Many contemporary works of art utilise elements which are powered by electricity. These may include light components, motorised parts, or sound producing devices Parts may have been produced commercially, partially altered or made entirely by the artist. The electrical components are usually connected intrinsically with the meaning of the art and, in most cases, it is necessary for them to be in working order and in compliance with safety standards. Achieving this can be problematical for many reasons. To what extent is it acceptable to alter an artwork? Is deterioration or failure an inherent element that must be accepted? Can a work be displayed if it is not fully functional?
The National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) collection encompasses a variety of artworks with electrical components, from lamps in the Decorative Arts collection, to important works by Robert Rauschenberg and Edward Keinholz in the International Sculpture section.
Recently, a conservation survey was undertaken in order to identify as many of these works as possible and to assess their condition. As well as viewing works from a standard objects conservation perspective, the electrical functionality and safety of the works was evaluated through the application of some general electrical knowledge gained through testing and tagging certification, and with the assistance of a qualified electrician.
An important part of the project was to develop and establish a system for documentation, maintenance and installation of these works. In many cases, electrical components were not fully recorded in curatorial cataloguing, as cords, wires and bulbs were seen as being somewhat ‘auxiliary’ to the artwork itself. Details of original performance were also rarely documented. Decisions regarding treatment, repair and alterations were naturally considered on a case-by-case basis, but on a whole were informed by the ethical considerations that generally surround the conservation of contemporary art. Some works were rewired or repaired, however many were simply documented and earmarked for future treatment. Finding a balance between conserving ‘original’ materials and maintaining the ‘meaning’ of the work will be key in this ongoing process.
Kasi Albert is an objects conservator at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. She has a special interest in the conservation of decorative arts and contemporary sculpture. She has completed a Masters in the Conservation of Cultural Materials, a Postgraduate Diploma in Restoration and Conservation Studies and a Bachelor of Arts.