Handle with Care

© Image Roman März

When talking about what we call art handlers, most German-speaking people initially think of the exalted, international art dealer, the Kunsthändler. It’s a word for whom the simple “art dealer” or “gallery owner” doesn’t quite have the right ring to it. But the term ‘handling’ refers to the concrete handling of art. The warning ‘handle with care’ on transport crates is directed to art handlers, after all.

And it’s not the cerebral, blurred, general term of ‘art’ being referenced here, the art which Adorno and co. have racked their brains over (and which led to a scholarship of its own), but with actual works of art. In other words, art objects. And if you want to get even more banal or direct: just objects. For in the hands of the art handler, art becomes an object again. For a brief moment, its charged aura is put to the side: its place in art history, all its possible readings and its social-political-aesthetic interpretations are delayed so that it becomes mere matter again. Let’s put it this way: if art were an aging diva, then art handlers would be the only ones allowed to see her without makeup.

The sociological field of art consists of many players whose roles are all intertwined like finely calibrated clockwork. In this field, the art handler occupies a role that is rather rarely seen and therefore even more rarely publicly appreciated. Because their work is invisible: one always sees the work of art after the work of displaying it is finito. One never really wonders how it came about that a horse hangs from the ceiling (Maurizio Cattelan) or a tennis court suddenly finds itself in a gallery (Elmgreen & Dragset). But somehow, it all got there, and it wasn’t by magic.

There is only one rule at art exhibitions and that is: look, but do not touch! Distance is part of what makes up the aura of a work of art. So you sink your hands deep into your pockets and devote yourself to theoretical contemplation. But for art handlers, crossing this boundary is part of their daily routine. They are constantly handling and touching objects before they hang in the museum space charged with meaning, feeling, and history. Yet here’s the catch: no matter how many hot-headed curatorial meetings are held, if the physical activity of installing never takes place, there is no exhibition. Art handlers personify the practical life side of art. The side that is not intellectualized, but, if you want to put it another way, grabs hold of things and leaves everything that is pompous or climbing to spiritual heights out of the equation for the time being. It is the reduction of art to the object that makes their activity so appealing. Art handlers can do anything—and that is no exaggeration. No one works in a more problem-oriented way than someone who builds, dismantles and transports art. After all, especially in times when people are building ever-larger and more spectacular houses for art, the artworks are also becoming ever-larger and more spectacular. This also involves the way exhibitions are increasingly becoming photographable events.

Even when faced with the enormous scope of some of these projects, the art handlers are the ones in the room muttering, “No problem,” and tackling the task at hand. Whether it’s hanging 140 paintings on a wall that can’t be drilled into for historic preservation reasons or having to build a pool in an interior space—they find solutions. Art handlers come from all kinds of backgrounds and some of their life stories are so fascinating that they should be made into movies. That’s because most of them are artists and they fund their own art
by installing the art of others.

Curators take care of the content of the art; restorers secure its condition for the future. Art handlers make sure that it is thriving in the here and now. In a sense, they are the Zen masters of the business: completely rooted in the moment. It will be interesting to see how the profession of art handling changes over the years. On the one hand, these loosely connected groups are becoming more professional—in the USA, they are organizing themselves into unions to ensure better pay and fixed contracts. On the other hand, the shift of art to the Internet is also depriving them of their livelihood. Just look at the growth of NFTs and digital exhibitions, which need the skilled hands of a programmer instead.

Art handlers also remind us that art not only takes place in lofty theoretic spheres or deep in the Internet, but rather as something concrete and tangible among us. The tightrope-walk between the unpolished handyman/woman and the high-minded artist is all the more strange for this reason. It is the MacGyver-like attitude to challenges that probably also led to the @arthandlermag on Instagram. On their profile, all the uncanny savvy of these art handlers becomes apparent. All of their unusual solutions and brilliant antics (such as making a camera-sculpture out of frozen asparagus) are pictured. It’s not just about showing what you can create from bubble-wrap and tape or the wacky things you can do with fork lifts, but also about encouraging the art handlers to organize themselves to improve their working conditions. And in doing so, they repeatedly point out their greatest means of pressure: without their work, there would be no art to see!