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"
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.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Protest Art – The Conservation Perspective

Our favourite non-artist Banksy (i.e. his real identity is unknown) has been busy again with his satirical art, this time painting in his distinctive stencil style a Les Mis themed image on a wall near the French Embassy in London criticising the use of teargas in the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais. Whilst widely reported (see this article in the Guardian and this one in the Metro) the story and images in the Daily Mail report interested me most as a conservator.

Banksy’s images are always vulnerable to being graffitied, overpainted or destroyed as they are invariably:
a)       Protest art
b)       Painted on unprepared and often temporary surfaces

Sometimes that destruction is inadvertent - As described in this Sydney Morning Herald article, Melbourne’s city street cleaners did a fine job painting over one, and this in a city renowned for its street art!

More often it is an active process by the authorities being satirised to remove it. In the London instance the artwork came with a QR code which linked to a tear gas attack in the Calais refugee camp on 5th January, one which presumably the French Government were not over-keen to have publicised, hence their quiet word to their British counterparts to cover it up ASAP. 

The irony is that the British authorities claimed they were rushing to cover it up to preserve it, the same argument the French authorities had taken with murals Banksy had painted in the refugee camp itself. Which is where the Daily Mail images are interesting, because it is clear both from the article and the images that the first way they attempted to preserve it was by ripping it to shreds with a crowbar, not a method which comes readily to mind in my toolkit of preservation processes.

The next question then is from a conservation point of view - what part of the artwork should be conserved? To my mind the crowbar damage is now part of its story, namely how the artwork was responded to, but the view could be put that this is damage that needs repairing.

Luckily I can report that this and other Protest Art issues will be the subject of a major dialogue at the forthcoming IIC Congress in LA in September 2016 entitled “Umbrellas, Gas Masks, and Post-it-Notes: Considering the historic and conservation challenges of objects created for social protest”. The dialogue will be in the form of a discussion between those who create the art and their intent for it, and those who promote it, collect it and protect it. As the blurb for the dialogue states:

“Historic events of the past years have highlighted art as a creative means of social expression to current events as well as an impactful tool used during social protests. Whether to express solidarity, such as Je Suis Charlie, or to promote political freedom for the activists in Hong Kong, disobedient art has found its presence in the world of artistic expression. The impact of disobedient art on cultural perspectives has been tremendous and the historical significance of using art to inspire and promote these events is gaining in popularity.”

There will be lots to discuss. Make it to LA if you can.