Saturday, April 24, 2010

Armed Conflicts, Its Aftermath, and National Claims—Carambelas

Topography of Terror, Berlin (Source)
Although preserving the past is a noble intent it doesn’t come without conflict and ethical concerns. Over time the material culture and buildings of a community comes to stand for that community, thus, an attack on these items is an attack on the group.

The attempts by Muslims to rebuild mosques and the hostile opposition they have encountered in the city of Banja Luka, Bosnia, are a good example of this notion. After being ethnically cleansed from the region by Serbs, rebuilding is a way to reassert the Muslim presence and right to belong; failing to rebuild would be an admission of defeat.

Rebuilding can also be used to mask the past and create what R. Bevan calls “forced forgetting.” After World War II many cities rapidly redeveloped in order to obscure the memory of German occupation and the Third Reich. In the case of Warsaw, Poland, the rebuilding helped to produce a new national identity which excluded German heritage and privileged certain memories over history. The Warsaw Uprising, for instance, was eliminated from that history because of the less than noble involvement of the Soviets under Moscow.

In some instances history has been sought by later generations through archaeological studies and memorials. The Topography of Terror exhibition and site in Berlin was begun in 1986 as symbolic archaeological dig to better understand the past. Professional archaeologists eventually took over the site and conserved the floors and walls of prison cells they uncovered. Today the site is set up as a didactic walkway that tells the history of the site and those who used it.

Sites of hurtful memories are proof against denial or attempts to mask the past, yet they may be offensive to some parties. So how can conservators ensure that history (and not memory) are preserved and represented in our daily landscapes?

Related Readings/Video

Rape of Europa (DVD 3420 at MSE)

Nora, Pierre. "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire." Representation (Spring 1989): 7-24. (Available through JSTOR)

The Church of St. Alexander, Warsaw, was built between 1818-1826 and razed by the Nazis in 1944 following the failed Warsaw Uprising. Its reconstruction--although following the plan of the original--lacks the finesse of the original and has been described by critics as a 'Disneyfication.' (Destroyed: Source) (Rebuilt: Source)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Personal and Community Claims on Cultural Heritage- Novik

Mahayana murals that are slowly falling apart. Sanjay Dhar presents the issues of conserving objects such as this one with minimal intervention in a site that is still being used. Is there a way to preserve these kinds of artifacts without disturbing the people and the religion? Or do you have to let the object live its life and then die?

A rendering of Sarah Bartmann

The readings this week provided us with some very different viewpoints examining the issue of owning and repatriating cultural objects. Nokomis Paiz told a personal story in which she acted as the link between an American Indian tribe and the museum. This article was troubling because Paiz revealed a darker side to a relationship that seemed so virtuous. It seemed very obvious that the original creators should be consulted when museums are conserving these objects, however Paiz felt that this experience was very uncomfortable. "and yet there (the objects) are, thousands of miles away from the people who created them, their people who may not know that they are there or even exist." Paiz seemed to feel two strong and conflicting tugs from both her ancestors and her profession. Her internal conflicts were fueled by beliefs similar to the objectives that the Banjilaka Aboriginal Centre at the Melbourne Museum has set forth. Their stated goal is to: "increase visitors understanding of Australian Indigenous rights, recognition, and perspectives." Paiz, however, seems to feel that this goal is not possible when these artifacts are housed in a museum instead of being returned to their original community. The Aboriginal Centre has three main goals in attempt to counter this issue: 1. Aboriginal involvement is essential. 2. The object is equally as important as the information it represents and contains. 3. All conservation efforts must adhere to the cultural requirements expressed by the native consults. While these ideas seem very good, are they truly possible? Can an object that was once used and loved continue to convey its information if it is sitting in a museum? Can the Aboriginal people ever be as 'involved' as they would like to be?
Christopher Pala and Jatti Bredekamp bring a new conflict to the table: human remains. I can easily understand the museums arguments for owning and displaying cultural artifacts. A museum is a place of knowledge and discovery and their main objective is to educate the masses. However, a whole new set of morals is brought into play when you are displaying what remains of a person. The case of Sarah Bartmann is a disheartening tale of the Western world. After being displayed as an African novelty her entire life, her remains were also used for display after her death. Where do the rights of a human come into play? Does the educational aspect of displaying human remains ever override the moral complications? To whom should remains be returned if no family remains? Is burial truly 'better' than being used for science if no one has a claim to the remains? The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) was formulated to attempt to answer some of these questions about graves in Honolulu. Is there any way that a bill can determine the moral implications and arguments surrounding a human being?


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Using Objects So That They Live or Die

Kongo nkisi figure, 19th century, wood, vegetable fibers, and metal
Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Ashton: In this week’s readings, we explored the ways in which some artworks are intended to continue “living” even after their artist’s death. This goal presents many challenges for conservators to weigh the importance of “original” objects to the work versus the ability for the object to “live,” the desire to preserve the actual object versus the intended use or function of an object, and the cultural context of the object versus the ethics of the museum. I was especially interested in Kaminitz’s discussion of the benefits of reciprocity between native groups and the museum – that cooperation allows the museums to obtain crucial information about the background of the objects and provides native groups the opportunity to preserve their cultural objects and practices as well as control of the interpretation of the objects. This is a more moderate approach compared to Jones-Amin’s look into the difficulty and ultimate failure of the museum to replicate cultural context while upholding conservation principles.

