Conserve + Preserve
By Dr. Andrew H. Dent
Over the past few centuries art has developed and grown in many ways, becoming something much larger than simply an artist and a canvas. Today, we hear of a number of different innovative and modern mediums that have joined the fray. Often less talked about but equally important is the intent behind art and its preservation. For the Art Issue, Dr. Andrew Dent, VP Library and Materials Research at Material ConneXion, explores the incredibly fascinating arena of art conservation with Christopher Mcglinchey, the Sally and Michael Gordon Conservation Scientist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York who leads the scientific component addressing the research and preservation of the museum’s collection.
Andrew Dent: When you talk about bringing together art, science, materials, you’re obviously interested in what the artist does but I kind of would like your take on it, how do you reconcile the three? Obviously there’s the artist’s vision etc., but when you’re actually working with the stuff, how do you feel when you’re using science to work with art?
Christopher McGlinchey: Honestly, I see them as rather cohesive because I’m comfortable with all of them. Their intersection describes a creator – whether that person is an artist, scientist, fabricator, or engineer – who sees beyond their niche and benefits. So, I don’t see it as science working with art, I look at them in terms of materials, their physical composition, as they are basically chemicals, molecules. Not that that’s what I approach first but as I absorb what I see – the artist’s hand sort of transcends materiality. After absorbing what the artist’s message is, I come down and see that these are just materials, physical substances, molecules, which all work together to create a certain affect.
AD: So you must see it in a way that virtually no one else does as you have to absent yourself from the piece of art and just treat it as a material. You must have a unique viewpoint on some of these objects.
CM: Traditionally, conservators separate themselves from the value of art. That certainly is true. So when we’re treating or examining something we don’t necessarily think about how valuable it is. But it is true that the scientist, when looking at an object, does have an appreciation for the materiality of an object the way no one else can.
AD: That’s a great answer. So, I’d like to go on to the time effects and the way that affects the decaying process of art and I think you’ve got some good examples there, but ultimately, given that most modern art is using modern materials, is it just an exercise in futility to really try and keep these things exactly as they started?
CM: I don’t believe so. There are a few things that are important to bear in mind. If you take any era in art history, be it 500 or 5,000 years ago, and ask yourself what portion of it exists today, I think the answer is a relatively small portion, and we are experiencing the same loss of heritage that was experienced by prior cultures. The difference is that with so many technological innovations in the late 19th and early 20th century, we now have a very broad range of materials that are available. Some are incredibly durable and robust and will last far longer than materials that were perfected 200 years ago. Others are much more fugitive. So, I feel that artists working today have the option to do either, but it is important to bear in mind that some of that is intentional, and they’re making a point. One point I think they're trying to acknowledge is that contemporary art has become incredibly valuable. So it’s almost become a game, a challenge, a statement saying that I’m not making something where I’m perpetuating that cycle, I don’t want this to have a high value by designing something that is designed to die. But I think that there are a lot of modern materials out there that are so robust, the thought that oil painting technique is the standard of stability is flawed. These materials degrade and they’re changing for the first hundred years of their life. And if an artist didn’t know what they were doing, they made an oil painting with inherent vice, and that is one of the reasons to account for the loss of some paintings that are a hundred and two hundred years old – they fell apart. And at some point someone forgot about them and they got flooded or left in the attic and tossed away.
AD: Does the artist ever consider the longevity of a material? Obviously there are those artists you mentioned who are intentionally thumbing their noses at longevity, but for others, there’s no guarantee that the artist, though they may know the material intimately, understands how long it’s going to last, especially if they’re doing odd things to it, such as heating it or coating it in certain ways.
CM: Sure, I think what’s important to mention here is that the role of the scientist is not to tell an artist how to do their craft unless of course the artist has asked that question. It would not be appropriate for me to tell them how to paint. It’s one of the unspoken rules of conservation science. It’s certainly an area where my colleagues and I tread very carefully. We make ourselves very much available to artists who are interested in these issues but we don’t consider it our job to tell people or to point out circumstances as inherent advice. The way that would pan out however is in the museum setting when a curator is interested in acquiring an object. This object goes before an acquisitions committee and in those institutions a conservator’s voice is heard as part of that process, at which point a conservator will say, that’s going to fall apart in five years. Are you prepared to pay that amount of money for something that can only be exhibited for a short period of time? It’s up to the curator, and curators tend to have relationships with artists that conservators do not. Then the curator would say, you know I’d very much like to collect your art but I’ve been told by conservation professionals that your materials are fugitive. And they could say I don’t care or oh my gosh I didn’t know that, what can I do? So that’s sort of how the ball gets rolling in terms of informing artists on the potential frailty of their work. But, to really draw it out, sometimes, the longevity of the material is part of the intent. When this is the case, the artist describes, as best they can, how to reproduce the object and that record is archived in our files. So for example, since MoMA’sUntitled by Urs Fischer is composed of half of an apple and half of a pear facing each other, we’ll use fresh fruit the next time it is exhibited and carefully follow the artist’s instructions. And what might seem counter-intuitive, MoMA just acquired a work that is cast from a mixture of dried rabbit poop and straw; the sculpture is over 40 years old- looks great- and with proper exhibition and storage could look the same in 400 years.
