Protecting artwork for posterity when it’s made from materials prone to dilapidation and putrefaction
In the last week, I’ve had the pleasure of going to an art museum with eight- and four-year-olds, once at the four-year-old’s request. They especially enjoyed the modern and contemporary pieces that felt more open-ended in how they could be interpreted (protip: kids like Nick Cave.) The biggest concern for our visits was reminding everyone that these objects, even the stuffed animals sewn into a suit composed largely of fishing bobs, weren’t there for us to touch. In order for people two thousand years in the future to be able to see these new pieces the way we were able to see an Egyptian sarcophagus, we all needed to do our part to keep things as pristine as possible. This challenge extends beyond kids’ fingers though, as non-traditional materials used in contemporary art are posing huge challenges for art curators.
Replace and repair
Synthetic items like fishing bobs and stuffed animals seem like the should be easy to preserve. Plastics famously take ages to break down, but manufactured goods don’t always hold up the way you expect. A plastic bob might get cracked during transport, or lost as some of the knitted yarn that holds it breaks down. The question then becomes how to repair the piece— if the original item can no longer be purchased, do you find a substitute? How much change can a piece of art accommodate before it’s no longer the same creation? This has been an issue in some art purposely built from manufactured goods, like florescent tube lights in installations by Dan Flavin. In that case, Flavin knew the lights couldn’t be replaced forever, forcing the piece to change over time.
Responding to rot
Some materials turn sculptures or paintings into what amount to performances. Food has been incorporated into art for thousands of years, but when that food isn’t just presented as an image, things can get messy. Dieter Roth embraced this in his biodegradable art, covering photos in cheese to see how they’d change over time. Jim Victor and Marie Pelton sculpt butter in refrigerated cases, knowing that each piece has a short lifespan from the start. When the eventual decomposition isn’t intentional though, art conservationists have a bigger problem. Janine Antoni has made a few copies of a piece called Lick and Lather, each consisting of self-portrait busts made of chocolate and soap. Over time, chocolate pushes some fatty lipids to the surface, adding white, chalky texture to the otherwise brown surface. The soap versions actually prove to be more difficult to preserve, and curators have worked with Antoni reformulate the exact soap formula so that future replacements can hopefully survive the test of time a bit longer.
Recuse from the light
Of course, even traditional materials need special care to hold up over time. While the effects of heat and humidity might be more obvious, even light can damage an oil painting. Ultraviolet light can damage pigments in paint, breaking up specific molecules that end up changing the painting’s colors. Museums therefore do their best to avoid bright light on paintings, but even darkness can cause changes. Linseed oils used to make the oil paint more malleable tend to darken and yellow in darkness, although that particular change is eventually self-correcting after a painting is exposed to light again.
All these changes mean that a lot of planning, thought and even physics and chemistry are needed to keep art objects in good shape over long periods of time. Collectors are now having art appraised not just for their vision and value, but also for how durable the piece may be. In some cases, the solution is to plan ahead and build replacement parts with an original piece, but other times the answer seem to be accepting that change is inevitable. Even if something doesn’t end up looking like the artist originally intended, there’s still a good chance it will be valued and appreciated for generations to come— just ask those Greek sculptors who might barely recognize their own work now that the paint and arms have fallen off.
Source: How Do You Conserve Art Made of Bologna, or Bubble Gum, or Soap? by Jacoba Urist, The Atlantic