Watch a pubic discussion by this same panel presented at the Getty Center

 

MATTHEW GALE, an art historian specializing in the twentieth century, is head of displays at Tate Modern. He has worked closely with Tate's Sculpture Conservation and Conservation Science departments in developing Tate's research on the replication of modern sculptures that are subject to unforeseen degradation. This work culminated in the cross-disciplinary conference "Inherent Vice: The Replica and Its Implications in Modern Sculpture," held in 2007.

SUSAN LAKE is chief conservator and director of collection management at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Her research interests include the painting materials of the American Abstract Expressionist painters and the conservation of modern art materials. Her book on Willem de Kooning's painting materials is scheduled to be published by the GCI in spring 2010.

JILL STERRETT, director of collections and conservation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has worked at the museum since 1990. She is a graduate of the Cooperstown Graduate Program and has published and taught on the subject of museums, conservation, and the legacy of contemporary art, including as a Fulbright scholar at the Universidade do Porto in Portugal.

They spoke with TOM LEARNER, a GCI senior scientist, and JEFFREY LEVIN, editor of Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter.

JEFFREY LEVIN: With regard to the conservation of modern and contemporary art, do you think that conservators and curators are thinking differently about conservation issues than they were twenty years ago?

SUSAN LAKE: Museums have become very skilled at the preservation of the irreplaceable, singular artwork. But when contemporary artists create objects that are intentionally ephemeral and installations that are provisional and improvised, we find ourselves torn between competing commitments. As conservators, we're guided by a professional code of ethics in which we identify the materials and the construction of the object, and based on our examination, we intervene to repair the work. But that code doesn't neatly apply when we are tasked with preserving artworks that are made of ephemeral materials, are conceptual or performance based, and include film and video. In these cases, conservators focus less on intervention to repair artworks than on documenting them. As has been observed, how to manage inevitable change versus how to arrest it is essential to the conservation of much contemporary art.

JILL STERRETT: It's been said that museums are something we use to help us understand who we are. Art museums are a tool to respond to the art. But museums also exist within a cultural time, and we in conservation are not only responding to the art that artists are making, but working in institutions that are refreshing their connection to their communities. Museums, in this technological age, feel pressure to make everything accessible in a way that is different than when I entered conservation. In school we were taught that you sat down in a solitary way, examined your object, analyzed its materials, and then came up with a proposal, which was a solution that allowed for maximal preservation of this object. Yes, artists for the last fifty years have been experimenting with unorthodox materials, but the biggest change I see is that the problem solving around objects now has much more to do with how the object is going to be used. Who needs to see it? What is its relationship to the general public and to scholars? You're asking a range of additional questions that affect your solution.

 

MATTHEW GALE: The question of access is very challenging. Large groups now have access to complex installations. That's where I see the challenges arising—and that's where I rely on conversations with conservation colleagues to consider how to resolve these questions. Very often that involves going back to the artist. But as a curator, I'm further along the process from the one that you were describing.

LEVIN: Would you all say that previous conservation standards remain but that now, with new demands, the number of issues to be considered has expanded?

LAKE: Without a prescribed course of action—and acknowledging that many of the preservation-based questions raised are by nature subjective—decisions regarding conservation are best made by consensus among knowledgeable peers. I'm now less inclined to be guided by my individual assessment. Developing a preservation plan involves discussions not only with fellow conservators and curators but also with an array of other experts in the field that may include archivists, educators, registrars, audiovisual technicians, and database managers.

LEVIN: Is collaborative decision making about the conservation of artworks more pervasive today?

LAKE: Yes, decision making has become more collaborative. When it's not occurring, there's probably pressure for it to occur. But maybe we're a little ahead of the curve because of the kind of artworks that we're dealing with.

TOM LEARNER: Working in an interdisciplinary manner would seem to benefit all areas of cultural heritage conservation—but with contemporary art, it seems absolutely essential. Conservators, on the whole, are very good at figuring out how to do things—such as designing a cleaning system to remove a varnish or choosing an appropriate adhesive for pieces of ceramic. But with contemporary art, isn't it often much more about figuring out what we should be doing? And to answer that, other areas of the art profession have to be involved.

LAKE: It's been noted that in some ways we're operating more like ethnographic and archaeological conservation disciplines than we have before.

STERRETT: Which is very interesting—because some of the problem solving in ethnographic conservation takes you right back to the community. It honors a variety of views in the creation of a proposal for a treatment. We're realizing that there are all kinds of opinions that can make beneficial and informed contributions to what we do.

LEVIN: Ethnographic and archaeological conservation can involve an exploration of the values inherent in the objects by seeking the views of those outside of conservation. Are you all suggesting something similar for modern and contemporary art conservation?

