Saving the Now: Crossing Boundaries to Conserve Contemporary Works
IIC 2016 Congress
Millennium Biltmore Hotel Los Angeles, 12–16 September
‘The conservation of contemporary works is a complex discipline, partly because of the unusual materials that may have been used in their construction, and partly because of the need to balance conservation needs with the artist’s intent and the philosophical understanding that requires. Conservation professionals in this field have responded to these challenges by encouraging strong dialogue with artists and thorough documentation of artistic practices. They have also adopted an increasingly interdisciplinary approach to conservation by collaborations with workers in fields as varied as art history, architecture, engineering and ethnography, as well as with curators, fabricators and scientists’.
These opening words from Sarah Staniforth, IIC President, sum up the congress intent in one neat paragraph. This evolving field of work requires conservators to problem solve and work cooperatively, beyond the context of traditional laboratory experience. This sees conservators no longer working ‘behind the scenes’ but out in the community, or part of projects at the point of inception, or working side by side with artists and their studios.
Saving the Now provided participants with a stimulating, thought-provoking programme of presentations, panel sessions, tours and posters. In the following Q&A Amanda Pagliarino and Raymonda Rajkowski reflect on their experience of the conference.
Congress sessions covered a range of topics: theory and practice; artist’s materials and working practices; acquisitions and commissions; digital and participatory art; approaches and decision making; contemporary art and ethnographic collections; street art – to name a few. Can you give your impressions of the program and some personal highlights?
AP. Working predominantly in the conservation of contemporary sculpture I found the program to be diverse and the presentations very relevant. It was great to see several papers and posters presented by Australian conservators that demonstrated progressive theory and unconventional practice. Some papers that I found very interesting included:
- Andreia Nogueira (Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal) presented a methodology for documenting artworks that crosses boundaries of theatre, performance and music. She described the use of ‘prescriptive’ and ‘descriptive’ streams of information. I have subsequently used this documentation strategy to capture the music and choreography of Nick Cave ‘Heard.Bris’ performance.
- Yvonne Shashoua (National Museum of Denmark) charted the history and progress of plastics and polymer conservation, demonstrating three phases in the sound conservation practice: detection, research and treatment.
- Sara Moy (previously M+, Hong Kong) presented an interesting paper on a site specific installation by GU Dexin that is due to be deconstructed or demolished as consequence of forthcoming repurposing of the building. The artist has declined to be involved and it is yet to be resolved whether the artwork will be reconstructed in the future or whether it should cease to exist in a physical form.
I’ll just mention one more – Emily O’Reilly (National Museum of Wales) discussed the curation and conservation of ‘destruction art’ by Ivor Davies. I thoroughly enjoyed her presentation because she spoke with honesty and humour about the process of working with an eccentric living artist, whose creations were challenging displays for the traditional museum setting.
RR. I also found the program diverse and rich with case studies and theoretical discussion that broadened my particular interest in modern paints conservation. The wide scope of the presentations meant that there was much to appeal to all participants. A few papers of interest to me were:
- Robin Clark and Michelle Barger (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) presented on The Artist Initiative, a project series and dedicated space that places collaboration at its centre. With a hybrid working studio (Collections Workroom) and functional exhibition space (Mock-Up Gallery), this initiative serves as a perfect model for integrating collaborative activity between conservators, other museum staff, artists and the public into the museum framework.
- J. Luca Ackerman’s (The Better Image, New York) discussion of a treatment carried out of Cindy Sherman’s A Play of Selves was insightful. He spoke candidly about preferring for the final work to be double-dated so to acknowledge the commercial reprinting of elements of the original 1975 work.
- Samantha Skelton (Museum of Fine Arts, USA) presented on an agarose gel treatment of a large-scale stain painting by Morris Louis. The work’s non-accession status expanded the scope for treatment and allowed techniques from textile conservation to be drawn upon with successful results.
- Lastly, I was particularly excited to see the strong Australian representation at this global event, with presentations given by Rob Lane and Caroline Kyi (University of Melbourne), Jenny Dickens (Heritage Victoria) and Amanda Pagliarino (QAGOMA). I couldn’t help but take a few photos for posterity.
The congress presented 31 posters and 20 student posters. What were some of the interesting insights into conservation practice that you discovered in the posters?
AP. Is it possible to have a poster session without at least one on the perennially fascinating Nam June Paik? I think not, and since I am still to find a solution for a Nam June Paik cello in the QAGOMA Collection I was pleased to read a CRT-TV feasibility study by Imhoff, Giebeler and Heydenriech.
It is good to see that thorough summaries of posters (although not student posters) were included in the congress preprint.
RR. I was particularly intrigued by the more unusual art materials explored in a few of the posters, since they pose such interesting challenges to conservation. One example was Lavatio Corporis, an artwork made with embalmed equine fetuses (Delgado, María & García); and another, an installation of banana skins by Lo Yi-chun (Soraluze, Chen & Lu). In both studies, the work was intended to last longer than a few decades, despite the inherent deterioration mechanisms of the organic material. It was encouraging to see the careful consideration given to minimal intervention for the display and preservation of these challenging works.
