This article will focus on the hanging solutions of a series of large photographic panels, part of the work How to Look….. by Babette Mangolte, originally made in 1976-78. It is on display at Tate Modern for a year, until July 2018. Mangolte’s display, How To Look… (2017), was planned by Tate Curator Valentina Ravaglia, with much input and communication from the artist, as well as the artist attending a planning meeting and being present for the installation of the works. This presented a unique situation for myself, as a conservator, being able to work alongside the curator and artist, to ensure not only that the work was put on display safely but was also still aesthetically as intended.
French-born, New York-based artist Babette Mangolte is described as “One of the most significant photographers and cinematographers of her generation, and a chronicler of visual art, performance, dance, and theatre from the 1970s to the present day.” (Taylor, 2010).
The work itself is a multi-part installation, composed of 451 black and white photographs, taped together into 23 panels of varying size. It was these panels specifically that produced issues with how best to display at Tate Modern from a paper conservation perspective, as both an artwork but Original layout from 1978
also as an historical object to be preserved. The advantage of being in touch with the artist throughout made this an interesting process, to share and create discussion on best practice for display.
The context of this artwork has been extracted from the description on Tate’s website (Taylor, 2010):
‘How To Look…., is a room-sized installation that examines how viewers engage with the photographic image. The work is a reconstruction and re-configuration of Mangolte’s first museum installation, A Photo Installation, staged at P.S.1 in New York in May 1978 (Figure 1). In the 1978 installation, Mangolte built a temporary wall measuring 7.3 metres by 4.9 metres high, approximately, which she covered with a grid of black and white photographs. The photographs were all taken in New York and depict a number of subjects: studio portraits of models (predominantly friends of the artist); street photographs of buildings, often taken from dramatic angles and arranged to accentuate their abstract qualities; and more informal photographs, including family snapshots. This wall of photographs was only viewable from afar: a simple railing was situated at waist height in front of the wall, preventing viewers from being able get up close to see the individual images. The artist has described this strategy in a text that now forms part of the work: ‘The distance encouraged an analytical look at the photo variations … The wall arrangement implied creating an order from nothingness.’ (‘Archaeology: The 1978 Original Installation’, artist’s statement from How to Look … 2010.) A prolific cinematographer, Mangolte has described how the installation grew out of her work on the film The Camera: Je, La Camera: I 1977. With the exception of a group of family photographs which document Mangolte’s relationship with her nephew between 1967 and 1977, the prints in How to Look … were made during the shooting of an accompanying film in 1976 and 1977. The film has a two-part structure focusing on the human face and the architectural environment. After its completion the artist was interested to extend this bipartite structure and did so by making composite images using her source photographs. The earliest of these combined an image of a model’s face at the top with a picture of a building below .’
Structure of panels
The 23 photographic panels, originally on long loan from the America Fund, arrived in a crate. The 451 photographs making up the panels were taped together at each corner and most adjoining edges with a double-sided, thick, self-adhesive tape that still had most of the brown carrier protective layer over the top. This tape was an unknown product having been provided by Jared Bark, a fellow performance artist, and the panels were assembled by Mangolte herself (Figures 2 and 3).
The largest panel measures 3458 x 1262mm and contains 85 photographs, whilst the smallest is a single photograph measuring 252 x 203mm. The photographs are all black and white, on a combination of GAF and Kodak Multi-grade paper. Some of the photographs are reprints from 2010, from the time of a display at the Whitney Biennial.
The panels are stored in layers within a padded crate, supported by thick foam-board, both of unknown quality, having been packed before being shipped. The panels were wrapped in Glassine paper, the largest panel having to be folded in on itself to fit and held to the foam-board with paper corners and white self-adhesive tapes, again of unknown quality.
In the first display of the work, at the P.S.One Gallery in 1978, Mangolte herself taped together the 23 panels, which at that point had 441 photographs, directly onto the temporary wall mentioned above, via the top two corners of each panel, using a double-sided self-adhesive tape on the verso. A certain amount of damage occurred at this point, due to the hanging system (Figure 4) .
Some of the panels at this point had a duplicate photograph attached in front of the damaged original, reprints from 2010, along the top row, bringing the number of photographs overall to 451. Presumably this is also when pieces of tissue paper were attached to areas of sticky residue to prevent the verso attaching accidentally to other surfaces. The panels were hung this time by art handlers, over the course of one week, but using the top corners only of each panel again. It is slightly unclear what the eventual hanging method was, but Mangolte specifies double-sided tape in the plan. Again, a certain amount of damage was received.
The overall condition of these panels is fair. This work was made in 1976-78 and has been on open display twice. As such there was a lot of surface dirt and marks on the recto and verso, when examined in spring 2017 (Fig. 5 and 6).
Because there has been a lot of direct handling of the photographs for hanging, the panels contain a lot of handling dents and creases.
There were extensive tears and quite significant skinned areas to the top edges and corners of the verso of each section from old hang methods.