GALE: I was thinking about the question of values and how one establishes what they are. With contemporary art, instead of trying to draw upon a body of scholarship—which I assume would be the case in an archaeological situation—you're returning to the artist. That opens up a tremendous number of possibilities but also sets out certain parameters. You're duty bound to respond to what the artist is telling you rather than ignoring it. You also could be raising a number of questions that the artist may not have already thought through and saying, "Well, how are you going to help us deal with this?" And that may affect his or her practice from then on.

Last week I was working with an artist installing a complex work, and in passing conversation I described our Naum Gabo project, looking at the question of the inherent vice of the plastics used by Gabo in his works. It occurred to me as I was speaking that the piece we were installing had hundreds of objects in it, many of which are plastic. Alarm bells started going off in my mind. Am I going to be alarming by saying, "Well, of course, plastic has a fragility that Gabo had not anticipated or planned for. He assumed that it was stable." It was a fairly casual conversation, but it would be logical to go back to the artist I was talking with and inquire, "How do we meet that challenge with this vast array of specially chosen objects?"

LEVIN: Your mention of involving the artist raises the issue of artist's intent. Is the artist's intent the predominant consideration that should guide conservation decisions?

STERRETT: A work made yesterday that enters into a museum or gallery today is, for all intents and purposes, in its infancy. To capture the artist's thoughts at that moment in the work's life is important to do. That said, it's not the only opinion we are after. There are curators, scholars—and the public. All of these opinions come together with that of the artist to tell a story. Then, to extend the work of stewarding collections, we want to collect all of these voices over time. Think about the generations of people who have interpreted artworks over time. Of course, scholarship shapes and refines meaning of works—and there's an opposite instinct with contemporary art, which is to resist locking down meaning too early. The work has just entered the world. We're trying to support an opening up of possibilities.

LEVIN: Is one of the functions of the conservator today to manage change?

LAKE: Preservation of much contemporary art has two main aspects. First, preservation of the various materials used in the construction. Second, preservation of the intention and meaning of the work—which in most cases extends beyond the material structure. Therefore, museums are faced with the need to maintain both the object's material dimension and its conceptual dimension.

STERRETT: The artist's intent is still our touchstone. But it shifts. You interview artists when their work first comes into the collection and then, years later, call for a clarification. The artist might say, "That's not exactly what I meant"—or "That's what I meant at that time, but it's changed somewhat." So you have to acknowledge that you're working together and document not only what you did but also how you came to that decision. Inevitably it's subjective.

LEARNER: This is bringing us back to those two established ethics in conservation—reversibility and minimal treatment—that often appear to be challenged in the conservation of contemporary art. If we're saying that we shouldn't lock down meaning and intention in these works, doesn't it then follow that we should resist treatments that are strongly guided by the artist's intention, given that that might involve all kinds of irreversible treatments? Aren't those two principles actually still as valuable and relevant as ever? And if so, maybe the best thing we can do is do very little and let the work have some kind of natural life.

STERRETT: This is a prickly area. I'm sometimes concerned about using the term "contemporary art," as if it's somehow understood what we all mean by that. We have to be careful. Artists still paint. What comes to mind are changes in conservation being initiated in response to art that is inherently variable—take, for instance, installation-based art. This is not a paradigm shift that throws out all the traditional values. We're talking about an additive set of skills that doesn't undermine the foundations of the field, and which continues to rely on knowledge of materials and science and analysis—an additive skill set for a very prevalent class of work that is designed to vary over time.

LEVIN: From a curatorial standpoint, Matthew, has the notion of managing change, as opposed to treating an object, altered the way that you look at your responsibilitiespresenting and interpreting works for the public?

GALE: Yes, I suppose it has in the way that we present work to the public. The thing that makes me most uneasy is where the impact of what the artist intended has to be restrained by the desire to show this to a large public, which is a constant balance that we have to maintain. I'm thinking of a work that we just installed at Tate Modern [Untitled (Tate), 1992–2000]. It's a reworking by the artists, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, of an installation they made when Tate Modern first opened in 2000, which has been in touring exhibition. Now it's been acquired for the collection and been reinstalled in a completely different way. It's based around a sort of simulacrum of reality in which they have re-created the ephemera of everyday life in polystyrene and then painted it. It's a complete trompe l'oeil installation, and the reaction when we first showed it in 2000 was that people just couldn't believe that it wasn't the real thing. They were picking things up—which, of course, trashed the piece. So that had to be curtailed and the experience by the public reined in.

