Baroque Bones and Challenging Loans: How to Ship an Abramović Installation

Six thousand pounds of cow bones after cleaning at Skulls Unlimited.

In late 2008, six thousand pounds of cow bones sat boxed in a Dutch warehouse. Marina Abramović, whose retrospective is on view at MoMA, had requested that we ship the bones, a major component of her installation Balkan Baroque, far in advance of the exhibition. We could not have anticipated that the next fifteen months would involve our learning about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), incineration plants in New Jersey, the dearth of slaughterhouses in the western United States, or that a place called Skulls Unlimited existed.

In order to ship the cow bones to the United States we had to apply for an import permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We submitted an affidavit stating that the bones had been sterilized in boiling water at 100 degrees Celsius for ten hours and cleaned with a hot-water polishing machine, ridding them of any sinew, flesh, or hide.

USDA-APHIS Veterinary Services were concerned about BSE—better known as mad cow disease—in ruminants. However, they would make an exception for us to temporarily import the cow bones, provided the bones would remain in a controlled museum environment. Months passed before we received the permit; once the bones were declared officially safe, they were transported to New York by boat.

Bones before cleaning. Photo: Susan Palamara

Shortly after the bones’ arrival I went to complete a condition check. Upon opening the first container, we noticed a waxy tallow exuding from the bones, along with scattered, darkened areas and a distinct odor. Lynda Zycherman, our sculpture conservator, viewed the bones and agreed that the bones were not fit for exhibition because of the moldy odor and the likelihood that insects would be attracted to the fat. However, due to the restrictions imposed upon us by the USDA permit, we had only two options: incinerate the bones, or return them to the country of export.

Could we buy new bones? While I was pricing incineration options, Lynda Zycherman conferred with the osteology prep lab in the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. She learned about Skulls Unlimited, a facility in Oklahoma that could clean the massive pile of bones within the remaining, and rapidly dwindling, months.

The last hurdle we faced was requesting an amendment allowing us to transport the bones cross country. The USDA was apparently not moved by the fact that Balkan Baroque had won the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Biennale. But, much like Abramović herself, our endurance prevailed, and after repeated appeals, last summer we were given the permit to ship the cow bones to Oklahoma. The talented staff at Skulls Unlimited sent us periodic updates of the cleaning process, and the successful outcome is on view on the sixth floor.

Installation photograph of Balkan Baroque in the Marina Abravomić: The Artist Is Present exhibition. Photo: Jason Mandella