Conceptual and Ephemeral Art

Conservation Issue

/ by Camille Polkownik

Sol LeWitt wall drawing being made at Dia Beacon.
Conservation aims to preserve cultural property, or material and immaterial elements bearing artistic, historical, scientific, religious or social meaning. Cultural property is an invaluable and irreplaceable legacy which must be preserved for future generations. Although traditional art conservation aims to preserve the object as closely as possible to its original and intended state, a certain amount of ageing is accepted. It is caused by the passage of time, like faded pigments, or by the history of the object, for example the scratched faces of saints on paintings which survived the English Reformation.


Modern and contemporary art have brought changes to conservation theories and ethics. Synthetic and unconventional materials used to make contemporary artworks are often sensitive to their environment, and do not stand up well to the test of time. Unlike the Old Masters, who knew their pigments and mediums intimately, most of today’s artists are not aware of the poor aging of materials, or their potential interactions which can provoke premature aging and degradation. Furthermore, this aging damages the aesthetic of the artwork and subsequently alters or distorts the initial meaning and intent of the artist. English artist Damien Hirst (born 1965) himself said: “Are you looking for the original object, is that what you want to preserve, or do you want to communicate the idea that was originally intended?” Two cases studies that illustrate particular issues faced by conservators will be introduced and the conservation processes will be discussed. Finally, the use of replicas as a potential solution will be examined.


Sol LeWitt’s Murals

The first case study is about the ever-renewed murals conceived by American conceptual artist Sol Lewitt (1928-2007) and painted by studio assistants. As part of his creating process, LeWitt came up with a concept for an artwork and had studio assistants paint it for him. This is the perfect display of “concept as art,” which is to have anyone but himself produce the artwork, thereby eradicating the precious artist’s mark. It is best illustrated by a quote of LeWitt himself: “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” On the conservation of his works, LeWitt expressly said, in an interview with conservator Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, that he wanted his artworks to always look pristine and new, unaffected by time and accidents, which he called “falsifications of time.” According to him, the aging of the materials changes the interpretation of the artwork. Hence, at each new exhibition or every few years, a “new” artwork is painted on the wall, following the artist’s more-or-less precise instructions (Fig. 1), and at the end of the exhibition, the work is intentionally destroyed (Fig. 2). Conservators are facing new challenges, since what needs to be preserved is the concept, rather than the materiality of the artwork. In itself, this goes against traditional practice, and requires re-assessment from the conservator. The conservation of LeWitt’s oeuvre is currently made through thorough documentation and the creation and care of an archive, held at Yale West Campus Collection Studies Center, West Haven, US.


Pieter Roth’s Rotting Installations

The second case study focuses on ephemeral art. Some artworks are designed to be short-lived, and decay naturally over a varying period of time. Swiss artist Dieter Roth (1930-1998) produces biodegradable art made from rotting food or rusty metals (Figs. 3 & 4). Roth’s work undergoes a series of stages during which the image evolves constantly, until only the non-degradable materials are left, mirroring our own human mortality. Roth himself described the work of art as being “a temporal phenomenon that has a life of its own.” These changing stages are fundamental to the artist, and are a rightful part of the artwork, which evolves on its own thanks to time and bio-deterioration. Yet, they induce a fair amount of head-scratching for the conservator, whose task it is to care for the piece. It introduces, as put by conservator Heide Skowranek, “an interesting dynamic in the field of art conservation,” as it brings forward the paradox between the naturally ever-decaying artwork and the museums’ wish to preserve it. How can museums properly accommodate these works, while staying true to the artist’s intent? Which of the materials or the artist’s statement is more important to preserve for the future generations to come?

When questioned about the conservation of his oeuvre, Roth said that “photography can take the place of restoration as historical record.” Doesn’t this go against the fundamental concept of the ever-evolving artwork?


So far, three different solutions for the conservation of his oeuvre have been put forward. First, MoMA’s curator Sarah Suzuki explained that the museum aims to preserve the works in the state in which they have arrived, in a “statis” rather than attempt to “turn back time.” This implies a good deal of environmental monitoring and controlling, to avoid insect and changes in temperature and relative humidity that could accelerate the degradation process. Second, Bernard Fibicher, director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, understands and accepts that, in 20 or 30 years, the physical works will be gone, but that they will live on through documentation. This solution is perhaps the closest to Roth’s original wish. Third, conservator Heide Skowranek proposes the solution of replicas, while warning about authorization, value and control over the numbers of said replicas. Authenticity is also a point raised as the “original surface” is gone. She concludes on the fact that “replicas would repeat the process of decay for eternity,” which could indeed be more in line with Roth’s questioning of the eternal nature of art.


Replicas and Authenticity

Therefore, the controversial issue of replicas comes into play. Tate explains that “unlike a fake, a replica is not trying to pass for the original and is often made by the artist and used for historical and educational purposes.” The term “replica” holds a negative connotation, as it implies a lack of material history and authenticity of the object, the absence of artistic gesture and hand of the artist. This is true for most artworks, but does not really apply to conceptual art, where the idea presides over the materials. Conservator Louise Cone wrote that she did not see replicas as a problem, “as long as the original authentic material holds no value or meaning for the artwork (or the artist).” What about authenticity? Authenticity is a complex idea which link both the tangible and intangible aspect of an artwork. Brandi, a specialist in conservation-restoration theory, describes the auxiliary role of the artifact's materials which is a carrier for its intangible values.


The following questions come to mind, when deciding whether or not a replica should be made: Has the original artwork aged so dramatically it does not convey the right meaning anymore? Has the artist used a material for its longevity or more for the effect and performance? Does the concept outweigh the artist’s gesture which allows the making of a replica? Which is more important and needs to be prioritized over the other?


The issues raised above demonstrate that, to be successful, the conservation strategy for these pieces has to be more flexible and adaptable. Each case and each conservator is different and many solutions are available, as seen in the Roth’s case study. Among others, installations and ephemeral artworks require a greater amount of documentation, in order to be replicated in another context, whether a museum or a gallery. Artists must be contacted and interviewed, in order to understand their views on the conservation and display of their work. Depending on the nature of the work, the sensitive subject of the making of replicas should be raised to understand how these fit in the artist’s original concept. The Artists Documentation Program made by the Menil Collection put together an archive of artists’ interviews that is available online, offering information about materials, working techniques, and intent for conservation of their works. Including artists in the conservation process is valuable and important, but one has to remember that an artist keeps thinking, and his/her mind is constantly evolving, unlike the artworks which reflect a precise period of the artist’s life. Diplomacy is thus essential in these situations, where the conservator must be truthful to the artwork and not allow alteration by its maker.


As a result of artists' intense creativity and experimentation, conservation proposals and treatments are open-ended, which allows more freedom for conservators to adapt and respond to these specific issues. Linked to these materials issues is the concept of authenticity, and how the challenges posed by fast-degrading materials themselves challenge our usual definition of authenticity, understood until then as “the original material.” As conservators are confronted with the ethical problems posed by not only the materiality of the object but also its relation to the artist’s motivation and intention, understanding the conceptual context, along with the technical issues the materials create, is key to preserving these delicate and sensitive works for future generations.

Camille Polkownik

is a paintings conservator trained in France and Belgium. She has worked in France, Italy, Belgium, Australia, and is currently working in England as an senior intern for the Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge.