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Hanging the Heads

The installation of Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964–1977 (opening tomorrow!) took place over the last four weeks, with a team of museum curators, designers, conservators, technicians, and preparators putting together its many complex components. As a curatorial intern in the Photography department, I had the opportunity to take part in the installation, which was particularly exciting for a number of reasons. The first was that this is not your standard photography exhibition. The works included are so diverse that installation of a single work was not as simple as hanging a framed photograph on a wall. And for some pieces, specific notions about how the work should be installed and what kind of space it should occupy were critical to the artists—many of whom are still alive. Working with curators, conservators, and preparators to understand the ideas, materials, and space that make up a work of Conceptual art often felt like unlocking the layers of meaning and unexpected humor behind each piece.

While the exhibition was organized by the Art Institute, approximately half of the works in this exhibition are international loans, some of which have never been exhibited in the United States. It was fun to watch these pieces arrive from far and wide and then be unpacked for their debut at the Art Institute! One such work, Braco Dimitrijević’s Casual Passers–by I met at 1.15 pm, 4.23 pm, 6.11 pm, in Zagreb, 1971, arrived several weeks ago from Vienna, Austria. The work consists of three photographs of strangers the artist encountered on the street, which have been blown up to monumental size (approximately 12 x 10 ft.). In earlier installations, the images were hung as banners on bus shelters, billboards, and prominent buildings in Zagreb’s Republic (now Jelačić) Square. By monumentalizing the faces of anonymous citizens in the places typically reserved for state leaders, celebrities, or historical figures, Dimitrijević disrupts the ways we perceive and accept visual displays of power. This time, the oversized anonymous portraits are hung in the Reading Room of the exhibition, where their monumental scale fills the walls and dwarfs visitors.

The work arrived rolled, just as banners and billboards would, but they did not come on printed paper. Rather, the images were printed photographically by coating canvas with photographic emulsion. Installing the work involved unrolling and laying out each individual canvas and then mounting it on the wall with the help of ladders, lifts, and the help of up to six preparators. It was a full day’s work, done under the skeptical gaze of one of Dimitrijević’s subjects—a man who to me has an uncanny resemblance to Robert Duvall.

Learning about Dimitrijević’s installations and their various presentations over the years made me think about how its political implications and the physical challenges it presents are key parts of the work. Like all the works in Light Years, Casual Passers–by has more to it than meets the eye. You can learn more about all of the exhibition’s artists and the ideas behind their works in the Reading Room—if you don’t mind being watched!

—Julia D., Curatorial Intern, Photography

Image Credit: Braco Dimitrijevic (Bosnian, born 1948). Casual Passers-by I met at 1:15 pm, 4:23 pm, 6:11 pm, in Zagreb, 1971. Three canvases with gelatin silver emulsion and a gelatin silver print. Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna