Minding the "Milkstone"

When works of art are pollen and rice, and even milk, the Hirshhorn Museum gives them extra-special care


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"Laib places the pollen," Viso said. She showed me pictures of the artist shifting pollen into a rectangle about 2 feet by 2 1/2 feet on the bare floor. He collects the pollen from fields near his home, a small farming village in southern Germany. After Laib’s initial installation, the care and maintenance of the exhibition was left to the museum’s curatorial and conservation staffs.

Every morning the conservators went through the exhibition, checking for scratches on the wax and minor damage. There was very little of this, however, because the museum had put on extra guards, who kept an eagle eye on visitors.

Dust collected on the pollen and had to be cleared off with an air can. And bugs were a problem. "You could see where an airborne bug landed and then took off, leaving a gouge," Viso said. "And a couple of times there were tiny tracks where an insect had walked across the pollen. We filled in the holes with the extra pollen Laib left us."

When the show opened, there was some concern about all that pollen. Would it aggravate allergies? Exhibition labels alerted visitors, and a nurse explained to the security staff that pollen lying static on the floor was nothing compared with the airborne stuff outside. To make sure that air currents didn’t waft any pollen into the atmosphere, several vents in the gallery were closed.

To me, the most fascinating challenge was the care and feeding of the milkstone. The Macedonian marble slab, which Laib had hand-polished and hollowed out ever so slightly, has a lip of perhaps an eighth of an inch. The milk must be poured onto it with great precision, and every evening it has to be cleaned off because the milk sours.

One morning before the museum opened, I watched Beth Skirkanich, an exhibits specialist, refill the stone with fresh milk. Removing her shoes, she stepped beyond the Plexiglas barrier and got down on her knees. She tilted a quart carton and, with slow, circular motions, began pouring milk into the center of the stone.

"You have to concentrate, you have to be patient," Skirkanich said, "or it will spill. It’s a deal between the stone and the person doing it. There’s a give and take."

As the milk filled the slight depression, she pulled the liquid toward the edges with her fingers, creating a sort of starburst pattern. "It’s a little like finger painting," she admitted. Adding more milk, she methodically continued the process until milk hovered right at the edge of the slab but never spilled over. Some 20 minutes and three quarts of milk later, the grayish marble had been transformed into a glistening white field.

"If you spill, you know you’re probably not concentrating enough," Skirkanich told me. "The artist trained several of us to do this, and we’ve talked about it a lot, about how it slows you down. It’s kind of a meditative thing to come in to do every morning."

And cleaning it up at the end of the day is not simply mopping up spilled milk, Viso said.


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