LAKE: The preservation of contemporary art has initiated a rethinking of some of the museum's fundamental practices. Since the 1960s, many artists have made highly experimental artworks using fragile, ephemeral, and degradable materials and made works with readily outmoded technologies. What do we conserve? The appearance, the material components, the concept, the function? Do we preserve the components, replace them, or remake them?

LEVIN: How accepted is the idea of creating replicas, so that the visitor can experience what the artist intended when the work was first presented?

Susan Lake
 

LAKE: Early in my career, the idea of replica was antithetical. We are now beginning to see a shift, and the catalyst, in part, is contemporary art—particularly photography. For example, we have a work by John Baldessari that includes many small photographs [Songs: 1. Sky/Sea/Sand, 2. Sky/Ice Plant/Grass, 1973]. The photographs are rather precariously pinned to the wall, and the images are already somewhat faded. With the permission of the artist, we scanned the photographs in order to re-create an exhibition copy. The original is kept in a cold storage vault. The work was recently requested for loan, and we will lend the borrowing institution the exhibition copy. I doubt that our "preservation plan" would have been acceptable several decades ago. Although this practice is unlikely to extend to paintings, it is common, even necessary, with time-based media [film and video works of art].

STERRETT: This past spring, a graduate student who was writing a thesis in a museum studies program called us and asked if museums rely on facsimiles in their programming. Our first reaction collectively was, "Oh, we don't show facsimiles." But then we realized, as Susan said, that we're in the business of making replicas all the time with forms of contemporary art and certainly photography. There have been remarkably creative solutions for tours of a photographer's work, which have relied on authorized exhibition copies that travel and that allow these works to be seen by millions of people. We copy—or migrate—video all the time. That's a process that we've also accepted as underpinning the way that we keep video installations alive.

However, it's a wholly different thing to consider what we did in creating a mock-up of Eva Hesse's Sans II. We were able to attain as near to the resin formulation as we could from the same manufacturer that she bought it from. We were able to work with her mold for making it, and we were able to work with her studio assistant, Doug Johns, and come up with a mock-up that's close in form to the original. What you got was insight into the translucency and transparency when the work was first made in 1968. Incredibly powerful to be able to see that. Would it ever go on display? No. Why? There would be real questions about whether it is authentic. I think the estate would have issues about the status of that piece. But a replica may be valued for reasons other than its exhibition. In museums, we do more than exhibit.

GALE: What you're saying about having different mandates is critical to the ways one can approach this. But it's still a thorny set of issues. Examples of replicas pop up in my mind—such as the casting of Rodin works, for instance, which has never been seen as a particular problem. You can see The Thinker in Buenos Aires and in Paris and it's still a Rodin. These are incredibly problematic areas—and just as we've been describing how an artist might have one position at what you've called the infancy of an artwork and a different one as the work grows up in the world, I imagine that what each of us thinks about replicas will move and shift.

I first encountered this as a problem when there was an element on a Gabo piece that suddenly shifted and broke. It seemed to me, "Well, this is a geometrical work, it's made of plastics, let's run off another one." The thought—which only lasted a few moments—was that the qualities in the work, being geometrically defined and made entirely of modern materials from which the hand of the artist is somewhat removed, meant that one could flatten it out, make a template, and reconstruct it. But the presence of that thing in the world would raise questions. Does it adequately substitute for the original? If the original becomes completely unrecognizable, does the aura inevitably migrate to a second physical object? It seems to me that it does.

Your other option is to say, "Okay, the thing disintegrates, you haven't got an object to which the aura can migrate, therefore you've lost that particular work." What alarmed me about Gabo is that his persistence in using those materials threatens to knock out a whole body of his work. If you believe that he was an important artist, then how do you respond?

STERRETT: I'm completely undecided as to whether an object is "dead" if it no longer physically exists. That's one of the things that I'm struggling with. We remember things all the time without having any physical evidence of an object. I'm convinced that Eva Hesse's legacy will not be gone even if her latex works are no longer here. I think there will be memory of what she did.

LAKE: Can't you have both? Can't you have the replica, as well as the degraded object? One doesn't preclude the other. In the future, we may be judged for not having made a replica when it was still possible to do so. Remembering a work for me isn't the same as being able to walk around it and see it in three dimensions. I would appreciate that opportunity, even if I knew it was a replica.

LEARNER: But aren't there dangers in putting significant resources into determining how best to make replicas? Given that there are not many conservation scientists working in this area, might that be at the expense of research focused on what was needed to reverse or slow the deterioration processes in the original?

