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Question time: Chris Booth, installation coordinator, Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles at QAGOMA

The Weekend Edition

If you’ve ever wandered through QAGOMA’s cavernous gallery spaces and marvelled at the large-scale artworks on display, you’ve not only seen the handiwork of the artist, but also Chris Booth.

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As installation coordinator at QAGOMA, Booth and his team of artwork handlers are the unsung heroes responsible for setting up the gallery’s marquee exhibitions – some of which are massive and technically complex.
QAGOMA’s newest exhibition, Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles, might be one of the most intricate collections ever displayed at the gallery, with spellbinding woven-thread installations captivating the attention of all that have viewed the exhibition so far.
We caught up with Chris to chat about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into setting up an exhibition such as this, as well as touching on the magic of Chiharu Shiota’s jaw-dropping solo showcase.
To start, we’d love to know a bit more about your role at QAGOMA. Obviously being installation coordinator is a hugely important job – can you give us a bit of insight into the role’s main responsibilities?
It’s difficult to condense into a paragraph! Essentially, the core business of the installation team I coordinate is the handling and placement of artworks, and the display of exhibitions across both sites – the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art. The installation team is responsible for all of QAGOMA’s AV, lighting, signage, exhibition maintenance and assistance with internal artwork movement. We also provide technical and labor support to registration, conservation and exhibition-design staff working across QAGOMA. As installation coordinator, I manage a team of staff comprising up to twenty installation technicians – often across multiple gallery spaces. My role is an essential conduit between the interests of exhibition design, registration, conservation, events, public programming and a multitude of other stakeholders within the organisation to deliver high-end and beautifully finished exhibitions. It’s definitely a unique job that I have, and it certainly takes a particular skillset to manage a team of free-thinking art technicians. On top of that I’m often balancing many competing priorities – the pragmatic and technical demands of exhibition and art installation with the sensitivities and particularities of artists and their artwork.We’ve heard that you and the majority of your team are also artists. In what ways does your own artistic background inform the process (and, in a sense, art form) of installation?
Essentially, all of my team – including myself – arrived at QAGOMA with strong and diverse backgrounds in visual arts. Installation is often the job that allows our team of technicians to have a consistent income whilst continuing their own arts practice. It’s also equally important that members of my team work within an environment that celebrates creativity, diversity and inclusivity. Art is something that we collectively share a deep passion for and has honed our aesthetic decision-making process. Being an artist doesn’t always make you a great installation technician, however. What is essential is high attention to detail, great patience and care, technical skill, the capacity to continually problem solve and work respectively and effectively with all sorts of people. Having a shared artistic background and common creative language hopefully makes for a highly functional and inclusive team. My teammates often become great friends.When planning the erection of large-scale works and exhibitions within QAGOMA’s spaces, what are some of the key stages and happenings that take place in the lead-up to and during the bump-in process?
It certainly takes a village to raise a child. I’m only just scratching the surface of all the various stages and heavily invested people who worked on the journey to put this exhibition together and the deeply significant moments along the way. Installation is the last team in a long line of staff and stakeholders involved in development and delivery of an exhibition of this scale and complexity, and in many ways my team faces some of the highest pressure-points as we move toward the deadline of opening the exhibition to public. QAGOMA’ specialist curatorial staff and exhibitions management team do the initial and ongoing groundwork to secure the show and liaise extensively with the artist, partner institution and studio throughout the entire process. Exhibition design and workshop develop the incredible exhibition plan and the build for it, while registration staff and others work through the logistics of transport and delivery of artwork to the gallery. That’s a complex process of organising the transit of the work, receiving it, condition reporting and documenting it and then handing over to myself and my team. In terms of the installation of ‘The Soul Trembles’, it was myself and the entire install team – and Chiharu Shiota’s team of studio assistants – who worked alongside Reuben Keehan, QAGOMA’s curator of contemporary Asian art for 21 days straight to install the show, ensuring it was ready to open and be experienced by the public from 18 June.

Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles is an incredible exhibition, impressive in terms of its artistic diversity and scale. What sort of guidance did the artist give when it came to planning how the exhibition should inhabit GOMA’s ground-floor spaces?
It truly is a beautiful exhibition representing an overview of a very impressive career. I must acknowledge the critical guidance we were given working with Chiharu Shiota’s own highly skilled and experienced studio assistants. Some of them have been working alongside the artist for up to 20 years. It was an incredible experience working closely with Chiharu, her leading studio hands and also Mami Kataoka, curator of the exhibition and director of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. They were all absolutely brilliant and so clear in their understanding and delivery of Chiharu’s artistic intension. Such good people – it’s been a real career highlight for me!

There are a hundred works on display, ranging from large-scale installations and sculpture to video performance, photography and set design. Can you tell us a bit about how The Soul Trembles fills its gallery space and what you consider to be the exhibition’s headline works?
Personally, I feel the standout work for me is ‘A question of perspective 2022’, one of the artist’s major thread installations and a newly commissioned artwork which is now in the QAGOMA collection. I love its form, it’s dramatic movement and powerful visual delivery. I was somewhat nervous about taking on the responsibility of installing this beautiful, highly thoughtful and technically complex artwork.

The exhibition is incredibly complex – what would you say were the most challenging aspects of the installation process in terms of its unique technical hurdles?
Exhibitions of this scale inevitably offer some grand organisational challenges. I describe managing them as something between art handling and an extreme physical, mental endurance sport. I clocked just under 400 km on the gallery floor and over 900 phone calls in the 21 days it took to install this show. I actually really love the super high focus, demands and complexities of exhibitions of this scale…it’s great way to test yourself and to push the breadth of your professional capacities. ‘The Soul Trembles’ certainly had its own unique complexities. It required the coordination of almost 30 installation technicians including seven from the artist’s own studio and 15 volunteers across multiple gallery spaces all running simultaneously. It was a pure challenge of logistical and technical support, topped off with incredibly demanding and highly complex site-specific lighting requirements.

Are there any hidden secrets or finer details that audiences might miss on their first walkthrough?
Not so much hidden secrets, rather the fact that so many good people were involved and deeply personally invested in the journey involved in building these artworks. No one outside the installation crew and artist really understands how much human endeavour goes into making this such a still, emotive and beautiful body of work. I still find myself quite emotionally moved by the magnificent experience shared with those that I worked alongside and the journey we took together. Therein lies the deeper meaning for me – it’s very hard to translate that to the public.

You’ve no doubt handled some timeless works over the years – some very few people have ever seen up close. Are there any pieces that were particularly thrilling to work with, from a pure appreciative sense?
Absolutely! I regularly stop and check myself and recognise how privileged I am to be surrounded by such beautiful artwork and have it all to myself outside of public hours, a complete personal experience. As an example, this time last year my colleagues and I were responsible for the installation of ‘European Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’, an absolutely incredible exhibition. With my colleagues we had the huge responsibility and joy of carefully handling those works, lifting them out of their travel crates and safely getting them onto the wall. I often work a little later into the day, when the team have left and wander around these exhibition spaces. It’s a rare opportunity and an amazing privilege!

Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles will be at QAGOMA until Monday October 3.

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