Up the skirt of Oldenburg’s ‘Ice bag – scale B’

Claes Oldenburg is known for his experimentation with prints and multiples in order to produce witty, large scale transformations of everyday objects.

Like the other, larger Ice bags that Oldenburg created, Ice bag – scale B (1971) was given life as a kinetic sculpture, mechanically powered from within so that it rises and tilts continually, in a gentle circular motion – almost as if it is breathing.

Caring for kinetic sculptures presents unique challenges, especially when they are frequently on display (Ice bag – scale B can be seen in action regularly in the NGA’s Pop Art gallery). Some of these challenges were brought to light recently in a conservation project undertaken by NGA Objects Technician Roy Marchant, a complex procedure lasting four months, and photographed and documented by Roy at every step in a 100-page instruction manual.


The work was first brought to the attention of Conservation staff due to reports of an abrasive sound emanating from inside the skirt. After a period of observation and assessment in September 2008, what ensued was a bit like detective work as Roy and colleagues painstakingly dissembled the sculpture and examined its components, looking for the cause of the sound.

Under the yellow synthetic skirt of the Ice bag, two motors sit attached to relays, which control the rise and fall of the work from a central mechanism. This mechanism also controls the twisting, tilting action, and is protected by an acrylic dome, which also prevents the skirt from fouling. When all was carefully taken apart (right down to each tiny nut and bolt being bagged, labelled and photographed), the cause of the problem was discovered: a misalignment of some of the motor’s moving parts (the cam arm and the drum) which, although only slight, was producing friction. Hence the grating noise and a  growing pile of tiny metal shavings within the drum.

Roy is quick to point out that this is no design fault, but rather the kind of issue one might expect with any mechanical object that is in constant motion (especially one that was made forty years ago). “Just like a car,” he says, “the Ice bag needs regular maintenance, including having an oil change from time to time.” The re-alignment procedure included, among other things, inserting a number of ‘sacrificial’ elements (such as washers) at points of friction. These allow movement but absorb all the abrasion, and they can easily be replaced by conservators when they eventually wear out. This protects the original components from further wear and tear. All components were also cleaned and lubricated where necessary, and after electrical testing and an observational period in the Conservation lab, Ice bag – scale B was back in action.

This is a great example of a conservation treatment that solves a mechanical problem, while preserving the integrity of the original object. You can read more about this work on the NGA’s Soft sculpture website. Also, see the NGA’s Kenneth Tyler Printmaking website for a fascinating photographic essay about the conception and realisation of Claes Oldenburg’s ‘Ice bag’ theme from the year 1969.

NGA Objects Technician Roy Marchant would love to hear from any other conservators or enthusiasts who have worked on an Oldenburg ‘Ice bag’. So please leave a comment or get in touch.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Claes Oldenburg’s ‘Profile Airflow’ gets some TLC | Beyond Print

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