Jill Sterrett
 

STERRETT: My question isn't anti-replica. It does ponder the way memories are made—and the way objects are things we want to talk about in our lives. I'm not sure that goes away when the object is no longer there. In projects I've been involved with, I've felt inspired by the kind of memory that is infused into other formats besides the object—replicas, movies, slides, interviews—by scholars and conservators and artists' assistants and everybody else. It's incredibly moving how powerful that record becomes when we're struggling with an object that we can't do much for.

GALE: That's the ideal, certainly. It does seem to me that there must be some underlying things, even if it's simply that documentation of the object has got to be the first step, regardless of what other action is taken. Then at least you would have an audit of the object that can be compared to the last audit you took of it, and to the one taken in the future. And you have some sense of its life and its possibilities.

LEVIN: Jill, do you share Matthew's optimism that you can establish some underlying standards of ethics for the conservation of these works? Or do you think it may be tough to get beyond the case-by-case?

STERRETT: I have to admit that I don't aspire to something beyond the case-by-case. What we're trying to develop with contemporary art is a methodology around problem solving. I don't think that's going to lead to prescribed methods—except as it has to do with the way that we tease apart the challenges and arrive at our solutions.

LAKE: That may be the methodology. You may interview the artist several times throughout his or her career. You thoroughly document each iteration of an installation. You document the rationale for your decisions, acknowledging that attitudes toward acceptable change will likely shift over time.

GALE: To me, that turns into, "Do everything you can think of." You're interviewing the artist every two years, and you're documenting everything. The issue becomes: What don't you do?

LEARNER: If we take that approach to its natural conclusion, it becomes "document every possible aspect of the work as frequently as you can," which would be impossible to implement on every work of art. If we're trying to devise a methodology, there has to be some priority in what is more important to do. Maybe it will be more about what don't you do. However, isn't there another issue here? If the field does implement and follow some agreed methodologies, then what happens in thirty years if some methodologies are considered to have been incorrect? It could be a far more worrying scenario if such a treatment were applied to significant numbers of works by a given artist, than if conservators had tried a range of approaches. At least that way we'd be maximizing the odds that some pieces exhibiting those desired values would survive in thirty years. That generation of conservators would be far better placed, after all, to judge which treatments or approaches were more successful than others. That said, we do need to be careful about not encouraging any kind of treatment. There has to be some kind of understanding or agreement over the limits of what is acceptable or not.

GALE: What I have in my mind is not a broad code but, rather, the sets of questions that institutions need to think about. This is one of the things that I hope will come out of our project at Tate—positions on how you inform the public of what they're looking at if a work has degraded and a replica is on display. It's a broad-brush theory rather than the practicalities.

STERRETT: Conventional thinking holds that in order to keep objects for future generations, we study the materials, put them in dark storage, and monitor the environment. And that, we hope, will sustain an object's life for hundreds of years. But what we've come up against with art made in the last fifty years—particularly installation-based art—is that if we do something like that, that's a sure sign of its demise. Why? Because, we actually have to test our knowledge of installing these pieces. They're only parts in storage until we put them together. They become the art according to a set of instructions that we get from the artist. If you put the work in storage and don't display it for ten years, you've diminished your ability to keep it because you might not be able to install it properly. The artist may or may not be around. On top of that, you may wrestle with obsolete technologies. If it's a time-based installation with videotapes, and if they're not migrated every seven to ten years, they might not be playable. All of a sudden, you start to see that preservation through the act of display is happening in the galleries. Ironically, this venue, which had been the death knell for overexposed objects, is now where preservation is enhanced.

GALE: Is it because there are not methods to document the object, so you're relying on those memories and experiences to inform the next time? If these documentation methods did exist, then you could bring it out in ten years' time.

STERRETT: You could, except that one of the things we've found is that the best documentation methods involve old-fashioned storytelling—somebody teaches you how to install the work, and you teach me. That can be better than pages of handwritten notes that somebody has to interpret.

LAKE: This is may be stating the obvious. For much contemporary art, meaning has shifted away from the unique object—and conservation practice must reflect that change. A video installation is more than its component parts. A Sol LeWitt drawing is not just the instructions. New surroundings change an installation physically and contextually.

LEVIN: Jill, I've heard you say that you felt there were many inspiring things happening in this challenging area. What are some of those things?

STERRETT: Networks of people coming together to share information. There's always been a culture of sharing in the conservation field, but it's amplified now. Our capacity in museums to work with artists regularly is truly inspiring. Effective documentation methods are the crux of what we're trying to put in place. Ideally, these methods will create new insights into how these pieces live in the world. I'm extremely inspired by the way conservation efforts can and should connect with many other departments in a museum—how conservation can link with education efforts and how scholarship in the field is actually interesting to the general public. The motivations of an education department and a conservation department don't have to be viewed as independent. The same can be said of our curatorial colleagues. We're all noticing that these boundaries are not so hard and fast anymore.

