‘370 Balls’ and counting: working with contemporary artworks

By Rowan Berry

I am an archive intern at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. I have been funded by GCAS (Graduate Career Advantage Scotland) to spend five months working within the archive to contextualise and develop my learning, following an Information Management and Preservation PgDip.

I was invited to take part in a cross departmental ‘Stores Plus’ project working on Martin Creed’s Work No. 370 Balls in October 2022. The aim of the project was to audit and document the work, and in this process consider conservation needs, the artwork identity, and the approach we should take to the replacement of lost or damaged elements.

The work was created in 2004, and constitutes approximately 900 balls of various sizes, materials, weights, colours and functions – to be installed on the ground within a gallery space. The work has been shown twice, once at Hauser & Wirth in 2004, and then again in 2006-2007 as part of the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) Off the Wall exhibition at Modern One. The work was conceived to be walked through, and interacted with, however it was decided that for Off the Wall this would not be allowed. Following this show the balls were audited, photographed, and packed into five custom made crates.

There were five of us involved across the eight days of processing, and we had three additional team members supporting and facilitating us. The team included an assistant registrar, a sculpture technician, paintings conservators, the head of collections information and data asset management, the stores manager, a volunteer and myself. The multi-disciplinary skills that this varied team brought to the project enabled us to consider the audit of this artwork from various angles, allowing us to develop approaches as we worked to guide its care and documentation now and in the future. In turn this meant that we were able to maximise our time, collaborate and discuss as the project went on.

We did a lot of documentation preparation work and set up multiple workstations across the store before the crates were opened. Some of the team had a test day before the official kick off, to check that the IT systems, space and processes worked. With some trial and error, we worked out a workflow that allowed us to process the large number of components in a streamlined and organised way. The balls were firstly identified, based on photographs and descriptions from 2007, and each one was given a paper label to act as a ‘passport’ as it travelled through the stations. Next the balls moved to be condition checked, and from here they were measured and photographed deflated (if applicable), and then described. The balls then moved to the inflation station, before sitting in a waiting area so that we could monitor them overnight in case they deflated. The balls then returned to the condition check table where they were marked as ‘exhibitable’ or ‘not-exhibitable’, before being packed back into the crates.

There were several common themes in the 20 or so balls that were deemed ‘not-exhibitable.’ For example, several ping-pong balls had imploded, and a few of the soft rubber squishy balls had become sticky, leaving an oily residue on hands and surfaces. Some of the most interesting casualties were rubber bouncy balls which appeared to have been put in the crates whole, but over their 15 years in storage had petrified and crumbled.

The individual team members each held and interacted with most, if not all of the balls, but we did not actually seen the artwork as it is intended to be installed, as we only opened one box at a time. Due to the sheer number of components, it was necessary not to linger on any single item for too long. Dubious terms in the description fields (‘texture like a crumpet’ being a highlight) were necessary to get across the essence of the items, knowing that a process of data cleaning would be undertaken after the project. Additionally, there were lots of balls of the same type, but in different colours or sizes. The data cleaning will enable us to standardise the descriptions for these items.

We have some new and outstanding questions following the project.  In particular, the project prompted us to consider if the work is incomplete without the 20 ‘not-exhibitable’ balls, and if so how we might replace them while retaining the object’s authenticity. There are also questions about how the public should be allowed to interact with the artwork, concerning both materiality and risk. The next steps are for us to review our institutional documentation relating to this work and consider these questions ahead of a proposed loan in 2023.

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