Behind the Scenes: Elizabeth Turk’s Wing 5

Elizabeth Turk’s sculpture installation Wing 5 (1998) seems to have alighted in the center of the museum’s newly re-installed sculpture gallery. Comprising three large marble wings with softly detailed feathers carved into their surfaces, Wing 5 is a study in contrast—solid material appears weightless, even buoyant. In fact, each piece of marble weighs several hundred pounds. This past August, the museum’s chief preparator, Gregory Angelone, worked with art handler Ben Gage and a large gantry to remove Wing 5 from its crates and place it in the gallery space. The process would have taken less time if I hadn’t gotten involved.

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Elizabeth Turk, Wing 5, 1998, Colorado Yule marble; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Museum preparators care for art objects and install them for exhibition. They also design exhibition installations, with input from curators. Greg phoned me when he and Ben were ready to place Wing 5’s central wing, which stands vertically on the floor and is the heaviest of the three marble pieces. (The other two wings rest horizontally along the floor and are somewhat easier to maneuver.) I went down to the gallery to find the vertical wing wrapped in quilted pads (to protect its surface) and hanging from the gantry by thick canvas straps and heavy chains. Greg asked if I liked the placement in the center of the gallery.

I certainly wanted to get the positioning of Wing 5 just right. The museum’s sculpture gallery on the third floor is one of the building’s most dramatic spaces, with a 22-foot ceiling height and a large window that looks out over New York Avenue.

Elizabeth Turk’s sculpture, a recent gift to NMWA from the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, is also one of the artist’s most poignant works. Each wing is made from marble that was quarried in Colorado and brought to Washington D.C. in the early twentieth century to be used in the construction of the Lincoln Memorial. Through this work, Turk sought to express the sense of “forgotten beauty, expectations, and hopes” that she perceived in Western culture at the close of the twentieth century.

I walked around the gantry a few times and squinted at the sculpture repeatedly. I asked Greg and Ben to nudge the gantry a little to the right. “Nudge” is probably not the correct word to describe the effort it took for them to move the gantry with so much weight hanging from it. I told Greg and Ben that I thought we had it in the right spot. They slowly loosened the chains to lower the sculpture to the floor, carefully unhooked the canvas straps, and removed the pads.

I wrinkled my brow (and tried to avoid looking at Greg directly). Chakaia Booker’s Acid Rain, a massive black rubber wall relief, hangs to the left of Wing 5. Turk’s white marble wing needed to be positioned a little further away from Booker’s imposing work in order to balance the gallery space. The marble wing had more visual weight when it was wrapped in the thick pads, and I had not accounted for that.

Chakaia Booker, "Acid Rain", 2001; Rubber tires and wood

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber tires and wood

I delivered the bad news to Greg and Ben, who took it in characteristically affable fashion. They expertly re-wrapped and re-strapped the piece and moved it about one foot to the right. I hope you will visit NMWA soon to see Elizabeth Turk’s Wing 5. Surrounded by other superb works from our collection, it is a testament to the artist’s poetic vision and extraordinary technical skills. Its placement is also an expression of NMWA’ s desire to offer guests an exhilarating—and perfectly balanced!—experience each time they visit.

Elizabeth Turk, "Wing 5", 1998, Colorado Yule marble; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Elizabeth Turk, Wing 5, 1998, Colorado Yule marble; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

—Kathryn Wat, curator of modern and contemporary art

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