LAKE: I think that's reflected in the way museums are reorganizing themselves. We are now less inclined to discuss registrarial, conservation, and curatorial functions as separate activities. Rather, we mutually discuss collection care, collection management, and stewardship. Preservation efforts are often the result of collaborative efforts among conservators, curators, educators, archivists, and technicians.

GALE: If cross-disciplinary activity hasn't been happening, it should be happening. As everyone has said, it does seem that from that you get a synthesis of knowledge of the work. Instinctively, I still incline toward giving the artist's intentions added weight, insofar as one can establish them. But other activities and other issues have got to be crucial to an understanding of the work.

LEARNER: There must be plenty of occasions when there's disagreement, though. How does that get worked through?

LAKE: Antagonistic positions are inevitable. An accepted, universal approach to conservation practices would be difficult to achieve. At best, we can clarify the antagonistic positions and bring clear choices to the decision-making process. If the debate and outcome are transparent and fully documented, future viewers, artists, and scholars will be in a position to better assess and evaluate the efficacy of our positions and treatment strategies.

STERRETT: It's exciting to get into a good debate and to understand where you have dissension and why. Good solutions come from those conversations. When you allow these contentious conversations to happen, you start to see people align behind the mission that the museum has put forth—to align behind something that is larger than their department.

LAKE: These transitions have not been easy for a lot of staff or for institutions. In fact, many of the issues that we've been discussing can be construed as a threat to our identity as conservators. But I think that what we're discussing expands the profession.

LEARNER: It is interesting when you think about all the various activities being carried out on contemporary art that are considered part of conservation. It will definitely require the field to think more strategically to respond to this vastly expanded skill set. It probably needs a new approach in the training schools to incorporate some of these additional skills, but also for museums to recruit more actively from outside of conservation—such as turning to experienced videotape technicians to help conserve time-based media. I'm sure that most of us involved in the conservation of contemporary art are drawing on every part of our education and experience to process how best to respond to some of these issues. My case—a professional having both conservation and scientific training—is becoming pretty common now, but I am sure the field will benefit from those able to combine other, equally diverse backgrounds.

LAKE: It seems to me that the early discourses between conservation scientists and conservators were the first move taken toward creating conservation as a more interdisciplinary field.

STERRETT: Here's the line—and I'm sure you all have heard it, too—"Well, that's not proper conservation." Increasingly I scratch my head and think, "What does 'proper' conservation mean anymore?" We have colleagues who can answer that question very clearly for themselves. And I get the feeling that it has to do with sitting at the bench and inpainting. Outside that definition, it's something else—but not conservation. There's this feeling that we have to honor that. And there are all kinds of reasons to honor that. But at the risk of not looking beyond?

LAKE: Interestingly, training programs acknowledge some of these changes. Science is certainly an important component of course work. However, discussions of the profound practical and theoretical issues involved in the conservation of contemporary art are still lacking in U.S. training programs.

STERRETT: There are skill sets that serve a more traditional mode of conservation, and there are skill sets emerging that underpin success for people working with contemporary art. And they're not always one and the same. Conservation has always called for analytical thinking, but now we're looking for abstract thinkers who are comfortable synthesizing solutions. Rather than master practitioners, we're looking for people who are master facilitators in many ways. That demands skills that are different from those required to restore a Rembrandt spectacularly.

LAKE: Traditional conservation practices—maintaining the object's physical and constituent features—still exist. But other approaches to preservation are also available. And it's important to acknowledge that although the strategies employed in the conservation of much contemporary art look different from traditional conservation, the rationale is still based on established standards of collection care and management.




COMMENTS (discussion now closed)

1) Submitted by Amanda Norbutus, January 14, 2010 at 8:47AM
Thanks for a truly interdisciplinary conversation on the conservation of contemporary art. I have been trying to understand what takes precedence in planning for the preservation of public murals, whether it is the meaning or the materials. The discussion here highlighted the various concerns when approaching a conservation treatment of artworks with changing meaning or decreasing stability.

In my research into public murals, the artist's intent may dictate what the mural looks like initially, but there is often a community that adopts a mural into their lifestyle, trying to protect it from graffiti or demolition. Their contribution to the meaning of the artwork also deserves to be documented as part of the mural's history. On the other hand, if a community dislikes a particular mural, does is discount all of the artist's intent; in this case, is lack of preservation is acceptable since most public murals are "community murals"?

Another concern in the preservation of murals relates to the materials with which the mural was created. Some artists used particular paints or tools to create art, imbuing their works with social and political meaning. The choice of materials can tell a conservator about the circumstances in which a mural was created, perhaps changing how a conservator or art historian interprets the mural. Should the materials become the priority for conservation versus the overall image in this scenario?

