In order to hang El Anatsui's 33-foot-long tapestry "Gravity and Grace" at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach, staffers last week gripped sections of the aluminum piece and raised it up the wall using several synchronized scissor lifts. Such was the way the museum handled most of the Ghanaian artist's fragile works, a series of hanging sculptures that clog up entire rooms, from floor to ceiling, with thousands of individual liquor-bottle caps linked with copper wire.
Composed of scrap material collected from distilleries in Nigeria, where the artist now lives, the majestic tapestries found in El Anatsui's midcareer survey at the Bass represent the artist's first solo show in the United States. The crushed, flattened and twisted bottle caps symbolize West Africa's limited recycling technology and the "huge piles of detritus from consumption," Anatsui explains in an interview with Ohio's Akron Art Museum. But if the show seems like some grand, sweeping statement about recycling in Africa, the Bass' chief curator, Sylvia Cubiñá, says these works are too "complex" to be pigeonholed.
"The detail and hard work that goes into these installations is astonishing. You can't escape the idea of just how much time it takes to piece them together," Cubiñá says of the 27 works during a tour at the Bass. "It doesn't make sense to dwell on why he uses these kinds of materials. He is creating beauty, and these are his paintbrushes."
Flanking the first-floor staircase of the Bass Museum are El Anatsui's "Peaks," a series of floor sculptures composed of hundreds of condensed milk-can lids connected by copper wire. They're named after the Dutch brand of milk commonly found in Nigeria and for their mountaintop-like appearance, says Jose Diaz, the museum's curator of exhibitions. Each sculpture can be collapsed and manipulated differently depending on the whims of the host museum, so no El Anatsui exhibition is ever alike, he says.
"I've never had as much creative license with an exhibit ever," Diaz says. "There's definitely a level of trust here."
Creative license went into El Anatsui's biggest installation: "Gli," in which five enormous tapestries fill a single room. Four are suspended from the vaulted ceiling and hover like tattered cloth just above the floor. The abstract-patterned tapestries stretch roughly 30 feet lengthwise and are composed of thousands of rum- and gin-bottle-cap rings, each threaded with copper wire. The fifth piece, laid across the floor like a multicolored carpet, contains bottleneck labels bearing the names of foreign liquor brands.
Other whimsical pieces include "Drainpipe," in which eight snakelike condensed-milk-lid structures are splayed like vines across the walls and floor; and "Ozone Layer," a tapestry whose individual bottle caps move and rattle thanks to air blowing from a nearby low-velocity fan.
"These are made of heavy metals that explore the relationship between the floor and wall," Diaz says. "Even so, I think they're so elegant they seem weightless, suspended by their own grace and beauty."
Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui
When: Friday, April 11, through Aug. 10
Where: Bass Museum of Art, 2100 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
Cost: $8, $6 for students and seniors
Contact: 305-673-7530 or BassMuseum.org