The new materiality of contemporary art

   |  22 November 2012  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Paris, 22 November 2012, Art Media Agency (AMA).

What do White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flower by Anish Kapoor (1982), Mengele by Jean Tinguely (1986), The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst (1991), Murs de poils de carottes by Michel Blazy (2000) and Peinture homéopathique n°26 by Fabrice Hyber have in common? These five works mark a real revolution in the history of contemporary artistic practice. Indeed, since the 1970s, a new generation of artists began to work with new and simpler materials, from the everyday life, such as organic materials, food, salvaged objects, and even body fluids and animals.

The use of these experimental materials progressively proved fragile and easily deteriorated; eventually it raised a problem of conservation. If a Tinguely does not work anymore and can produce no more sound, is it still a Tinguely? The conservation and restoration of contemporary artworks have become burning issues for museums today. Before the variety and complexity of the latest techniques and practices, restorers of the new generation are no more confronted to varnishes and pigments, but they must acquire the various know-hows of an electrician, a cabinetmaker, a taxidermist, a gardener, a projectionist, etc.

In this context, three questions must be raised. First of all, the decisive question of the relation to time, of the artworks’ interpretation and of processes. Is an artwork defined by the materials employed by the artist, or rather by the concept that animates it? Then, the issues of conservation and restoration of works by living artists must be raised not only on the purchase, but even at the very moment of creation. Finally, the emergence of new solutions, and the evolution of the role of museums raise the question of their being “guides” and “partners” for the artists exhibited.

Contemporary art: new materials and new stakes

The 20th century appears as a time of innovations, especially in the field of artistic mediums and materials. Indeed from the 1900s, beyond the big revolutions brought by photography and video, the artists have sought for new forms of creation and experimented surprising mixes of materials. As soon as 1936, Joan Miró integrated a stuffed parrot on its perch to one of his works titled Object: he thus anticipated Damien Hirst and his taxidermist madness. Today, it seems nothing can escape the artistic laboratory: acrylic paint, but also vegetables, neon lights, feathers, hairs and leather are susceptible to enter the artistic pantheon.

Contemporary art has formalised these new practices, and raises today the question of integrating life into art: artistic materials often convey human and historic notions of decomposition and deterioration, inherent in the very presence and existence of the works. Is the use of entirely perishable materials a kind of artistic sabotage, or does it on the contrary symbolises the transcendence of physicality? To sum it up, is an artwork to be defined by the materials used in its creation, or by the inspiring concept that enabled it? The work of Michel Blazy is very interesting when it comes to such notions. Indeed, he is particularly interested in living processes, which he regularly uses in his shows, in order to stress the inevitability of time, in the fashion of 17th century vanitas: his works made out of smashed carrots, chocolate cream, dog biscuits, etc. naturally react to temperature changes, fermentation, smells, allowing the artist to hold off the notions of object, relic, and to question museum fetishism.

Revolutionary devices: conservation and restoration

Before these new practices, inevitably followed by fast deterioration, restorers used to work on classical works with the support of traditional techniques they have learned, whilst now they are being invited to redefine their conservation and restoration processes. How is a Bill Viola Installation to be repaired? Must a period television be found, or must it be replaced by a recent model? As for a painting by Miquel Barcelo, including salad and raw meat, must it be restored, or must we consider it is its destiny to age and die like a living thing?

It would now seem curators and researchers have to work together, to invite the artists to describe with precision their fabrication process and give a user manual for their works. Ten years ago, the restoration departments of most contemporary art museums considered their duty to clean and mend: when something was broken it had to be glued, when a Tinguely machine worked no more it was repaired by an engineer. Today, it is considered a priority to have a theoretical approach, to know why and how restorations must be done. Questions must be raised about the artist’s intentions, and the technical and scientific characteristics of the different materials. Nowadays, preliminary reflection must be thoroughly carried on before taking as mundane a decision as removing dust from an artwork, for instance.

These questions must be raised even before the creation: a dialogue with the artists is necessary when the work is to be purchased, but even more when it is being created. For works including light bulbs for instance – we know they are doomed to extinction – previous talks with the artist must have allowed to decide what the work shall become, or at least to find a solution, by wondering what is most important in the work and must therefore be stressed and highlighted. Contracts with the artists and insurances must take this into account as well. After the Centre Pompidou acquired a moulding of the artist own body in elastomer resin, Marc Quinn offered guarantees he would provide a new piece in case of deterioration. Similarly, between 2006 and 2009, the Tate Modern London benefited from the AXA Art Research Grant, to fund the “Tate AXA Art Modern Paints Project” (TAAMPP): AXA Art supported and funded the research on conservation, led by the Tate Modern Gallery. The project focused on the means of improving in the long term the conservation of artworks containing acrylic paint, a medium known for its fast deterioration, even before damages become visible. Today, the choice of appropriate conservation techniques is limited, and the effects of those treatments on the works are still little known: pursuing research in this field appears indeed as a necessity.

Museum and artist: a new partnership

Several possibilities have been mentioned to answer these new issues. They redefine entirely and radically the place of the museum, its relationship with the artists and creation itself. Firstly, the idea of establishing a dialogue with the artists invites to mutual education when it comes to conservation problems. In this approach, for instance, Michel Blazy often provides a thoroughly documented file along with his works when they get acquired: a CD with pictures of the assembly and a paper instruction manual. But transparency is not unilateral: the Palais de Tokyo offered him great freedom on occasion of his exhibition “Post Patman” (2007), enabling him to regularly enrich his work, a true work in progress then, and to transform it according to current changes or to his own desires.

Collaboration among the various players of the art field is even more total: it must be understood that one restorer alone will not be able to undertake the restoration of the whole amount of works. In the future, a solution must be found which is still utopian:  a collaboration between several restorers on various materials, after a previous and thorough study of the artist’s intentions, and the technical problems raised by the conservation of the work. It will then be necessary to create a network, in order to enable people to get informed on restoration and the various experiences.

That is why the role of the museum seems to pass through an age of transformations: the artists have changed the rules, and the museum now appears as a “guide”, opening to new forms, ever more sophisticated technologies, multiple and revolutionary approaches of the artwork. The exhibition space is no more a mere container, but it is a partner in its own right of the works on display and their future.

Finally, it appears the notion of ephemeral art that blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s still prevails in the contemporary artistic theory, as the use of new materials indicates, and the difficulties raised when it comes to conservation. However, this coexists with a desire for permanence: it must be noted these so-called “ephemeral works” have outlived their time and are still there to be seen. The point is not the time of contemporary creation, but rather the various modes of presentation, which must take into account the specificity of the contemporary eye. The work will inevitably evolve, but the idea, the process and the context within are now as important as the work itself. As long as these elements can be restored, the work survives.

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