Monday, September 19

Problems with Contemporary Conservation

One of the roles of a museum is to preserve important works and emphasize the cultural significance of art for future generations; however art preservation and restoration can be tricky, both politically and in actual execution. One unique area of preservation that I find specifically intriguing is the conservation of Contemporary art. Some of the concepts alone make preservation unique, because many contemporary artists intend for their works to decay. While reading the September/October issue of MentalFloss magazine I read an article that reminded me of this very controversial art topic.

While contemporary art can be defined as art being created currently, I'm going to go with the general academic consensus that Contemporary art is anything produced after World War II. This period of art poses a number of problems, due to the fact that it often challenges ideas about permanence and deliberately utilizes materials that were never intended by the original manufacturers to be used to create works of art. Not that the deterioration of art is unique to contemporary works; Leonardo DaVinci's 'Last Supper' began to deteriorate within years of him painting it due to his technique, which was not true fresco painting at all. (More on that here if you want more info.) Some of the conservation concerns are just so interesting when you delve into the realm of taxidermy, chocolate, rice, and latex; the list truly goes on and on, the choices are endless. If you follow this link you can read 'The Challenges of Conserving Contemporary Art' by Glenn Wharton, he covers the spectrum of concerns of conservation. Here are some of my favorite contemporary problems:

"Lick and Lather" by Janine Antoni
'Lick and Lather' is a series of fourteen busts made of chocolate and soap in the artist's visage. In an effort to mimic the effects of aging Antoni licked the chocolate busts and bathed with the soap ones. The material alone makes it a difficult work to conserve; hand made soap lasts only about three years, and chocolate doesn't last much longer. On top of that, noses have been bitten off the chocolate busts at three separate showings. That presents the question, do you fix the nose? Or do you leave it? The decision was made to leave the noses off.

'Palimpsest' by Ann Hamilton
'Palimpsest' is a work about the way memory fades. The installation room is papered with thousands of tiny, fading notes from the artist's friends; some buried in beeswax. At the m iddle of the space is a tank filled with snails feeding on heads of cabbage. The idea is that we are all headed to senility. The biggest problem with the installation are the snails, which are classified as pests by the US government. The last time the piece was shown, in 2005, the snails were gathered from the museum garden and fed on a rotating schedule until the end of the exhibit when they were killed. Speaking of killed:

'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" by Damien Hirst
This one is pretty spectacular, and much like DaVinci's issues with a lasting work of art, the problem with this piece is due to a lack of understanding of materials. Hirst's famous work is a dead tiger shark in an acrylic glass tank with 224 gallons of water. The shark began to decompose almost immediately because Hirst failed to properly preserve it. The gallery where it was located, tried to take care of the smell by pumping bleach into the water, which further aided the decomposition. Despite these issues, an American hedge-fund manager spent $8 Million dollars to buy the sculpture.

Once purchased, Hirst began trying to solve the problem of the rotting shark. First he skinned it, tanned the hide, and had it mounted on a fiberglass skeleton. It ended up looking like a bad movie prop shark. Finally Hirst purchased another shark, preserved it in formaldehyde, and called it done.

In case all of the above wasn't enough, here's an interesting video on the topic:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some problems! The shark is particularly rough since the artist blew the conservation in the first place, but the buyer changed the work completely physically while maintaining the spirit. Interesting! Mom