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Art Behind the Scenes Contemporary

Conserving “The Suitcase”

For more than two years, the conservation team at the Milwaukee Art Museum has been conserving Robert Gober’s “Untitled” installation.

Children looking into a suitcase in the gallery

For more than two years, the conservation team at the Milwaukee Art Museum has been collaborating with other experts to conserve Robert Gober’s Untitled installation so it can return to the galleries and again immerse viewers in an animated, watery scene, as the artist originally intended. When visitors peer inside the suitcase, they often think the watery tableau is created by a screen. The truth is much more exciting! What you see is a sculpted pool filled with gently lapping water, silicone seaweed, and wax limbs. But this installation, like all artwork, is not inert. Gober made the work in 1997, and over the course of 26 years, mechanical elements became worn and algae grew.

Conserving the artwork started with a visit from an expert in Gober installations, Christian Scheidemann. Under his direction, the pool was drained and thoroughly cleaned. Next, he bathed both the adult and child’s legs to remove algae before making tiny repairs to the wax. He applied fresh paint to the pool and coated it with a new marine-grade epoxy to protect the surface below the water and to re-saturate the colors. Living an aquatic life had taken a toll on the seaweed, and 300 new strands were made, along with new lead sinkers to hold them in place. The seaweed was created in four colors of silicone, following the artist’s specifications.

The next step was to address the environment surrounding the pool, which Museum staff refers to as the “Gober room.” There are two rooms below the gallery floor dedicated to housing the pool and all its equipment. This space gets very hot and humid, which accelerates biological growth in the water. To slow this down, the hot lights were replaced with cooler LEDs that mimic daylight, as specified by the artist’s studio. The new lights were also programmed to be on only when the Museum is open, and new ventilation was added to increase airflow.

The biggest difference with the installation is its sound. A motor and fan are continuously working to create gentle waves in the pool. When the galleries are quiet, you can hear the soft lapping of the water.

The previous motor did a fantastic job creating waves but drowned out the sound. A new, quieter motor was designed and constructed by engineer Franklin Berry, and acoustic panels were added around the pool in the “Gober room” to reduce the ambient noise. Now you can hear the water moving, as Gober intended.

At some point, the gallery flooring around the suitcase had been replaced and did not match the rest of the floor. This was visually distracting, drawing viewers’ attention away from the installation. We worked with Schmidt Custom Floors to correct this. They applied various stains and paint to match the newer boards to the existing flooring. I challenge anyone to spot the difference!

The final step was for the Museum’s object conservator—that’s me!—to treat the suitcase and drain. The installation invites guests to come close and look below, which can result in accidentally bumping its sides. I cleaned dust and dirt from the surface and applied a special conservation-grade adhesive to make repairs and ensure the suitcase’s leather will remain intact. Lastly, I blended any color variations with paint and coated the cast bronze drain and metal hardware with wax to slow corrosion.

Art conservators and curators work closely, often collaborating with artist studios, other institutions, and experts, to fully understand the artist’s intent and maintain the integrity of the artwork as it ages and technologies change. A good example of this is the silk lining of the suitcase. Over time, the indigo silk has begun to fade into a green color. A similar phenomenon is occurring at the Schaulager museum in Basel. Their Untitled Gober installation features silk-lined suitcases from the same period. In that instance, the silk is turning red. In both cases, the color change is a result of the original dyeing process, the material aging, and exposure to natural light. After conversations with both Marcus Broecker at the Schaulager and James Foster at Gober’s studio, we learned that Gober is not bothered by the color shift and, in his words, “appreciates the effects of age on this specific part of the installation.”

The goal of art conservators is to preserve the artwork, not restore it to its original appearance. And depending on the work, such as contemporary installations, it’s often more important to preserve the experience the artist intended with the artwork than the original materials. This herculean project reinvigorated Gober’s intended experience for Untitled. Now when you come to the Museum to visit “the suitcase” in the galleries, you will be able to see the waves and movement of the seaweed, hear the water, and immerse yourself in the piece with no distractions.

This years-long conservation effort was made possible by the generous support of Kenneth L. and Alice E. Kayser. The entire Museum conservation team would especially like to thank our colleagues at Contemporary Conservation Ltd., Schmidt Custom Floors, Clearwing Systems Integration, Franklin Berry, Marcus Broecker at the Foundation Laurenz Schaulager, and James Foster at Robert Gober’s studio.

Stephanie Cashman is the associate conservator of objects at the Milwaukee Art Museum. She is responsible for the well-being of three-dimensional artworks, including monumental outdoor sculptures like The Calling, small decorative beer steins, and everything in between.

One reply on “Conserving “The Suitcase””

This article is amazing. Seventeen years ago I took my granddaughters to see The Suitcase. The exhibit was not available to see that day. I was so disappointed. I haven’t been back to the museum since and I live in Bay View. Maybe I’ll have a chance to take the girls to see it now before I’m gone.

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