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Installing Nam June Paik’s “John Cage Robot II”

Preparators installing Nam June Paik's "John Cage Robot II" (1995) at Crystal Bridges.

Preparators installing Nam June Paik's "John Cage Robot II" (1995) at Crystal Bridges.

Preparator Trisha Parker works to install Paik's "John Cage Robot II."

Preparator Trisha Parker works to install Paik’s “John Cage Robot II.”

Crystal Bridges preparator Trisha Parker has been part of the museum’s prep team since the museum was a set of empty galleries. She has helped to uncrate, move, and install hundreds of priceless works of art, from Charles Willson Peale’s George Washington to Louise Nevelson’s Night Zag Wall.  Every object, be it a framed painting, unframed canvas, or massive multi-piece installation, offers its own set of challenges in the installation process, and Trisha and her team mates face them all with a patient, methodical grace. Most recently, Trisha was tasked with overseeing the installation of Nam June Paik’s John Cage Robot II, a multi-part sculpture with video components that now resides near the entrance from Walker Landing to the lower north exhibition galleries. Those of you who visited Crystal Bridges in the first several months after our opening probably remember this installation from the Wonder World exhibition:  a ten-foot tall robot form constructed of wooden cabinets festooned with piano parts that house eleven vintage televisions.
Preparators installing Nam June Paik's "John Cage Robot II" (1995) at Crystal Bridges.

Preparators installing Nam June Paik’s “John Cage Robot II” (1995) at Crystal Bridges.

It may surprise you that works like this are not simply rolled in from the vault on a large pallet and set into place.  When in storage, Paik’s Robot was housed in some twenty custom-made archival boxes:  eleven for the televisions alone.  There were two boxes of cables and hardware, and five boxes for various sections and pieces. Trisha made these boxes herself to house the parts after it was de-installed following Wonder World. This week Trisha had the pleasure of reversing the storage process and putting the work together again. The body of the work:  the cabinetry that creates the robot shape—comprises five units:  the head, the chest, one arm, and two legs. These had to be set up first, with the help of three team members to lift the weighty segments into place. Next came the placement of the eleven televisions, each of which has a specific place and a specific orientation:  some are upright, some turned to the left or right, and some upside down.  Directions for their placement are written inside the back of each cabinet.
A back view of the Paik reveals the network of wires that connect eleven TVs to two DVD players.

A back view of the Paik reveals the network of wires that connect eleven TVs to two DVD players.

“There are two sets of DVDs,” Trisha explained. “One set lives with the sculpture, and the other set is kept by the registrars. We have spare TVs, too, which thankfully we’ve never had to open.” Once the cabinetry and video is set up, the detail-work begins.  Sections of piano parts that make up the hand and embellishments on the shoulder are attached, and then each of the 51 individual piano hammers must be screwed carefully into place one by one. The hammers are each individually labeled with a paper label attached by a string.  These labels correspond to matching labels attached to individual screws on the front of the sculpture. A set of Xeroxed and labeled photographs show Trisha the exact angle at which each hammer should be installed. Preparator Claire Pongonsis removes the labels and inspects each hammer before it is installed, while Trisha does the actual placement.
The completed installation.  Nam June Paik, "John Cage Robot II," 1995.

The completed installation. Nam June Paik, “John Cage Robot II,” 1995.

“This is one of my favorite pieces in the collection,” Trisha said. “But one of the things you learn in doing this work is that some of the greatest things can cause the greatest headaches. It’s the nature of using found objects.  They’re very delicate. Some of the materials may not be in the best condition when they were found, and some are broken on purpose.  You have to be very patient.” The whole installation takes a total of three days. The end result of all this careful preparation is a fascinating, complex, and unique work of art that will be a sure conversation-starter among Museum visitors. Be sure to make a point of seeking out Paik’s John Cage Robot II on your next visit.

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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