Sculptor Michelle Lopez creates installation for ICA exhibition ‘Ballast & Barricades’

The show is the first at the ICA for the artist and assistant professor in Penn’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design

Artist with hands on long metal pipe with fragment of a building behind her and scaffolding hanging from the ceiling during sculpture installation.
Michelle Lopez (right) created a site-specific sculpture with construction-derived materials for a new exhibition, “Ballast & Barricades,” at the Institute for Contemporary Art. 

Michelle Lopez pushes the boundaries of materials in a new room-sized exhibition, “Ballast & Barricades,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). 

The site-specific installation, on display until May 10, features construction-derived materials hanging from, and reaching up to, the 30-foot-high gallery ceiling. Steel pipes, chain-link fencing, wooden barricades, and bright orange ropes fill the room from top to bottom, all connected, balanced by a 1,000-pound piece of a building salvaged from a teardown in Northeast Philadelphia. 

“The idea is that a fragment of a building is acting as a counterweight to support a collapsing scaffolding system,” says Lopez, an assistant professor of sculpture in Penn’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design. “Things that are rising up and things that are also collapsing.” 

Ken Lum, chair of Weitzman’s fine arts program, says Lopez is “invigorating the sculpture sector” of the department “in ways that align with the most vital issues of the day, from spatial politics to object theory extending into the metalanguage of objects. Her ICA exhibition attests to her ability to process these concerns into the most exciting aesthetic experience.”

Lopez says she tries to “push the materials to do things that they’re not supposed to do,” in her sculptures. “All the material is investigated in terms of its physical limitations and cultural components: How can we do something that’s impossible so that your thinking changes about what you expect from encountering these familiar things of rope and barricade,” she says. “It’s changing the logic of the materials.” 

The team working with Lopez watched as her vision came together because the work was created for the first time in its entirety during the installation. For months prior she had been building the components. 

“I think we were all surprised when at the very end we held up some of her ink drawings and saw that they look very similar to what she created in the space,” says Alex Klein, the ICA’s Dorothy and Stephen R. Weber (CHE ’60) Curator. “It was really satisfying for everyone who worked on the show to see Michelle’s sketches brought to life. That was an exciting moment when it all kind of clicked into place.”  

Lopez made each piece with her hands or manipulated them in some way. She embedded rope with steel rods, enabling it to support larger elements. She soaked rusted scaffolding in vinegar baths and painted one side to create “contrasting tension.” She warped wood planks to make barricades. 

“I’m always thinking about how materials can embody the gesture of the body and also embody a certain kind of violence,” she says. 

The origins of the approach are apparent in stand-alone pieces in the adjacent gallery, a mini-survey of her work from the past 10 years. “Blue Angels” is comprised of shiny aluminum folded sheets that she threw her body against to create dents and crinkles. “‘Blue Angels’ came from me wanting to make this hybrid sculpture of an airplane wing and also a feather,” she says. “I was imagining a crumbling, crashing bird.”

A female artist creating sculpture from “culturally associated masculine industrial materials” is a contrast she explores throughout her work, says Lopez, who is Filipino-American, born in the U.S. to parents who are immigrants from the Philippines. “I’m thinking a lot about the masculine terms of minimalism and wanting to critique it a little bit,” she says. “I wanted to respond to it and have these big things also be vulnerable and on the verge of collapse.” 

Construction materials hang in an art gallery during installation with two people up on lifts, one person walking, and the artist intently watching.
Lopez worked with a team of curators and installers to construct the interconnected sculpture on site at the ICA. 

Klein says Lopez is exploring socio-political questions, including nationalism, patriotism, and authoritarianism. “A lot of the material that she is working with refers to the built environment as well as structural systems,” she says, “but also the built environment, everything from histories of protest to the process of gentrification within our own city.”

The ICA, founded in 1963, is a contemporary non-collecting institution known for showing artists in their first exhibitions and helping artists recontextualize their work later in their careers, Klein says. 

Despite that long history, Klein says, the installation was “one of the most challenging I have curated” in her eight-plus years at the ICA. “We have had installations that have gone big before, but this is my first installation where I’ve ever had to bring in a structural engineer and where our crew was wearing hard hats,” she says. “There were definitely things that needed to be worked out in the process. These were not simple things to do.” 

The elements often work against themselves physically, like giant scaffolding perched on tiny legs. “I often talk about her kind of acrobatic skills with materials,” says Klein. 

Most challenging was managing the piece of a demolished house, a gabled window with a shingled roof and brick-rowed base. “We had to figure out how to get it to ICA,” Klein says. “Then we had to reconstruct it and figure out how to suspend a thousand-pound piece of building from the museum ceiling in a safe way that also preserves the magic of what she was trying to achieve.”

Artist picking up long wooden plank in gallery during sculpture installation.
Lopez made or manipulated each piece of the construction-derived materials, including warping wooden planks to create the twisted barricades. 

Several visits by fine arts students, including Lopez’s sculpture class, are scheduled. They will also be invited to public events related to the exhibition, including a discussion on Oct. 16  featuring Filipino-American (Filipinx) artists, and a discussion on Nov. 9 between Lopez and Klein.

Involving students in the project has been a priority for Lopez. As part of a summer internship through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentorship program, sophomore Davaadorj Tserenpuntsag, who is from Mongolia, helped build the installation, and several graduate students have been part of the team as well. Much of the work was done in a sculpture lab Lopez has been developing for Weitzman’s graduate fine arts program in the Franklin Annex, across the street from the ICA. 

“So much of my teaching has been about building and making and materiality but also thinking critically about culture,” she says. “So, I imagine it might be good for my students to see a professor in practice, not theoretically or not historically, but actually building what I demand of them.”

Lopez says she was drawn to Penn because of the fine arts faculty, the interdisciplinary collaboration with the Weitzman School’s architecture and landscape programs, and the relationship with the ICA. “It was important for me to be a part of a community that was really thinking about how to participate in the art world in terms of social and political engagement,” she says. “The ICA has a history of really important exhibitions and engages in the art world internationally with incredible breadth.” 

Lopez was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to fund her next large-scale work, “The Joplin Project,” to create a fully immersive experience depicting a three-dimensional tornado through projection mapping and a robotic and sound composition. She is designing the project in partnership with people in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Music Department in the School of Arts and Sciences. It is planned for installation in Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute next year.

But for now, the ICA exhibition is her “most ambitious” to date. “This was the hardest exhibition I’ve ever put together. I’ve never worked so hard. I’ve never made other people work so hard,” she says. “It feels important for me in the sense that I’m not doubting it.”