Hirshhorn Plaza

3D Scanning of Bruce Nauman’s "From Hand to Mouth"
Deviation analysis based on the data acquired from the 2009 and 2013 scans.

Bruce Nauman, "From Hand To Mouth," 1967Bruce Nauman’s From Hand to Mouth is a relief sculpture designed to be hung on a wall.  The sculpture is cast in a synthetic hydrocarbon wax and supported from the reverse by a layer of woven jute fabric strips.

Wax is a vulnerable material that is easily deformed, especially at elevated temperatures.  As such, From Hand to Mouth is an inherently fragile artwork.  To prevent sagging of the wax due to the pull of gravity, Hirshhorn conservators fabricated a removable support bracket that attaches to the back of the sculpture.  To minimize the risk of damage during transport, the artwork is rarely allowed to travel to outside exhibitions.

In 2009, From Hand to Mouth was requested for loan to be exhibited in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.  Facilities reports, showing the temperature fluctuations of the exhibition space, were carefully reviewed before the loan was approved.  As precautionary measures, a custom crate was made for the sculpture and a conservator accompanied the artwork during travel and installation.  

Prior to shipping, From Hand to Mouth was three-dimensionally scanned by the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute to document the artwork’s condition.  3D imaging safely provides an accurate and archival record of an object’s form.  In 2013, the Hirshhorn collaborated with the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office to re-scan From Hand to Mouth.  Deviation analysis, based on the data acquired from the scans collected before and after travel, demonstrates that there was virtually no change in the sculpture’s form.  The minute differences between the two scans (all less than a millimeter) is partially due to the way that wax diffuses light, which makes wax surfaces difficult for scanning equipment to read.

The improved resolution of 3D scanning technologies has opened the door for numerous applications to the field of art conservation.  The scanning of Bruce Nauman’s From Hand to Mouth is the first of several cutting-edge collaborative projects between the Hirshhorn Museum’s Conservation Department and the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office.

Right: Bruce Nauman’s From Hand to Mouth, 1967. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, Holenia Purchase Fund, in memory of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, and Museum Purchase, 1993. Photography by Lee Stalsworth.