Each mural has a unique set of circumstances that should guide treatment decisions. Community support, artist's intent, stability of the materials used, and funding available are all used to plan preservation treatments and mural upkeep. Is it the whole image that matters most, or the preservation of original material? What are the typical comprimises in a treatment?

If anyone has gone through this process, I'd enjoy hearing about your experiences.

 

2) Submitted by Sharra Grow, January 14, 2010 12:09PM
I appreciate and agree with the comments made regarding creating a treatment protocol for modern and contemporary artworks; perhaps it would be best not to work toward creating a standard treatment procedure for contemporary art, but rather to create a standard set of questions that should be answered when deciding on a treatment or preservation plan. I also found Susan Lake's question, What do we conserve? quite thought provoking. What should be preserved in each piece we treat? Is it the appearance, the material, the concept, or the function? These aspects of an artwork can be individually shifted or lost when an artwork ages, is damaged, or is treated. How do we strike the right balance for each work of art?

 

3) Submitted by Emily MacDonald-Korth, January 18, 2010 at 10:22AM
I agree that interdisciplinary collaboration is the key. Many new works of art combine materials that have previously been relegated to distinct specializations within conservation. To responsibly design and carry out treatment on these new works, specialist from various areas of conservation must collaborate. Interdisciplinary collaboration should also branch out beyond conservation to include art historians, artists and the public. Contemporary art is often not only about the object, but the concept. Conservators can broaden their understanding of art as a whole by looking to scholars and artists to inform them about the meaning of art, not just the object of art.

 

4) Submitted by Hiltrud Schinzel, February 9, 2010 at 00:24AM
The discussion was very animating. Here some after-reading reflections: I share Jill Sterrett s view that the best documentation involves old-fashioned story telling, the same is the case with conservation recording. Restorers traditionally feel respect for the past and responsibility for the future. Consequently they are much focussed on material as it is touchable, easier to access than ephemeral thoughts and ideas. Actually the past is past and the future might be a subject for speculation, yet we cannot foresee it. Our place can be nothing but the present and contemporary art s conservation problems force us to become conscious of this fact and to deal with it. This in my view is fortunate because it stimulates to review our methods and ethics. Contemporary artworks are not transparent on first view. Consequently we have to try to understand the artist s concepts and aims. A quotation might be interesting in this context. Marcel Broodthaers, Belgian artist stated in 1974: One has to know that the artist is more interested in the outer world than in art itself and even less in the content of exhibitions and museums. Sure, he pretends to be so. The artist is not educated his role is to pretend to be educated. Thanks to this play the spectator values by a unique turn of view the happenings of the day . This other view of the artist is what makes art most attractive for the contemporary spectator. It is a great chance for conservation to be very near to an artwork because the profession embodies a comparable mixture of theory and practice as art-making does. As Jill Sterrett said in her last comment we have to look beyond material to a greater degree than we are used to treating contemporary art. This is a challenge but a chance as well, not only for the individual restorer but for the profession as a whole.

 

5) Submitted by Iwona Szmelter, February 10, 2010 at 10:19AM
The modern art requires new methods. Its' obvious. After 20 year of discussion we have time for considerations, a plan. I agree that it is time for synthesis. Please, have a look at the nearest book "Theory and Practice of Conservation of Contemporary Art" by Archetype, ed.Ursula Scaedler-Saub, 2010. The authors (including myself) try to formulate it: the limits of ethics ( Cornelia Weyer), aspects of objectivity( Salvador Munoz Vinas), new conceptual frame of caring for modern art(Iwona Szmelter), winding conservation practices in classical system of care of visual art( Isabelle Brajer), the responsibility and history of lost legacy of artists groups ( Ursula Schaedler-Saub), confrontations with Riegls' and Brandis' theory and many others aspects. Generally speaking I suppose that we need an imagination in the care of modern art, parallely to the visual art state, this great turning point in XX century and, in consequences- dichotomy of art legacy; contemporary classical disciplines and contemporary modern art. No more humanistic rethorical questions ( for what? after more than 100 years?) and/or strictly scientific point of view of natural science. The legacy of contemporary and modern art is complex - and our care of the cultural heritage have to be adequate - very complex. Unfortuanately not many academic institutions and museums are ready for this re-orientation. Most of the museums, institutes are working in very classical way, with domination of particular interest of (classical trained) specialists, feudal structure etc. Moreover all these issues are related to to new type of education, still at their infancy, very erudical and with new type of specialisation.XXI second decade is a time for a great syntheisi and re-orientation in this field. My best wishes for visual art legacy and ...us... as people engaged in it. Iwona Szmelter

