("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?