There was a lot of tape residue left on the verso of the panels from the double-sided tape, where the carrier layer had either been removed accidentally or for previous display. There has been attempts to minimise the residue from sticking to other parts of the panels in the past by adhering pieces of tissue paper to these areas. The residue areas have attracted a lot of surface dust and dirt.
From the examination of condition, it was clear that treatment was needed before display, due to the fragility and damage to the upper sections of the panels. It was also necessary to explore a new hanging system, which would not damage the panels again, as with previous displays.
Mangolte is very specific on the way the installation How To Look… is viewed as a whole, having created a comprehensive forty-three-page installation document for the redisplay in 2010. The overall display area of the panels was to be 3456 x 6947mm, including spacing, and the photographs are hung in a grid series on the wall to form one large rectangular display.
Particularly of interest to us as conservators for the potential hanging method is the fact that the panels should at least appear to hang in a loose fashion from the top corners again:
‘As seen in the photo of the wall made at the Whitney, the “blocks” or “modules” were hanged from the top corners and were hanging leaving a faint shadow from the top lights. Those “modules” shouldn’t be attached on the bottom. The sense of gravity of the weight of the prints is important.’ (Mangolte, 2010).
Also, it was of key importance for us to know there is an entire alcove for the wall of photographs. The photographs only hang on the facing wall, ensuring that the public can only see the photographs from the front, rather than the sides. There is also a barrier, preventing the public from being able to get too close: ‘The banister prevents the viewer to come too close to the photo wall, making the serial organization of the 8 by 10 photographs foregrounded. The distance of 12 feet between banister and wall imposes to see the wall as its own entity rather than as individualized photos.’
To minimise stress to the paper, one would usually hang an artwork using a support of some sort, rather than directly upon the wall. It was concluded with the artist that any support added could not interfere with the panels appearing to hang loose, but that there was a small leeway with this as the photo wall cannot be seen in profile, from the side. The initial design for a support system was based on these criteria. In the diagram above (Fig. 7), the support is slightly narrower on each side of the panel, so as to be invisible from the front. The hinges that attach the panel to the board are not used along the lower sides or lower edge, so that the panel appears to hang loose.
Artist interview and communication
Having realised that this would be a technically specific installation, with the artist present, it was important to establish contact. In this way it could be directly established what specifications were still relevant to her for this particular display. This would help in deciding on conservation treatments and designing a more suitable hanging system that would prevent further damage. Initially, an email communication thread was started, along with the curator. At this point Mangolte was not averse to having each panel supported with a backboard, to support the weight of the photographs, as long as it was not visible.
Mangolte was happy with the diagram shown above. As she then decided to visit Tate in March 2017, it was suggested that an artist interview for conservation could be conducted. A list of relevant questions was drawn up, to get more specific detail on the photographic process used, the importance of the double-sided tape holding the photographs together, the hanging specifications etc.
Unfortunately, the interview did not go ahead as planned, due to personal circumstances, and could not be rescheduled. Some board samples were left for Mangolte to look at with the curator on her return, in order to get approval of the thickness of support board. Although particular board thicknesses had been selected by conservation; board, 3mm and 8mm, laminated together, Mangolte decided on the 8mm board alone being the maximum depth acceptable. Once this had been established by her as the maximum depth of the panels in relation to the wall, it then became the challenge to design a robust enough hanging system. The communication continued through email, and Mangolte kindly answered the interview questions with written text instead. At one point, the substitution of some of the most damaged photographs with duplicates that the artist still has in her possession was offered by Mangolte. This was deemed not necessary as the treatment had provided a visually satisfactory result.
To avoid damage due to the size of the panels a team of conservators had to carry out the treatment. A large table was needed, as well as a large room that would accommodate the size of the crate. Time was estimated to 900 hours, not including the design and implementation of another system of attaching the photographs together using conservation materials. Due to a six-month turnaround for
the conservation of this project, priority was given to repairing tears and removing sticky residues. As the double-sided tape was part of the original assembly of the artwork, carried out by the artist herself, it was also felt that it is integral to the work, despite being non-archival. The focus was on making sure that the panels were display ready, and that the hanging would not further damage the panels.
The verso of each panel was surface cleaned using Staedtler eraser and a soft brush. The recto of each panel was surface cleaned using a dry microfibre cleaning cloth. Any sticky adhesive residue on the verso was removed using a crepe eraser block. Any sticky residue on the recto, and any stubborn remaining adhesive on the verso, was cleaned with a minimal amount of acetone, using cotton wool swabs (Figure 8 and 9). Tears and skinned areas were repaired on the verso only, using 10% Klucel G in ethanol where possible. Where the area required a stronger repair, 10% methyl cellulose in water was used instead. Tosa Tengujo,11gsm, was used to reinforce the tears and skinned areas.
Development of a hanging solution
The initial idea was based on the diagram given to Mangolte, and approved by her, on condition of the board depth not being beyond 8mm. A paper-covered, acid-free board of the best quality and strength was used to provide a near invisible support, with a simple paper hinge system around the edges to fix the panels individually to the supports. The largest panel was bigger than any board that the manufactured offered though, which meant that a jigsaw fitting of two large support boards would be necessary.