 

6) Submitted by Glenn Wharton, February 28, 2010 at 11:13AM
We are clearly experiencing broad changes in our field in reaction to new challenges posed by artists. I was struck by several questions from Jeffrey Levin about the degree to which standards can guide our practice and the need to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. I am challenged daily in my practice by new technologies and new conceptual parameters requested by artists. How can we commit documentation to memory as requested by Tino Sehgal - who asked me not to record or take notes during our artist interview? He told me that the conservation of his work depends on curatorial will to exhibit it since the dancers who were taught to interpret it will otherwise forget it. Cases like these require unique forms of research, documentation, and decision-making. Yet don t we rely on professional values and principles to guide us in making these decisions for individual artworks?

As new forms of art challenge our values and principles, we are forced to expand the way we think about core issues such as authenticity and intentionality. Social science and humanities scholars have a lot to offer us in this realm. Fortunately an embrace of more reflexive scholarship is happening, as evidenced in recent literature (e.g. Conservation: Principles, Dilemmas, and Uncomfortable Truth, Elvsevier, 2009 and as Iwona reminds us, Theory and Practice of Conservation of Contemporary Art, Archetype, 2010). It is also happening at universities. The Netherlands recently funded PhD and post-doctoral work that places emphasis on qualitative as well as quantitative research. I for one am looking forward to the Contemporary Art:Who Cares? conference this June. It will be interesting to see how far we ve come since the seminal 1997 conference Modern Art: Who Cares?

 

7) Submitted by Hiltrud Schinzel, March 01, 2010 at 3:07AM
Thank you, Iwona for mentioning the HAWK book. Recently a seminary (see www.hornemann-institut.de) succeeded the 2009 activity and, as Ursula Schädler Saub told me, more are planned to follow. In the course of this recent seminary I made an unorthodox attempt to deal with problems mentioned in the discussion: It consisted in linking artistic thinking of an artist of the 20th century evident by his painting-technique with that of contemporary artists working in new media as well as producing interactive projects. Analogies were made transparent by conservation problems shown in a case history of one paradigmatic work of the prior artist. Artistic thinking and resulting theoretical conservation problems in these cases were not far from each other although the works had a temporal distance of nearly 100 years. It would be interesting to dig further in this comparative research of artist s thinking visualized in technology and medium in 20th and 21st century and, hopefully, find consequences for conservation.

As Iwona Szmelter pointed out, 20th century - although there are ancestors from 18th century onwards is the cradle of the problems that force us to review traditional conservation methods. The pair of balances history aesthetics from mid 20th century onwards had turned towards history and the sciences, but there are many signs for a shift now as one can see in recent publications (Conservation: Principles, Dilemmas and Uncomfortable Truths edited by Alison Richmond und Alison Bracker Elsevier 2009; Art, Conservation and Authenticities edited by Erma Hermens and Tina Fiske, Archetype Publications 2009). Alois Riegl's (1858 - 1905) aims to respect the viewer's needs transparent by his value system (Erinnerungswerte= values of remembrance, Gegenwartswerte = values of the present), which he expressed in Der moderne Denkmalkultus in 1903 are slowly reaching conservation discussion. It is interesting that Riegl often used then fashionable economic terms and language. Therefore I do not think the question restoration what for is a rhetorical one if we add the specification: what for in history, what for now, stressing a sociological point of view. Comparisons might be enlightening. Looking forward to professional response in this relaxed and casual way!

 

8) Submitted by Sarah Hillary, March 01, 2010 at 2:58PM
Is one of the reasons that there can be a more collaborative approach today, is because the roles in Museums have shifted and merged somewhat? In the past the conservator was responsible for the preservation of artworks, but now it is becoming the responsibility of everyone in a Museum, directly or indirectly. Also interpretation and access, which were previously the role of curators and registrars, are now important parts of the job of the conservator.

 

9) Submitted by Frank Hassard, March 13, 2010 at 9:47AM
In my experience, objects enter museums (incl. galleries etc.) because they are already assigned cultural value even though this may be implicit. Quite often the conservator comes to the table later. In art appearance, substance, meaning and function as well as design, process and context are all aspects of authenticity. In conservation, all interventive treatment effectively involves re-creating the work of art; the intangible (i.e. values etc.) adheres to the tangible and a new historical document is created in the process. For this reason, there is no such thing as irreversible treatment. It is therefore important to consider how the conservator, the museum and or gallery, contributes to a work of arts authenticity. It is a productive not reductive process.

