The materials used to create some conceptual art works can face speedy degradation, raising big questions for contemporary conservators. Florence Waters talks to an expert in the field
If we can pinpoint the beginning of contemporary art history as coinciding roughly with the birth of Postmodernism in 1965, then contemporary is getting on a bit. At half a century old, ‘contemporary’ art has its own, rich history. But, as a genre known for its more adventurous approach to materials — from fruit to frozen blood — it can pose conservation challenges.
‘It’s remarkable how many works of the past half century — because of the degradation of the materials — actually do need conservation already,’ says Dr Erma Hermens, Senior Lecturer in Technical Art History at Glasgow University. ‘But the way artists work with materials now is totally different to any other period in history. We don’t necessarily need to train a new type of conservator. At the moment we need to do a great deal of research into the ethical problems of contemporary conservation and display.’
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Hermens is leading a group initiative bringing together museums — including the Tate — and experts in the field from around the globe to boost much-needed research into what is still a nebulous and increasingly contested area of theory and conservation.
‘We are just at the beginning,’ says Christian Scheidemann, founder of Contemporary Conservation Ltd in New York, one of the very few conservation studios specialising in the restoration of complex conceptual art works. Scheidemann sites a number of ethical issues and problems that need addressing in order to allow art works to maintain their integrity without deteriorating.
The issue: When the artwork’s definition is found in the relation between two different materials.
Example: Joseph Beuys’ Capri Battery (an edition of 200, shown above), considered to be one of his last great works, is a yellow light bulb plugged into a lemon. The artwork is about the relation between nature and technology. Energy is generated for the light when the lemon acid reacts with the copper. Beuys stipulated that the lemon should be replaced every 1000 hours, but gradually this process ages the metal so that the sculpture deteriorates.
Solution? None yet. Some works in the edition have been replaced with fake lemons. Schediemann opposes this: ‘Ultimately with conceptual art, it’s not about how it looks. It’s about keeping the original meaning, which was created by the material. Using a fake lemon destroys the essence of this artwork. This is the very core of conserving contemporary art.’
Above: Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), Capri-Batterie, 1985. Bulb lamp and plug in wood crate. Multiple Schellmann 546; signed, numbered and certified; Print run: 200. Photo: Roman Maerz © 2015. Photo Scala, Florence/bpk, Bildagentur fuer Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin © DACS 2015
Sol Le Witt, Wall Drawing #1126, 2004. Photo: Mondadori Portfolio/Electa/Maurizio Brenzoni/Bridgeman Images.
© 2015 The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London
The issue: Ageing the contemporary.
Example: Sol LeWitt stipulated that his works should always look pristine, which means they would have to be painted every couple of years. Within 20 years paint technology would be changing, the contents of paint changing all the time, and LeWitt’s art work would look very different.
Solution? You might think that when it comes to conservation the artists’ wishes come first. Not so, says Scheidemann. ‘What we’re often trying to do is convince artists to allow their work to show its age and gain history with minimum intervention.’
Matthew Barney, OTTOshaft HYPOXIA --> HYPERTROPHY --> HUBRIS, The Al Davis Suite: POUNDCAKE Hostage Pace Car (Detail), 1992. Mixed media with cast self-lubricating plastic, cast prosthetic plastic, jerseys, poundcake, and petroleum jelly. Variable as installed. Installation view: Documenta 9, 1992. Copyright Matthew Barney. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels
The issue: Perishables.
Example: A Matthew Barney installation, OTTOshaft, featured a pound cake that was eaten by rats. (The rats weren’t part of the installation.)
Solution? Barney went to Scheidemann at Contemporary Conservation, who in turn created a non-edible pound cake for the future display of OTTOshaft at the Tate. Scheidemann offers free advice on materials to artists. He and his team work closely with others, including Chris Ofili, whose elephant-dung paintings have been worked on at his studio.
Dieter Roth, Chocolate Gnome, 1969. Garden gnome, chocolate & glass. © Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri, USA / Partial and promised gift of Betsy Millard, the Earl and Betsy Millard Collection / Bridgeman Images © Dieter Roth Estate
The issue: When degradation is part of the concept.
Example: Dieter Roth worked with materials that were deliberately chosen for their perishability, such as chocolate and yoghurt. ‘He uses these materials almost like Baroque still life. He’s interested in their temporality but not really in their disappearance!’ as Scheidemann says.
Solution? Tricky. As Roth’s interest was in showing something as a ruin, Scheidemann looks for ways to maintain the idea of the ruinous when looking for replacement materials.
Marc Quinn, Self, 1991. Blood (artist's), liquid silicone, stainless steel, perspex and refrigeration equipment. © Marc Quinn. Photo © Marc Quinn Studio Courtesy White Cube
The issue: Beyond the artist’s grave.
Example: Marc Quinn’s Self, a self-portrait bust cast in eight pints of his own frozen blood. What happens when a plug comes out of the freezer?
Solution? As yet this is only theoretically-speaking, but who should decide how the work might be salvaged for posterity? Should it be the artist’s wish? The owner’s? The estate or the scholar? ‘This subject really highlights the complexity of art in the past decades and the meaning of materials,’ admits Hermens.
The issue: Artists and fashions.
Example: Dust has accumulated on a 10-year-old sculpture by Matthew Barney. He doesn’t remove it because he’s interested in how it represents the abandonment of his work.
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Solution? A close and ongoing dialogue with artists can be both help and hindrance to Scheidemann’s work. He has to judge when the artist’s involvement is going to be valuable to the meaning of the work or a detriment, subjecting the work to further changes that were not part of the initial process. ‘Artists are very sensitive to restoration questions,’ he says. ‘But if you ask an artist something today, the answer might be very different to what they think tomorrow.’
The issue: The myriad meanings of materials.
Example: If the meaning of the work defines the code of conservation practice, then the same material might be treated very differently in two different art works. Concrete can represent traumatic conditions of war (Doris Salcedo’s sculpture), or functional, stylish modern living (Sarah Lucas’s concrete furniture). Scheidemann’s inventory of information — a sprawling dictionary of materials and meanings — is so vast that he doesn’t have time to catalogue and draw meaning from it, or to make it readily available for study.
Solution? Further research. A generous grant has been made available to Hermens to fund 10 PhD students to work on projects in this area (The Marie Curie Initial Training Network on Contemporary Art Conservation Research).
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