AD: And have you had those conversations recently? And can you say specifically what materials they might have been about?
CM: Not recently, but one instance was where the artist was dyeing these small swatches of fabric and placing them sort of in a systematic pattern on the floor. It was site specific and she wanted it in one of our galleries that received natural light, and we had the opportunity to examine the material she was using. We informed her that she was not using light stable dyes, and what that did was influence how long her work was exhibited for, not whether or not her objects were exhibited. So, for that particular object, it’s not like she tossed it out but it did inform her that the particular paints and dyes she was using were not light stable so she took an interest in using light stable materials afterwards.
AD: With decay in mind, would you say the increasing climate changes affect the decaying process of art?
CM: Certainly. The manifestations of climate change will have the greatest impact on cultural heritage sites because they’re permanent and can’t be moved. The immediate ramifications range from more severe weather to the increase of rainfall in areas that were historically arid. The long term trend everyone knows is sea level rise. Both the Worlds Monuments Fund and UNESCO have identified sites at risk. On the plus side, warming of permafrost and glacier retreat has increased the number of finds archaeologists make working in those areas. But it’s an added burden to conservators, treating these objects. If artifacts aren’t collected and stabilized soon after they are exposed to the atmosphere they could rapidly deteriorate.
AD: So in regards to innovative materials transforming art in a new movement, can you give me a little more about that?
CM: Time based media is kind of a simplification that has helped define any creation an artist has made that is time dependent, so if you know Nam June Paik, he is a great example. He made a mechanized piano with a video monitor on top which is in the museum’s collection. So it’s this video tape loop that’s constantly going and this mechanized piano player that plays music periodically. So the fact that you can’t just come in for a moment and get the whole message say in 10 seconds, but instead must spend a while with the object to understand what it’s about, is what gives time based media its name. It’s actually an interesting issue because I think in the 1960’s there were many artists not working in this medium, but were kind of resentful of people who would quickly walk by paintings. Ad Reinhardt is a good example of this. He worked in a way that forced people, if they really wanted to understand what his painting was about, to stare at his paintings for a long time. This issue of time is something that a lot of artists have grappled with and so working in video is one way. Working with sound, like in the Janet Cardiff piece, is another way. It is absolutely one of my favorite works of contemporary art, and it’s so beautiful. The fact that it involves early music is a wonderful twist, but it is an amazing piece and anyone that appreciates music will undoubtedly want to absorb all 14 minutes of it. That’s a good example of something you can’t pop in and get in 10 seconds. It would be a tremendous insult to Demoiselles D’Avignon to look at it for 10 seconds and move on. But if you look at it and concentrate you can say ok I can see the desmoiselles. With time based media, it really forces you by virtue of its design, to slow down and take notice. And it started with film and video, but now certainly computers and digital animation have done a tremendous amount for the new medium as they call it. I find it a little frustrating though because so much happened in the 20th century that from a physical perspective, we talk about new medium, it used to refer to oil versus alkyd or acrylic medium. But that kind of took a back seat to the new medium, that being time based media.
AD: The idea is that you’re no longer in control, if you’re to enjoy it, you have to follow the artist’s desire to stay there for 15 minutes. It’s a weird degree of control that they have over your enjoyment of the piece. So modern art vs modern materials - what is your opinion in regards?
CM: I have more of an observation than an opinion. Modern artists use media that fall into three categories: traditional artist’s materials, traditionally unconventional materials, and new materials that are presenting themselves for the very first time. Regardless of the source- an artist may be just as likely to be interested in the baggage a particular material carries as they are its properties. In my opinion- artist’s use their craft to create something that transcends the medium they are working in while designers are interested in leveraging the medium for a particular function. Consequently, modern art can be expressed by traditional materials.
AD: Natural and synthetic materials operate differently, but in art can they both coexist? What is the difference between the conservation of natural and synthetic materials?
CM: This requires a wonky response. Some materials can remain unchanged on a geological time scale while others can change in the blink of an eye. One thing to consider for any combination of materials is how they respond individually to environmental changes: if two things respond in a similar way, the risk of bad things happening is lower- or at least more controllable. Another thing to consider is if one material offends another by degrading or off-gassing in a way that causes harm to the other component. These are examples of inherent vice. If I had the resources I would love to see the creation of a database that registers properties and response to environmental stressors for a broad set of materials. This would help conservators predict what objects are vulnerable to degradation and possibly how to limit or control it. I wouldn’t use it to tell artists how to work. But if they asked that would be a different story!