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How to transport a huge and valuable work of art in Australia

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Letter from Australia is our weekly newsletter from our Australian bureau. Sign up Get it by email. This week’s edition was written by Northern Territory correspondent Julia Bergin.

A car was crossing three lanes on the highway from left to right.

“You’ve got 100 millimeters to your left. Stay steady, keep straight,” the driver said into the radio.

He was followed by two vehicles with rooftop signs warning of “heavy cargo ahead.” Then came a pair of police escorts and, finally, the centerpiece of the convoy: a massive truck carrying a work of art weighing some 14 tons.

The massive metal sculpture, which is covered in film and netting and secured with a heavy frame, is worth nearly $10 million. Earlier this week, its support convoy stretched nearly a mile along the road. To reach its destination, the entire sculpture took five and a half days to travel from Brisbane to Canberra, the capital of Australia. At the National Gallery of Australia, the work, called “Ouroboros,” was created by Australian artist Lindy Lee and is expected to remain in existence for 500 years.

Perhaps, in terms of time and space, it’s a short drive with a long layover. Perhaps to some, it’s nothing special: all over the world, art is packed, bundled and stacked in various transports to get from point A to point B. In Australia, however, the country’s vastness and unique challenges present an experience that few art movers elsewhere will be familiar with.

National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich said it was not uncommon for artworks to travel around Australia by ship rather than truck, as the jostling, dust, extreme heat, mountainous terrain and curvy roads could cause damage.

“We didn’t necessarily go for the shortest route, but rather the route that would have the least impact on the artwork,” Mr. Mitzevich said, explaining why Ms. Lee’s sculpture of a giant snake swallowing its own tail, made from highly polished stainless steel, chose a “landscape route.”

It’s about 735 miles direct from Brisbane to Canberra, but the convoy that transported the sculpture traveled about 1,240 miles. It passed through three different jurisdictions – Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory – navigating dense city streets at night and long, open country roads during the day.

Fog, unexpected roadworks, oncoming vehicles ignoring police blockades and road maintenance work including removing signs and cutting down trees all caused delays. Vehicles were moving at speeds as slow as 3 mph and as fast as 50 mph, depending on hazards and conditions.

Ms. Li, the creator of “Ouroboros”, followed the convoy throughout the journey. She said she admired the drivers’ ability to drive in treacherous terrain and extremely narrow spaces.

“I was backing a small car out of a Westfield car park!” she said, referring to one of Australia’s major shopping centres. “And they were driving this huge car an inch from the wall.”

She was amazed at the skill and scale of the record-breaking transport operation – who knew it would be the largest item transported in central Canberra?

Jon Kelly of Heavy Transport Assets, which oversaw the transport, said with typical Australian understatement that the relocation itself was not difficult.

Mr. Kelly has been in the business for 25 years and he and his team have moved items including offshore oil rigs, tunnel boring machines and cranes that are 74 yards tall and 38 yards wide. Although moving art was a first for him, Mr. Kelly said the same technical rules apply.

“From an execution standpoint, it’s 2 out of 10. But from a paperwork standpoint, it’s 11.75 out of 10,” he said with a laugh, listing the approvals, permits, feasibility studies and capability tests needed over two years to prove his company could do the job.

“You’re dealing with Canberra, you’re dealing with the National Gallery, you’re dealing with people and consortiums who are used to shipping objects that are one-tenth the size of what we do,” he added. “They come from a very different industry to my industry of shipping, and they’re a pretty nervous bunch.”

Although transportation is not new to the art world, few artists engage in it. Typically, works are either shipped to their destination once completed, or the artist assembles them on site.

But for Ms. Lee and Mr. Kelly, a week on tour with “Ouroboros” quickly bridged that divide and dispelled any clichés they might have held about each other’s worlds.

“I had expected Lindy to appear in the first few hours and then slowly fade away and join us in Canberra, but she was steadfast throughout the journey,” Mr Kelly said. “She never left my operator or the truck during the entire journey.”

“I think,” he added, “she’s actually a converted big-rig truck driver now.”

The commute is also a cultural experience for truck drivers, who encounter the sculpture and its highly alert entourage when their trucks stop at a heavy vehicle rest area in a major rural town.

Ms. Li said many people were stunned, confused and asked what it was. But for her, explaining to onlookers that her artwork was not from the stars added to its meaning.

“My work is about connection,” Ms. Li said.

“I’ve been changed, really changed, by the wonder of them.”

Here are this week’s stories.



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