Collection Care Diaries: Sculptures vs. Manchester’s Weather

This week Vicky is discovering how we keep our sculptures safe from all of the rain, wind and occasional sun that Manchester puts us through!

One of the joys of a walk around Whitworth Park is taking in the array of sculptures. We have a snowman, bright lights, and some inverted trees, to name just a handful. While these sculptures are present for our sunny springtime strolls, they are also exposed to some of the more violent weather; heavy rain, snow, strong winds, and the odd heatwave.

To keep out sculptures in tip-top condition, our Preventative and Sculpture Conservator, Lou, and our Landscape and Sustainability Technician, Patrick, undertake a quarterly check of all the outdoor artworks to monitor their condition. Regular maintenance is important to prevent damage to the sculptures, the biggest cause of which is water, which we all know comes from the skies aplenty when you live in M15.

Snowman in the fog

Bronze

The bronze artworks within our outdoor collection include Snowman (Nate Lowman, 2014, S.2015.2), Bus de la lum (Nico Vascellari, 2011, S.2011.5) and The Outsider/The Insider (Simon Periton, 2010, S.2011.7). There are a few ways in which weather will damage bronze; the patination will break down in the wind and rain, a blue/green corrosion called verdigris will form as the copper content of the bronze reacts with the atmosphere. This process is accelerated in acidic conditions, for example with acid rain or when fallen leaves are left to decompose in pools of water trapped on the sculpture. The key here is prevention: once a year, in the spring or summertime, each piece is washed with water and allowed to dry thoroughly, before being covered with a layer of wax. The wax acts as a protective barrier against atmospheric damage.

Verdigris corrosion on The Outsider/The Inside

Steel

The three steel works in the park are all painted; Terminal and Untitled are a vivid red (Bernard Moritz Schottlander, Undated, S.2000.2 and S.2000.1 respectively) and Phalanx is an army green (Michael Lyons, 1877, S.1980.1). Keeping the paint well maintained is crucial to preventing rust, as scratches to the paintwork will allow rust to form on the exposed metal. These works are washed once a year to prevent a build-up of ingrained dirt. In general, the more often a sculpture is cleaned the greater the risk of damaging the paintwork. Where the layer of paint is scratched, any corrosion is removed, and a protective layer of wax is added. This is repeated regularly to prevent a build-up of rust.

Damage on Untitled caused by skateboarding.

Stone

The risks to stone come from its porous nature. Rainwater is absorbed into this pore structure and when the temperature drops below zero it will freeze inside the stone. The volume of ice is bigger than water and this expansion puts pressure on the fabric of stone itself. With repeated cycles, this process will weaken its composition leading it to break down and become fragile. This process can cause great damage to artworks such as Maremma Warrior Head (Emily Young, 2011, S.2011.2). The sheltered position of this sculpture in our Alex Bernstein Garden helps to reduce this risk, although standard practice at some galleries is to wrap stone sculptures over the winter to prevent any water reaching the artwork.

Moss forming in Maremma Warrior Head.

Another issue that can arise on stone artworks is the formation of moss or algae, which again grows due to the porous nature of the stone. This can be seen on The Whitworth Park Obelisk (Cyprien Gaillard, 2011, S.2011.1), which is actually made from artificial stone. The algae does not damage the stone directly, but it does change the appearance of the artwork. The algae needs to be removed once a year, because if there is a thick build-up, it will be more difficult to remove potentially increasing the risk of damage during the cleaning process.

Staining on The Whitworth Park Obelisk from algae forming.

Wood

One of our sculptures that has sustained the most obvious damage is Flailing Trees (Gustav Metzger, 2009, S.2009.1), which is comprised of upside-down willow trees set in a concrete base. As rain wets the wood, it expands, and then shrinks as it dries. This process loosens the trees in the concrete, making them more likely to fall or become the victims of vandalism. Replacing the trees is both costly and time-consuming, because the trunks must be exactly the right diameter for the base.