I was also interested in seeing the promising results from a study by Rogge and Arslanoglu, using Raman spectroscopy to distinguish between crystal form and co-precipitated rutile and anatase titanium dioxide pigments in oil-based paints, providing useful dating information.
Tell us about the Getty Conservation Institute Research Facilities and Getty Centre Architectural Tour.
RR. The tour to the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) was one of many tours on offer as part of the Congress. I enjoyed this behind-the-scenes tour of the conservation research laboratories that gave a glimpse into the many projects in progress at GCI. We heard about their investigations into alternative treatment strategies for painted outdoor sculptures and backing methods for lifted mosaics. A study of a set of meticulously detailed visual diaries belonging to the American abstract artist Frederick Hammersley was also discussed, as well as the exciting developments of a new graphic solubility descriptor that may one day replace the Teas Chart.
It was great to conclude the visit outdoors with a guided tour of the modern buildings of the Getty Centre and to learn more about the architect Richard Meier. The minimal curved buildings based on a modular grid system and clad with Italian travertine were visually pleasing, matched only by the spectacular panoramic views of the Los Angeles.
As a profession we have entered a period of change, where we are thinking beyond traditional modes of practice. Words like collaboration, co-production and co-creation were referred to and this encouraged lively debate and discussions throughout the congress sessions. What was a key moment or highlight for you?
AP. There were many highlights in the program but I found Carol Mancusi-Ungaro’s Forbes Prize Lecture, The Falsification of Time, thoroughly thought-provoking. The title of the lecture is a direct quote from Sol Le-Witt, spoken during an interview she conducted with him. He said, “the artist is not responsible for the falsification of time” and Mancusi-Ungaro went on to explain her views that artistic concept and intent are rendered untrue by the deterioration of material parts. In response to this conservators have to ask ‘how should this look – what was the artist’s investment and intent’. As a profession we have a tendency to preserve a naturally aged state, we appreciate patina, attributions of age, history and the back story. It is perhaps not a mode of practice best suited the conservation of contemporary art, and as a consequence the profession is pushed in new directions.
Mancusi-Ungaro also proposed the term ‘co-producers’ in respect to working with artists to re-present their work. It was as insightful as it was provocative and the term popped up in subsequent presentations. Later in the conference Mancusi-Ungaro questioned her use of the term as a colleague pointed out that this suggested equal-footing. Is it too controversial to place the problem-solving work of the conservator alongside the practice of an artist?
RR. For me, the discussion of ‘co-producers’ came full circle with the philosophical deliberation of replicas and replication explored in a presentation by Louise Lawson (Tate, UK) and Simon Cane (University College London, UK). Their paper playfully drew on the concept of the android replicants in the 1982 film Blade Runner, based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).
By framing the discussion in this way, the authors raised bigger questions concerning the value and authenticity of the original and the replica. They showed how the distinction can be blurred, with reference to a 2015 replicated sculpture by Naum Gabo, Construction in Space (Crystal). Both the original sculpture made in 1936 with cellulose acetate and the first replica created by the artist in 1977 suffered deterioration and required replication in order for the work to live on. The replicas were always intended to be representative of the original sculpture and function as a ‘authenticated replica’. Yet, no longer fulfilling its purpose, the 2015 replica was due to be replaced with a new replica — evoking the storyline of Blade Runner.
Replication as a preservation strategy has been around for some time. What is perhaps changing it the scope and need for dedicated committees and projects to navigate the complex decision-making process for replication. Here, the ‘co-production’ process involves extensive legal and ethical considerations requiring a whole team to tackle.
I particularly appreciated the poetic connections. A stroll down the road from the Congress brought me to The Bradbury Building, the setting for the climactic rooftop scene of Blade Runner.
What could be the future relevance of this year’s Congress?
AP. Only days after returning from Los Angeles I heard Kaff-eine (a Melbourne-based street artist) reveal to interviewer Fran Kelly on the ABC Radio National breakfast program, “I’m pretty sure all [of my artworks] have disappeared, you know with time, which is part of the allure of it, you know, that nothing lasts forever. I don’t want people to see the artwork that I painted five or six years ago!” (RN Breakfast, Monday 26th September 2016)
This interview, in the short space of seven minutes, touched on many of the critical issues raised at the congress and reinforced for me that our contemporary conservation practice is highly topical, relevant and of interest to a broad cross section of people.
RR. Saving the Now was a timely convergence of new ideas from across the globe. It certainly initiated much-needed discussion in the field of contemporary art conservation, and also revealed how much we are crossing boundaries within the profession and beyond. With time, the discussion will no doubt progress and move in new directions with the next IIC Congress in 2018 to take place in Torino, Italy.
The authors would like to acknowledge the organisations and business that generously provided support in the form of congress travel grants. These included The Getty Foundation, Tru Vue Inc, and The Gabo Trust. As the recipient of the AICCM ADFAS Patricia Robertson Scholarship Fund, Amanda would like to sincerely thank ADFAS and AICCM for assistance to attend the IIC Congress. Raymonda would like to thank the IIC for the financial support she received through The Brommelle Memorial Fund to attend the IIC Congress. All images copyrighted to International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.