Monday, November 30, 2009

Conservation of contemporary art – any clues?

Nothing to my mind as a conservator seems more problematic at present than the conservation of contemporary materials. I think of deteriorating David Hockney paintings covered in yellowing news print or desiccated rubber elements on artifacts, slowly shrivelling up and becoming embrittled. I was at the Australian National Maritime Museum a month ago, and they told me that their entire collection of rubberized bathing caps are melting before their eyes. Despite their being stored in optimum conditions, they are in significantly worse condition than they were 5 years ago to the extent that they will shortly be undisplayable.

The conservation profession has gamefully tried to tackle these issues, with research reported through a number of conferences and publications, particularly over the last ten years. Whilst these have tended to concentrate on the high value area of contemporary art (because this is where the potential diminution in value is greatest), there has also been extensive work undertaken in modern materials ranging from the many types of plastics to soap and chocolates. For a quick resume of what is currently going on, there are a couple of good sites to look at, namely the ICOM-CC Modern Materials and Contemporary Art Working Group and INCCA, the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art.

So I turned to the latest edition (Fall 2009) of the attractively revamped Getty Conservation Institute Newsletter entitled Conservation Perspectives – Modern and Contemporary Art with heightened anticipation that there might actually be some treatment solutions being discussed. Well there is lots of interesting chat of high calibre as one expects from the GCI, and some useful hints on cleaning acrylic paintings from Australian trained conservators Alan Phenix and Bronwyn Ormsby now respectively at GCI and the Tate. But the material problems remain with, by way of example, some horrendous photos of a 1926 artwork made of cellulose nitrate on copper with iron demonstrating extreme warping, cracking, discolouration and corrosion (who in their right mind chooses such combinations of materials anyway??!).

Tom Learner’s lead article does however contain some interesting food for thought, which I paraphrase:
· Today’s society requires us to deny any signs of ageing, putting considerable pressure on conservators to consider intervention in outwardly pristine contemporary works earlier than would traditionally happen.
· Perhaps contemporary art loses so much relevance within ten years of creation that it should be actively displayed and experienced, and allowed to deteriorate with a detailed record of its existence of its early life kept.
· Conservators are often required to carry out treatment on contemporary artworks without the desired level of understanding of the materials or knowledge of the long term consequences of the treatment. In such cases conservators are increasingly reluctant to execute treatments leading in turn to fewer case studies and less knowledge.
· The role of living artists in dictating conservation treatments is fraught with issues: their views need to be taken into account but we need to recognize that artist’s attitudes change throughout their lifetime, and materials available to them also change.

So I am not sure I am much further on, beyond being slightly better informed about the issues.

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