All cultures preserve that which they value most. Yet values are by their very nature intangible. For this reason intangible heritage should be understood as the over arching paradigm through which all heritage is understood. Unfortunately, this situation is reversed throughout much of the West which relies too much on the veracity of the tangible object; the thing over and above the thing signified. The intangible is only considered afterwards. Consequently, museums (and such like) try to preserve tangible heritage and make cultural connections from an essentially non-participatory perspective. Rarely do they consider their own ethnicity in the process. This is why the museum and related practices in my view need to be radically reformed in the name of preserving cultural heritage proper.

 

10) Submitted by Hiltrud Schinzel, March 24, 2010 at 9:24AM
concerns comments of Sarah Hillary, March 01, 2010 at 2:58PM and Frank Hassard March 13, at 9:47AM Sarah Hillary's impressions of merging tasks are mine too, yet to get good results we need to understand more of the aims and methods of other professions and they need to know more about conditions and limits of our tasks.

In my experience exchange is easier with natural scientists if you contact someone interested and/or specialized in conservation issues. Then you can ask your question and get or cannot get an answer because these sciences are more objective . This coincides with Tom Learner's mentioning that more persons have studied conservation plus some field of science today, see discussion above.

The cooperation with the humanities and philosophy particularly is more tricky because many of these disciplines are younger and do not rely on abstract systems like mathematics as most hard sciences do. Therefore their methods are rather time-bound and prone to external influences like fashion, politics etc. Being an art historian myself I am allowed such self-criticism, which does not mean that restorers can do without studying methods and knowledge of the humanities. Furthermore often there still are problems of hierarchy between art-historian and restorer in the museum field.

The necessity to combine knowledge of both, sciences and humanities, became most transparent and evident by problems with conserving contemporary art, whose treatment documents what Frank Hassard describes as productive process; a very adequate description in up to date language. Interactive art very often is dependant on the productivity of the viewer. The restorer is a producer too, although he/she would like to believe in his/her ability to switch into a neutral observer before treatment of a work. Yet, as soon as he/she touches a work, his/her intangible evaluation becomes tangible and visible. Practical acting mutates possibility into fact. Therefore restorer s doing concerns the tangible as well as the intangible directly, whereas the supporting academic fields generally work descriptive, i.e.indirectly. The fact that keeping distance to contemporary art is not possible is positive for conservation ethics, as it contributes to the restorer s consciousness of the impact and value of his/her interference. On the one hand our work cannot be objective, even if one tries to adapt the methods of hard sciences, on the other it should not get arbitrary, if guided by humanities only. Contemporary art asks for a combination of the best of both academic fields and in this function restoration is a very special mediating productive process as Frank Hassard pointed out. The discussion clearly shows how very complicated it is to balance the discrepancy between scientific aspects of material and intangible value systems of the humanities. Yet, efforts can add to the profession's status and influence.

 

11) Submitted by Frank Hassard, April 1, 2010 at 12:11pm
The conservation profession (in terms of ethics, codes, guidelines etc.) emerged historically within the institutional sectors of the West namely museums and galleries and such like. It was in the first quarter of the last century that methods derived from the hard material sciences, which were formerly applied in archaeological conservation, became more widely used in fine art and later furniture and decorative art conservation. In paintings conservation Cesare Brandi was a key figure in formulating a way to legitimize a neutral approach to the reintegration of losses; sometimes referred to by the term anastylosis (a term derived from architectural conservation). This became the basis of what one might call the archaeo-museological approach which formally defined and detailed the practice of restoration in the post-WWII period. In short, it was an attempt to deny any metaphysical correlation between object and culture and, by extension, between object and restorer in the act of intervention. This approach was a reductive scientific ideal that the international heritage community has challenged since the 1970s especially since the 1990s. The main problem is that many objects in our collections do retain a high level of metaphysical connection to diverse cultural practices around the world but which has been denied space by the self-surrendering aestheticism that underpins the conservation profession. Conservation ethics were created in order to preserve cultural heritage (slow down rate of deterioration, manage change, reversible and minimal intervention etc.) out of respect for the work of art, but did not adequately take into account the cultural contexts within which the field operates. In other words, the field was blinded by its self-enclosed character, to culture; a concept which refers to people not objects. As a result of this vital omission, the conservation profession, it can be argued, does not actually preserve cultural heritage proper.

This raises some important questions with regards to the preservation of contemporary art (which I must admit is not my area of speciality): for example, can contemporary art be considered as cultural heritage? Either way, it seems to me that that the whole idea of conservation has moved from an inward-looking, metaphysically reductive form of practice to an outward-looking, metaphysically productive form of practice which is reflected throughout the discussion above. It is my belief that the way in which the field makes this transition is central to its future success.