A man in a black suit sits motionless on an old leather suitcase. He looks like a traveller who has been waiting in vain for his train for so long that he has turned to stone. In reality, the figure is a sculpture by Austrian artist Markus Schinwald, not a real person of flesh and blood.
At present, the work is not on show anywhere, so it is stored in a huge art warehouse. The fossilised traveller seems at home in this secretive place, where time appears to have stood still. «We do everything we can here to preserve sculptures and paintings exactly as they were created by the artists,» explains Cris Faria. The 45-year-old is what is known as an «art handler». He knows exactly how to store precious art expertly, or pack it for shipping
so that it will sustain no damage.
A veritable fortress
This specialist's place of work is located in a vast building with thick walls and armoured doors. It is capable of withstanding fires and even an earthquake. Various Swiss museums have put their precious collections into storage here. In a windowless hall, Faria looks after around 1,400 works by 700 artists that the Federation of Migros Cooperatives has acquired since the 1950s. Some of the works have appreciated significantly in value over time and would now command six-figure price tags on the art market.
The climate in the room is very tightly controlled: the temperature is a constant 20 degrees and the humidity 50 percent. The expert art handler occasionally reaches for a small instrument to gauge the oxygen level. The atmosphere here is as thin as if situated 2,000 metres above sea level. When the last staff members have left the building in the evening, the oxygen level in the halls and corridors is reduced even further. That means any fire would be starved of oxygen and be extinguished immediately. But there is another reason for keeping the oxygen level low: it slows the decomposition of delicate materials over time.
Protecting the building against art thieves through secrecy is more effective than heavily armed guards. Very few people are aware of what treasures are hidden behind its unassuming exterior. «I haven't even told my girlfriend the exact address,» explains Faria. «Even though she's an architect and would love to see the warehouse's ingenious design.»
The expert walks through the Migros Museum's store, which is bathed in white light from the fluorescent strip lighting. He points out various works of art as examples of how each needs to be stored in its own way: large-format paintings hang inside a huge rack - an example is an imposing painting by Californian artist Matt Mullican. He has traced a street map of Paris onto a garish yellow background; as you move away from the picture, a pattern emerges that seems to flicker before your eyes. The large rack is what is known in the trade as a «paintings racking system».
Donkey in a crate
Our expert moves on to a work by star Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan: a stuffed donkey carrying an old-style cathode ray tube television on its back. This sculpture has elicited many and varied interpretations from art critics – some felt the donkey reminded them of Mary and Joseph from the Bible and wondered if the television is our new redeemer. «This work is very well known and we often lend it out to other museums,» explains Faria. «So it's all ready for shipping.» The donkey and television are packed in a huge crate, carefully padded and secured with straps. A layer of insulating matting protects the sculpture against temperature fluctuations while in transit. That is why this type of packaging is also referred to as a«climate-controlled container».
Certain works are so delicate that they degrade even in the warehouse's perfectly regulated climate, and at some point will therefore need restoring. One such case is«Skin Room», a work by Zurich artist Heidi Bucher. The giant piece is made entirely of brownish-yellow latex. It looks like a room that is a living organism, with walls made of skin. «The material has dried out over time and is in danger of cracking,» warns Faria. «We now humidify the latex with distilled water and alcohol and warm it with infrared lamps.» This equips the sculpture for its travels – it is due to go on display at Munich's «Haus der Kunst» in the autumn.
Surfer and artist
How did this «art handler» actually come to be in this unconventional job? He grew up in the Brazilian state of Bahia; his mother was an HR manager and his father a draftsman who subsequently turned his back on his desk job to become a farmer. As for Faria himself, from a very early age he was a determined soul who wanted to get to the bottom of things. He would often completely dismantle his toys and then put them back together again. As a young man, he developed many talents, he was a keen surfer, trained as a yoga instructor and studied conceptual art in Geneva. He then spent ten years working as a freelance «art handler» for Swiss art galleries, including the famous «Hauser & Wirth», which has branches in Zurich, London and New York. Then, three years ago, the Migros Museum recruited him for its secret art depot.
«There's no official qualification for my job», reveals Faria. «It's a skill you have to pick up gradually from your everyday work.» Over time, he has become an increasingly adept «art handler». He has now almost elevated the storage of artworks into an art form in its own right.
Impressions from the museum stock
Photo/Stage: Désirée Good
Video: Shannon Zarman / Daniel Grieser