looking for ways to safely secure the sixteen prints to the wall without compromising or diminishing their dimensionality, or the audience’s ability to view them as the artist intended. The steps we took to achieve this are described below. I wish to thank the staff at Ryerson Image Center for welcoming me and collaborating on this installation.
The original pinholes in the top left and right corners of each print were reinforced with small pieces of museum-grade tape. This is a thin, paper-fibre material with an acrylic adhesive, and is a common hinging material used in displaying photographs. This made it much less likely for the holes in the paper to become damaged or torn.
Each print required an interleaving of polyester film to serve as a barrier between it and the gallery wall, which had been freshly painted in the weeks prior to installation. The film was cut into sheets measuring around 0.3 cm smaller than the prints on all sides. This made the film virtually invisible, while still covering enough of the wall’s surface to be an effective barrier.
The polyester sheets were secured to the wall using museum-grade double-sided tape, as an added reinforcement for the next step.
One by one, each print was secured to the wall (overlaying the polyester sheet) with two pins, each pin going through an existing hole in the print, as well as through the polyester backing. Care was also taken to ensure that the head of each pin did not press too tightly against the print.
The prints were left to acclimatize overnight in their display orientation. Since they had been transported flat, this acclimatization allowed the prints to regain the shape they had "memorized" when folded.
Using the prints’ fold patterns as a guide, two hinges of museum-grade self-adhesive tape were added to the bottom edge of each, securing the prints to the wall without compromising or altering their natural shapes.
A stanchion-like barrier was created by the artist in front of the prints, using rivets and iron fragments that she had collected. This served to discourage visitors from touching the prints on the wall.
Each step in my interaction with Davey’s prints was intentionally temporary, and fully reversible. From the earliest stages of this project, I could sense the irony of the role I would be playing throughout: these sixteen prints — deliberately showing the signs of the lives they had lived — would bear no trace of the interventions I carried out, nor of their time spent displayed bare on the wall.
Moyra Davey’s work will be the focus of a solo exhibition in March 2020 at the National Gallery of Canada. See Trust Me as part of Moyra Davey: The Faithful, a selection of works from her extensive, varied career working in photography, film, and writing, curated by Andrea Kunard of the Canadian Photography Institute.