Monday, April 19, 2010

Contemporary Art and Conservation Ethics

A useful book has hit the materials conservation literature shelf – not a very large shelf at present, reflecting to my mind the relative paucity of thinking around the philosophy and practice of materials conservation. Entitled Conservation: Principles, Dilemmas and Uncomfortable Truths, (edited by Alison Richmond and Alison Bracker; Butterworth-Heinemann 2009) it has largely grown out of discussions generated within the Victoria and Albert Museum’s conservation department. It includes an excellent chapter by our own Marcelle Scott of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, comparing the very different history and approach taken to the conservation of indigenous cultural material in Australia with that in New Zealand (to the detriment in her view of the former).

It also includes an outstanding chapter from Jonathan Ashley-Smith (former head of conservation at the V&A) entitled ‘ The Basics of Conservation ethics’. It should be a must-read for all conservators. Jonathan always writes well, if quirkily – his short bio gives an indication of this: “Jonathan first wrote about conservation ethics in 1982 when he was young and his views were rigid and idealistic. He is now older.” His premise is that there is not one set of ethics that fits all conservation decisions and that we should tolerate diversity.

But it is the chapters on the ethical considerations around the conservation of contemporary art that particularly caught my attention. What DO you do when trying to ensure the long term preservation of an artwork when it is made out of, wait for it, film, video, photography, self-lubricating plastic, Vaseline and salt (Matthew Barney or parts of a Jeep Cherokee, peanuts, bottle caps, balsa wood, mai tai umbrellas and aspirin (Sarah Sze)? The answer seems to be to establish a different time horizon, i.e. where conservation normally tries to preserve things in perpetuity, the lifespan for such contemporary artworks might be more like ten years.

I was reminded of the conservation dilemmas around the Anish Kapoor molten wax artwork I saw last year at the Royal Academy in London. Kapoor has just won the gig for a 115 metre high major sculpture outside the new London Olympics stadium. Interestingly he pipped Andy Goldsworthy to the post, and Goldsworthy is featured in this book for a clay installation he undertook in 2007 called White Walls, as an example of an anethical installation. Anethical? I think they mean beyond ethics by which to guide the conservation i.e. neither ethical nor not ethical. Doesn’t help me as a word, I must say, but what I love about it is the story.

Goldsworthy conceived of the idea of plastering a large room with c 8,500 kg of wet porcelain clay, the idea being that the room would 'deinstall' itself, as the clay dried and cracked and gradually delaminated from the wall. The clay would then be recycled and reinstalled in future incarnations, thus linking the successive installations and the memory of each activity. What actually happened is that a process expected to take some weeks started immediately and was almost complete in five days. With it the clay also stripped off five and half years of paint layers, revealing traces of previous installations by other artists. Not only did this create a quite different form of art work, but the large lumps of clay falling with a dull thud became a shocking but compelling piece of kinetic art in themselves.

Now there is a conservation challenge.

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