For over 25 years, Guy Ngan’s large-scale Forest in the sun (1976) hung in the Beehive before being gifted to our collection. Now it’s back on display, exhibiting at The Dowse until September. Senior Digital Editor Daniel Crichton-Rouse speaks to Conservator Textiles Anne Peranteau about the prep work involved, as well as the artwork’s weavers Joan Calvert and Jean Ngan.
If you found yourself inside the Parliament buildings during the ’80s or ’90s it would have been impossible to miss Guy Ngan’s design, Forest in the sun. Hanging in the stairwell of the executive wing (aka the Beehive), it was a mighty, wooly presence. In the early 2000s it was removed and entered the national art collection. Since then it has been waiting for its moment to shine again – and it currently is, on display at The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt.
In preparation for the show, the artwork went through an extensive conservation process, led by Anne Peranteau, and in the lead-up to its temporary move across Te Whanganui-a-Tara, two of the artwork’s weavers, Joan Calvert (principal weaver) and Jean Ngan, popped by to see their handy work for the first time in almost two decades.
Reconnecting with their work
Their initial response was an unexpected one of surprise.
“I didn’t picture it as big as this!” said Joan to Jean. “Did you?”
“No, I didn’t,” replied Jean. “When we were younger, I guess we saw thing differently. Which are my two [panels]? I can’t remember. All I know is they had holes in them!”
The vibrant, abstract designs on each of the six panels (five are on display at The Dowse) are interrupted by numerous holes of different sizes, allowing the viewer to see the wall behind and, perhaps, a chance to fill the voids with their own imagined designs.
The holes are also to lighten the load of the artwork when it’s hung, as well as for very site-specific aesthetic reasons.
“The holes are important because [what you see inside them] is marble,” said Joan, referring to the Beehive’s marble walls.
“If you didn’t see the marble the whole thing would be very flat,” added Jean.
However, like many things in the 1970s, Forest in the sun wasn’t to everyone’s taste: “I got congratulated only two times from the weavers,” said Joan. “[And] some people were rude about the colouring.”
Forest in the sun won the competition for the new Beehive. Joan and Jean were friends in a weaving club together. When the opportunity arose to submit an artwork proposal for the new building Joan was one of 20 weavers asked to design a wall hanging of some 365 square feet.
It was the first time weavers had been invited to submit work on such a large scale. Joan knew Guy, who was experienced in working on interiors of large buildings and asked him to join in the submission. Guy conceptualised and designed “Forest in the Sun” with Joan to weave it. They submitted a small portion of the final artwork and won.
It was roughly two years from initial design to hang, and the weaving took about nine months to complete, said Jean.
“We used to live just around the corner [from each other] and we’d go over when the kids were at school,” she said. “It was probably about nine months for me – it was longer for Joan… Joan had to draw the pattern on the canvas.” (“Oh, that took ages!” said Joan.)
Preparing for a second display
Fast-forward 30 years, and as you would expect, preparing the work for a second display required conservation as the work had accumulated soil and had faded “from decades of light exposure” during its initial hang, said Anne.
“Blue plastic debris from the disintegrating tarps was also scattered across the surfaces of the works. Fortunately, from a structural point of view the panels were really sound and strong enough to be displayed using the same vertical hanging format as had been used originally.
“Also, I learned what accumulated Parliamentary dirt smells like – a uniquely acrid smell!”
Anne continues: “The first step in preparing the panels was to take an inventory of the materials present. The Feltex wool carpet yarns that were used to execute the design are knotted onto a cotton canvas foundation. The circular cut outs are reinforced around the edges with piano wire. And there is a lot of adhesive residue on the reverse; the adhesive would have been used to prevent unravelling of the canvas foundation once it was cut.
“Vacuuming the surface dirt and debris off of the surfaces was the first step. Removing the more embedded soiling was the next step. Because most of this was just on the surface of the “pile” (the cut yarn ends), and because of all of the different materials present in the carpets, the process that I opted to use was more of a blotting method than a full bath or immersion of each panel.
Some new tools
Anne learned a few new things along the way.
“I had to adapt a conservation method that I had used in the past on smaller works like embroidery samplers to suit panels that are over 5 m2 each,” she said. “Once I had tested a small area of one the carpets, scaling up necessitated buying a two-litre capacity garden sprayer. I had to research surfactants and detergents to select one based on its chemistry and the fibre type (wool). Because the detergent I chose works optimally at a temperature below 20 °C, I had to keep it refrigerated until I was ready to use it.
“There is a lot of testing and adaptation of methods that goes along with conservation practice and the way that treatments are developed to suit each item is what keeps it from being routine.
Anne is pleased that Joan and Jean are happy with the result: “their approval meant a lot to me”.
You can see Forest in the sun on display as part of Guy Ngan: Habitation at The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt until 15 Sep 2019.
Anne would like to add:
“I’m really grateful that I was able to work with The Dowse’s collections technician Ana Jerkovic. Ana trained in conservation in Argentina and has been working in Wellington for a few years now. She spent about 30 hours alongside me, and her help was critical to enabling this work to get done on schedule.
“Paul Solly on our crating team made a beautiful custom-made cradle to hold all of the carpets once the cleaning process was finished and they were rolled with archival storage materials. Like every project involving Te Papa collections, a lot of coordination amongst our team and sector colleagues was required.”