OUR COLUMNIST ‘SCULPTURESTEPH’ JOINS THE DEBATE ON THE STATUS OF THE ART OBJECT IN A SOCIETY THAT SEEMS OBSESSED BY THE VIRTUAL:
‘An idea in Conceptual Art acts like an electron going around its nucleus and being simultaneously in several places at the same time (quantum physics), while “Physical Art” is the action of stopping that idea some where… (Avila 2012/12/28)
…the allegory of the electron is a very fitting comparison, and it offers me the opportunity to explain my thought process behind my comment about expressing concepts physically.
Justifying my job as a ‘conservator’ for contemporary sculpture and Installation Art, I see the action of documenting, describing and/ or discussing the work (making it tangible and/ or physical,ie…all those documents and records) not as stopping the idea but as a snapshot of one aspect of the art work/ installation in a timeless continuum of conversation.
Describing the physical, the material and having the opportunity to establish in conversation with the artist if the materiality, the position, distance, shape, form, colour, etc.. of a component has to be preserved or is not significant, is an important pointer for me to then plan, source and establish it’s maintenance (or not if not important) and will become part of a ‘care manual’ specific to each installation, for future installation and/ or storage. I do this with the understanding that the work will outlive my presence in the museum and I have the responsibility to communicate the work to future generations (and conservators).
In contrast to a traditional marble sculpture for example, where the material, the stone, the physicality has to be cleaned, consolidated and preserved to maintain and preserve the image itself- with an installation, the above described process aims to preserve the intangible, by describing the installation process (ideally observed from the artist) important aspects of the space, environment, and even it’s accessibility.
This can range from recording the colour code and paint brand of the wall paint that may be important as the background to a work, to even establishing that in the case of deterioration of a perishable material component, it’ll be the artist who would provide a replacement, rather than myself figuring out how to restore/ conserve it.
In the case of conserving especially contemporary installations, my role is more like a ‘guardian’ (once the artist has ‘handed over’ his/ her creation to the museum/ gallery) who now has to look after the work’s well being (preserving the artistic intent) and speaks up for it, making sure everything is in place to let this work develop, grow and accumulate it’s future history and use, thus preserving it’s essence rather than freezing it in time and ‘killing it off’.
For this to happen I have to highlight prior to acquisition that the challenges are not restricted to raising the money to acquire the work, but there may be substantial costs and practical, technical challenges in it’s transport, storage, maintenance and installation which need to be resourced. These are not only interesting aspects to be aware of, they are the most important aspects to have in place, since if they are not- the work will irreversibly suffer, and loose over time more and more of it’s intangible character.
I also like to add that my (the conservator) only interest is the work itself, not the price tag, the celebrity status of the artist, or the curator’s/ director’s own preferences. I do not judge the work (I obviously like some works more than others- I am not a robot…yet!), that is left to others.
My responsibility is to care for it and it’s ‘interests’ so to speak, and just like a Health professional I would see to establish the works technical, physical, and use history in a condition report- onto which every time it is used, moved, installed I can assess any changes, alterations and or damage.
Now for a traditional sculpture it is me and the curator/ art expert/ academic who would, through discussion, define as to when something is damage or acceptable ageing (which in the case of a metal’s Patina can increase the value) and decide on the appropriate action and method to either remove, restore or preserve.
For a contemporary sculpture and Installation Art I merely record and if possible report to the artist my observations, so he/ she can identify if this alteration is damage to be remedied or an acceptable and even expected aspect to the art work- becoming part of the works narratives.
The ever growing lack of people’s appreciation and experience of physical, technical and practical doing and/ or work means that trying to convey, that looking after art works meaningfully (and I like to add ethically) requires, time, space, money, equipment, materials, skills and individuals, becomes an ever increasing challenge in my daily work. It’s not the technical and practical skills required but meaningful communication that is insufficient and hence poses a real threat to the preservation of the intangible character of many works.
This is not only an issue for the future care of current contemporary works (which eventually will become historic in the future) the loss of knowledge in how to do things physically is the biggest threat to our historic heritage as well and can be seen in all those derelict buildings, public sculpture and monuments in Glasgow. Their vandalism is now accepted (the ‘cone’ on the Duke of Wellington equestrian sculpture outside the Gallery of Modern Art is a case in point)- and this is a consequence of many of these works meanings and the concepts behind them being forgotten and no longer understood and/ or appreciated.
The skills, industries and hence the values and belief systems of the times these sculptures were created in are long gone, with less understanding of their physical care and the intangible concept behind the physical image- the heritage can no longer communicate with us and becomes silent.
I do blame the PR that is ‘conceptual Art’ and the emergence and obsession with virtual communication (everything that is digital) for having distracted us from the reality and direct human communication and doing things (rather than just talking about what should or shouldn’t be done), which I feel has also contributed to less responsible and caring communities.
For me it is the communication (painting, sculpture, dance, performance, music, writing, talking) the activity of expressing and the activity of perceiving (through our senses) that represents the electrons spinning around in multi dimensionality around a nucleus (that is an idea) colliding and fusing with infinite other atoms in space and time (parallel universes?) leading to active problem solving and learning.
Therefore the death or stopping of an idea occurs the moment the activities of it’s expression and perception-the communication ceases.
Currently it seems that societies do value the idea, the concept (or virtuality) above physicality, (or reality) and I think the consequences of this misplaced valuation has been one idea (concept) we should all actively engage in to re-balance…’