Jean Tinguely at work on Homage to New York (1960)
Courtesy Museum Tinguely, Basel, and The New York Times

Hughes: In the interview portion of “Reconstruction of a Moving Life, The Playful World of Jean Tinguely: An Interview with Ad Petersen,” Petersen, a former curator, half-laments “In a museum […] a certain fossilization occurs; you can’t do anything about this.” This idea seems to be the subtext of most of the readings this week. Art and objects taken out of context and placed in the museum setting often just sit there, no longer actively used. Mellor points out that African objects, even if they were at one time magical, sacred or powerful, lose these intangible qualities when they are removed from their cultural context. While a certain “fossilization” may be inevitable (or even desired when handling vengeful artifacts such as the Kongo nkisi figure), the viewer would prefer for objects to live as long as possible. The case of Tinguely’s Gismo, with all of its mechanical parts, was a particularly complex problem for conservators. Exhaustive art historical research led the team to conclude, “Gismo has to move, otherwise it does not ‘live.’”

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Modern and Contemporary Art -- Martinek

("Spiral Jetty", Robert Smithson)

“Nature,” as Robert Smithson put it, “does not proceed in a straight line…it is rather a sprawling development. Nature is never finished” (Kennedy).

The same can be said for contemporary art, and the role that conservators play in its preservation and transmission. This week’s articles introduced us to the conservator as a “surrogate artist” (Davies); we see artists not only pushing the boundaries of what art means, but we see conservators assuming more and more of the creative role once the original piece has been crafted. But how much responsibility is too much? How can we determine this?

In their article, “The Challenge of Installation Art”, Glenn Wharton and Harvey Molotch break down the main defining factors that a conservator must consider when working with contemporary art: the physical context of the installation, the varying and changing values of its pieces, its physical transformations, documentation and collaborators available each time all contribute to the definition of the art. These factors can all change quickly and drastically. While the article focuses on installation pieces, these factors are important issues in all contemporary art (and in all other art as well, although in comparison, traditional art and conservation have a much narrower set of rules applied to changes that in most cases aren’t quite as time sensitive). “Meaning and materiality cannot be fixed,” Wharton and Molotch state, “the capacity to perpetuate the art, in some way or another, depends on capacities and conditions in the present moment and not just on those in the past”.

But even if a conservator understands and embraces these factors, how do they account for constant change and settle on a course of action? When an artist is available the conservator can look to them for advice, but what happens if the artist is not, or it is difficult to follow their wishes? Should the conservator prioritize the artist’s input over everything else? I liked Christian Scheidemann’s position in “The Art Doctor” (by Rebecca Mead) about being “responsible to the artwork, not to the artist or to the collector”. But what exactly does that mean? The artwork is brainchild of the artist – without their idea the piece obviously would not exist. So how can it be separated as an entity in its own right? Even with the collector or the public viewing the piece, the physical piece is tied to their individual interpretations, which are crucial for the definition and transmission of its message.

("M.K.N.Y.", conserved by Scheidemann)

In “The Art Doctor” Mead highlights the changes in conservation attitudes from the sixteenth century – a focus on “contemporary” practices with disregard for “the aesthetics of antiquity” – to today’s union of contemporary attitudes and acknowledgment of the passage of time. As Wharton and Molotch point out, “the process continues along a two-way street of adjustment” between conservators expanding to fit the limitless imaginations of the artists, and artists acknowledging to a certain degree a need to fit their pieces within the facilities of conservationists. This two-way street reflects Scheidemann’s position of tailoring to the needs of the artwork – a product of all parties involved and therefore a compromise between the artist’s intent and conservation abilities/general understanding.

But again, how do we define the terms of this compromise, and who facilitates it? In “Meaning Matters” Laura Davies and Jackie Heuman point out that sometimes a conservator might think they have come to a compromise that works for all parties, when in reality they may have overstepped their bounds. After reading about Gallacio’s “Now the Day is Over”, do you think the conservators were too involved? Was the final product at all true to Gallacio’s intent?

Did the conservators consider all aspects enough to make an educated decision? Obviously as collaborators they considered different views, and before the piece was actually made there wasn’t much documentation, but what about how the floor was supposed to fit into its physical context? The importance of the smell of sugar? How the piece was supposed to change over time?

Stepping into Scheidemann’s shoes, did the conservationists protect the integrity of the artwork itself?

Artist Bill Viola reminds us that “it is easy to forget about the true inner life of art objects, the private knowledge that artists have put into these works”. How involved can a conservator be in the creative part of the process before disregarding these crucial concepts?

Spiral Jetty