Building the Sky

For years I have longed to make full use of our museum galleries’ great ceiling spaces. With the exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky, we not only had the chance to do something special with the Getty Gallery “sky,” as it were, but our first-ever opportunity to integrate the full play of daylight within the space into the design. The team jumped right on board with the idea and began to think of different ways we could use the ceiling not only as a visual element but as an interactive component that would add to the show’s content as well.

View of the sky in the Women Hold Up Half the Sky gallery

This is how Wish Canopy, a commissioned work by architectural office Layer, is looking these days. Colorful and luminous.

The Los Angeles–based architecture practice Layer was approached to create an installation that would somehow represent the sky. One major inspiration was Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree project. For Wish Tree, people are invited to write their personal wishes for peace and tie them to a tree branch. The fact that our “sky” would be mostly out of reach of visitors precluded a hands-on interaction with the artwork in the same manner as for Wish Tree. Nonetheless we wanted the installation to be more than a sculpture and provide an outlet for creative and affective responses to the exhibition’s content.

Consulting curator Karina White (left) and Layer co-founder Lisa Little discuss prototypes in Layer’s offices in Venice.

The team came up with the idea of inviting each visitor to write down a wish for girls and women around the world and have it added to a “sky of wishes.” The resulting sculpture, which would transform over time, would give visual testament to the power of collective action to effect change.

The first steps in creating the work were to determine the shapes, sizes, and colors of both the wish containers and the wish materials. It was determined early on that the sky would need to be “empty” at first and fill in over time as visitors’ handwritten wishes were added.

Blueprints of the proposed installation. Top: Bird’s eye view of the plan. Bottom: Side view of the plan.

Once a plan was conceived, it had to be tried out in the actual space.

Skirball architect Moshe Safdie’s ceiling looked stunning as a backdrop to this prototype. Not usual for this gallery, which often houses light-sensitive materials, the skylights are open, letting natural light stream in.

Modifications were made based on these prototypes and a new plan was put into production.

This is how architectural software envisioned the new plan, but of course software doesn’t actually build things. That’s where we come in.

Some of the metal armature. Not quite IKEA!

To allow for easy adjustments, ropes were used to hold the work’s metal armature in place until all of the sections were connected.

Emily White (of Layer), John Hirsch, Christian D’Amico, Lisa Little (of Layer), and Philip Griswold install the armature and first wish containers.

Lisa Little and Christopher Day of Layer install wish containers.

Layer co-founder Emily White installs wish containers. You can see the network of chains that support the individual containers.

Emily (with arm outstretched) and Lisa (standing on scissor lift) discuss the shape as it takes form. This is the point where “design meets the real world” and quite often when adjustments need to be made.

Visitors are asked to “Share a wish for a woman facing a difficult situation” or “Share a wish for a girl or women you know.” The responses we’ve seen are heartfelt. Photo by Carren Jao.

There are four separate stations in the gallery where visitors can fill out their wishes. They can choose to keep them private and put them in a slot to be gathered later, or they can choose to hang them near the stations so that other visitors can read them (a selection of wishes is also posted online). Museum staff gathers them a couple of times a week and installs them overhead in Wish Canopy, which is what Layer’s commissioned work was ultimately named.

Beneath Wish Canopy, a visitor takes a moment to write down her wish for women and girls.

To many visitors, the shape of the wish paper resembles birds or hearts. Either interpretation works fine in the context of this exhibition.

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Posted in Behind the Scenes, Design, Exhibitions, Museum, Women Hold Up Half the Sky and tagged , .

About Tom Schirtz

Tom Schirtz is Head of Exhibition Design and Production at the Skirball. He’s also an artist, graphic designer, photographer, writer, Air Force Veteran, and onetime short order cook. As a printmaker and curator, he has worked with the likes of Richard Serra, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Ellsworth Kelly. His favorite memory of that period of his life is sharing zucchini with Alan Ginsberg (long story). Tom is smitten with the Southern California desert and considers a particular (secret) peak in Joshua Tree National Park his favorite place in the known universe.

One comment on “Building the Sky

  1. Michelle on said:

    I am absolutely in awe. I absolutely love this entire concept. What an amazing project. I am so thrilled this blog has been set up so this great project could be shared. I only wish I could see it in person. I don’t know how long it will be up, but I hope long enough for me to see it the next time in LA.

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