The Magic of the Conservator – Ensuring Art Does Not Disappear
As with many advances in industry and technology, we can thank war for increasing the interest in research for art conservation. After the Great War, the British Museum unpacked its collections after wartime storage in the Underground railway tunnels. Many items had unexpectedly deteriorated in a relatively short time; iron had rusted, bronze developed green corrosion, pottery and stone objects were covered in growth of salt crystals. The museum then decided to set up a permanent scientific research laboratory to further its understanding of the causes of deterioration of materials and learning methods of treating its ...view middle of the document...
Since many works of art using non-archival materials have already noticeably changed as they age, conservators are establishing acceptable intervention practices on contemporary work. Restoration is a standard practice in traditional techniques such as oil, tempura, marble, bronze and wood. However, non-conventional materials have required conservators to investigate the artist’s philosophy. If the artist used a specific material to represent artistic expression, restoration of the material may not only change its physical appearance, but its conceptual intent. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works (A.I.C.) maintains a code of ethics and recently launched a WIKI for a collaborative knowledge base that conservators can consult.
Eva Hesse is well known for having worked in notoriously archivally unstable materials. In the forty years since her untimely death, her sculptures have chemically restructured themselves. The latex has turned opaque and the fiberglass has grown brittle; more than a dozen works have been deemed “unexhibitable” by curators because her work was not about degradation. Hesse used latex in a way not intended by the manufacturer; casting it and brushing layer upon layer to build up surfaces, embracing the defects such as bubbling and sagging. The essence of her work was exploring the fragility of the materials which is also the beautiful irony that conservators are now grappling with.
Even more of a challenge to conservators is work intentionally made from ephemera. This increase in unconventional materials has even provided a niche market for conservator Christian Scheidemann, who has advised on how pigeon guano would affect an acrylic coffin (a Matthew Barney installation, Ehrich Weiss Suite) and how to repair a glitter-encrusted ball of elephant dung (from a Chris Ofili painting). Scheidemann has created manuals explaining how to store, handle and display complicated artworks.
Today’s artists are experimenting with materials intended to be consumed, not preserved; chocolate, lard, and fruit are now practically common materials. Felix Gonzalez-Torres used consumable materials to provide narrative about mortality. Candy pieces are piled up and the viewers are invited to eat the candy, so the piece is slowly consumed; it can be re-created, but it can’t be preserved, an appropriate metaphor for death. Gonzalez-Torres died in 1996, with few directions aside from the ideal weight of the pile, so the curator and conservator then determine how it should be re-created. This raises the question, is it the museum’s responsibility to interpret artwork?
Zoe Leonard’s Strange Fruit (For David) from 1992-1997, was not originally intended for public viewing. She began working on it as a way to work through mourning the loss of a friend. The piece consists of 302 peels of bananas, grapefruits, lemons, and oranges, which are sewn with thread, wires, zippers, and buttons. ...