The next stage was to brainstorm how to hold the board to the wall without creating too much added depth again. There was a range of metal fixings, some of which the manufacturer had examples of, that could be embedded into the board, so that the board could simply slot into wall fixings. An aluminium shelf adhered into the recessed side of the board for use in conjunction with mirror plates was one idea. The second idea was to embed a circular metal key hole fixing which could then lift onto metal wall fixings. Conservation technicians made a mock-up of both, but it was found that both of these methods would require laminating two thicknesses of board (8mm and 3mm), to make it strong enough for cutting recesses and holding metal fixings without wearing down of the paper-covered boards, especially along the edges. Lamination of the board without causing off-gassing or long-term acidity and discolouration was selected on the basis of several conservators’ experiences with the use of Neschen Gudy 831. The problem now was any possible warping that could occur through laminating such large sizes, the strength and success of the lamination over a year-long display, and the overall depth of boards being (11mm plus).
A split batten system made of wood or acid-free board was considered. As the panels needed to look like they were hanging loose, simply hinging a batten to the top edge of each panel would achieve the criteria. However, the paper conservation technicians, who have a lot of experience of hangings, considered the board not to be strong enough for this particular purpose, and a wooden batten would The next solution considered was an overall textile or paper lining, slot-hinged onto the verso of each panel and attached to the wall with Velcro strips. However, Velcro attachments have been known to fail over time, and a year-long display was too risky.
Magnets are another method of display that we are currently looking into and conducting experiments with. For a photograph with a delicate gloss emulsion, the risk of a mark occurring where the front magnet is placed on the work, over the course of a year’s display, is high. An entire false wall was also considered but was not possible within the exhibition build budget.
Finally, a solution was found, based on the original diagram sent to Mangolte but this time using aluminium instead of a board. Alupanel is a commercially available aluminium composite board, with a polyethylene core, available as thin as 3mm, and can be ordered up to the panel size that was needed. It was decided to make a mock-up of a possible hanging system using this. Hinging was carried out on the top and side edges of the panels using Japanese paper, 19gsm from and 10% methyl cellulose in deionised water. Long hinges were used, so that they can be trimmed from the aluminium and used again without the need for intervening with the edges of the photographs again, to adhere new hinges. The lower edges were left unhinged, so that it appears as though each panel is hanging from the top corners from afar. The aluminium supports were cut to the same heights as the photographic panels, for adequate support, but 5mm in from the sides and the top so as to be invisible from the front. Picture hangers were adhered to the back with a metal epoxy adhesive, to use for fixing the supports securely to the wall. For the larger panels, a central hole was cut in the aluminium to reduce the overall weight. The photographic panel hinges were wrapped around the aluminium and taped on the verso using metal foil tape from. Metal rests were also adhered onto the verso of each frame, along the lower edge, so that the frame lies vertically parallel to the wall, rather sloping forward from the top, as it usually would with picture hangers.
A mock-up was made and hung in the exhibition space, where the Curator agreed that this method was acceptable visually.
The panels were hinged to the aluminium on the gallery floor, as they took up such a large space. Once they were hinged, it was also safest to keep them lying horizontally on a covered surface on the floor or on covered ping-pong tables until needed for hanging. Picture hangers were used to reduce direct handling. Genies were used to mark out the grids of the panel layout on the wall and to position the panels in place once the layout was agreed.
Mangolte was present throughout the installation and was happy with the new hanging system. She expressed her satisfaction with the display and the communication with the conservation department.
Once the display has finished, the plan is to find a better way to store the panels. The current idea is to cut the hinges free of the aluminium supports, which will be stored separately for the next display. The photographic panels themselves will need a new crate, padded with conservation quality foam. Stacked trays with recesses for the individual panels will be made of a foam material so that the layers of panels are not in direct contact as before and are not adding too much weight and crushing the lower panels.
It was rewarding to be able to have an open channel of communication throughout this project. Initially, more problem-solving and display ideas were needed compared to other displays, but this gave way to a much more stress-free and well-informed install process. It would be recommended through our experiences of this display to line each panel with acid-free, unbuffered paper, cut slightly smaller than the panels, and attached using slot hinges. This would prevent further tape residues from attaching to parts of the panels and would also create a barrier between the panels and the aluminium support boards during any longer display period. This would be contingent on the barrier paper not being visible and adding an overall minimal depth.
I would like to say thank you to Valentina Ravaglia and Babette Mangolte for the direct communication throughout, which made the project rewarding. Also, my thanks to my conservation colleagues, conservators and technicians, who provided me with much advice, ideas and help, in carrying out the work needed for the display.
About the author
Sophie Sarkodie studied conservation at Camberwell College of Art, London. Sophie then completed an internship the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. She worked at the National Museum of Ireland for two years as the Paper Conservator. On returning to the UK, Sophie worked at Museum Conservation Services in Duxford and then at the British Library for seven years, whilst there gaining an MA in Arts Management. She has been working for Tate since 2012.