Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Conserving the Contemporary

Conservators from around the world will be gathering in September in LA at the biannual IIC (International Institute for Conservation) congress. IIC congresses always have a theme and this year it is Contemporary Art with the catchy title of 'Saving the Now: Crossing Boundaries to Conserve Contemporary Works'. As the Congress will also be run in association with INCCA (International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art) it promises to at least address if not resolve a few of the major issues that conservators of contemporary art grapple with.

Conservation of contemporary art doesn’t sound like a main stream subject, so it was good to see it addressed in a recent New Yorker article by Tom Lerner, entitled 'The Custodians: How the Whitney is transforming the art of museum conservation'. Ostensibly about the Whitney’s new conservation space and its head conservator Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, the reflective and perceptive article cuts to the heart of the debate by:
  1. Questioning why something that is contemporary needs conservation 
  2. Demonstrating the challenges that the complexities of the materials and methods of fabrication of contemporary art create for conservators, and 
  3. Showing how conservation is in Lerner’s words "deeply curatorial, as conservators choose which aspects of a work are presented and how"
Mancusi-Unagaro at work
(Photograph as featured in 'The Custodians')

He comes to the latter conclusion through observing Mancusi-Ungaro at work, during which he discusses:
  • The problem of materials. Where medieval and Renaissance painters had intimate knowledge of their pigments and what would last, post war artists went to the hardware store not the art-supply shop for their paint, using mass produced materials never intended to last. And that’s only the paint, i.e. before considering the plastics, rubber, poor quality paper etc. used with it.
  • The issue of replication in art. Mancusi-Ungaro heads a replication committee at the Whitney which includes curators, archivists and a lawyer which determines how a work of art (or part of it) should be replicated when it cannot be restored in the traditional way. Examples might be a motor or lights on a kinetic sculpture or a digital tape for an audio installation.
  • Non-traditional methods of conservation. Lerner cites Mancusi-Ungaro’s work on Rothko’s Harvard murals where the original colour had faded right out beyond repair. She developed a series of coloured light projections which when thrown on the canvases retuned the works to their original colours – though, as Lerner questions, is this conservation or a multi media installation?
Luckily, Mancusi-Ungaro is giving the Forbes Prize lecture at the IIC Congress in LA, so we should hear more on this challenging issue then.

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