Flailing Trees, when it was first displayed, and in March 2022

Unusual Materials

The most recent addition to our outdoor gallery is Coronation Park (Bending) (Raqs Media Collective, 2015, S.2019.1), which is comprised of a few different materials, each with its own needs to protect it from weather damage. The plinth is made from marine plywood, painted in bitumen. As you can see below, it has sustained some damage. Research is currently taking place to find the best plan of action; if the plinth is rebuilt, a longer-lasting material needs to be used, as having to rebuild every five years is not financially or environmentally sustainable. Underneath the plywood, there is a steel framework, which can be reclad once the research into materials has been completed and the artists have been consulted.

Damage to the plywood base of Bending.
The frame underneath the plywood (photographed on Disfigured, another of the Coronation Park sculptures, displayed at the gallery in 2017-18).

The figure of the Bending sculpture is made of fibreglass, which is strong in itself, but the surface layer or gel coat is more vulnerable. The gel coat is separating from the fibreglass inside so water can enter making the problem worse. We do not know the exact materials used, so again the artists will be consulted to help us find the correct method to re-adhere the two layers, and then fill any gaps so the water cannot get in.

Damage to the resin layer of Bending.

Resins can also be damaged by the UV rays in direct sunlight. There is a possibility that the colours have faded, especially on the side facing the gallery. This can be prevented by applying a wax coating with a UV filter once a year.

Electronics

There are clear dangers from mixing water with electricity, so an important part of the maintenance of Gathering of Strangers (Nathan Coley, 2007, S.2011.4) is to ensure that it is watertight. As it is displayed high above our Parkside entrance, the stability of the scaffolding supporting it is also important; this work is undertaken by the University’s Estates team. Only one lightbulb has blown since 2015, which is a relief, as replacing it requires a cherry-picker to be hired!

Gathering of Strangers, located above the Parkside entrance

Vandalism and Other Issues

In the case of graffiti on the sculptures, fast action must be taken before the ink settles in. The protective coatings discussed earlier make removing any graffiti a lot easier and prevent damage to the artwork. Scratches to paintwork are more difficult and need retouching, and any scratches to bronze can be dulled by adding a pigment to the protective wax layer.

Graffiti damage to Bending.

The Outsider/The Insider is a functional artwork, a gate, so it is more likely to sustain damage as it is used. This can be seen around the bolts. The gate is also hung a little too high, so it could swing in strong winds if not secured.

Scratches in the paintwork on Phalanx.

As the sculptures are in a park, misunderstandings can also cause damage as visitors may think they can use them to climb on or play with, this sometimes results in breakages. This has been the case with the low level sculptures Bus de la lum where a piece of the rope detail was accidentally broken off. We try to prevent this by using clear signage and interpretation to avoid damage to the sculptures as well as injuries to our visitors.

Signage is in place to prevent interaction with the sculptures.

One of our outdoor sculptures has not yet been mentioned; Crawfurd Heights (Jacqueline Donachie, 2004, S.2014.3) is an extremely stable piece of art which requires very little maintenance. As for the rest, Lou and Patrick are hoping to get a dedicated budget for the care of the sculptures, so that they can be safe from the wind and rain!

Details of sculptures mentioned:

Snowman, Nate Lowman, 2014, S.2015.2

Bus de la lum, Nico Vascellari, 2011, S.2011.5

The Outsider/The Insider, Simon Periton, 2010, S.2011.7

Terminal, Bernard Moritz Schottlander, Undated, S.2000.2

Untitled, Bernard Moritz Schottlander, Undated, S.2000.1

Phalanx, Michael Lyons, 1877, S.1980.1

Maremma Warrior Head, Emily Young, 2011, S.2011.2

The Whitworth Park Obelisk, Cyprien Gaillard, 2011, S.2011.1

Flailing Trees, Gustav Metzger, 2009, S.2009.1

Coronation Park (Bending), Raqs Media Collective, 2015, S.2019.1

Gathering of Strangers, Nathan Coley, 2007, S.2011.4

Crawfurd Heights, Jacqueline Donachie, 2004, S.2014.3

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s