The conservation of art is usually associated with the restoration of historical paintings and sculptures, however as we edge further into the 21st century, the need to understand contemporary materials, techniques, and artist intent in order to preserve contemporary works becomes ever more important.
What happens if a light globe dies when it is part of an artwork in a National collection? And can an artist make a sculpture out of lollies and expect it to be around in 50 years time?
Curator Sherryn Vardy of NETS Victoria has set out to investigate those questions and more in Made To Last, a new exhibition featuring the work of Ghostpatrol, Brook Andrew, Penny Byrne, Juan Ford, and Claire Anna Watson. Vardy handpicked the five artists based on an understanding of their use of materials, processes, and views on conservation. I spoke with Vardy about the exhibition, and the importance of preservation in 21st century art and design practice.
What was the motivation behind putting this exhibition together?
The importance of educating the next generation of art and culture lovers about conservation and preserving cultural heritage for the future played a large part in the development of this exhibition. I’ve always had a love of art, I graduated from art school, have well over ten years experience working in regional art galleries in various capacities and am now Exhibitions Manager at National Exhibitions Touring Support (NETS) Victoria. It wasn’t until I was working in the galleries that I discovered conservation, as a practice, after visiting the Art Gallery of New South Wales and witnessing the treatment of Vive L’Empereur (1891) by Edouard Detaille which lead me to pursue a career as a conservator. I’m currently completing my Masters of Cultural Materials Conservation at the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne.
The conservation of art is commonly associated with the restoration of seventeenth century easel paintings or marble sculptures from antiquity. However, the use of materials in contemporary art, has challenged this perception and enabled a shift in the way conservators interact with artists. Knowledge of the artist’s.intent, creative processes, materials and techniques, and accurate documentation are all important tools employed by conservators in the preservation of contemporary art, as demonstrated within this exhibition. I wish I had seen an exhibition like this in regional Victoria when I was younger and I hope it inspires people to think about not only the conservation of contemporary art and what a conservator does but also what it means to preserve cultural material.
How were the participating artists chosen?
The artists were chosen for a variety of reasons. Having known of and respected these artists for many years, I feel they bring together a variety of interesting and at times challenging materials and techniques. They also all have an interest in conservation and have had experience in dealing with conservators in one way or another. For example, Penny Byrne is a respected ceramics conservator and Ghostpatrol was able to talk with conservators about a work of his for a recent National Gallery of Australia touring exhibition, so it was really interesting to hear their views this topic. While some materials that a conservator might encounter may be unstable, instability of a different kind is evident in the themes of the five artists included in Made to last, involving the impact of humanity on the world, past, present and future.
Why is the issue of the preservation of art and material so important?
The preservation of art is important, as it enables future generations to experience works from a particular time and place in history. Just as we now look back at the great movements in art history, one day others will be looking back at what is happening now.
With today’s throwaway culture, the importance of preservation seems to have lost its significance so it is reassuring to know there are professionals trained in this field willing to promote preservation and assist the wider public with their cultural material.
What can visitors expect to see and take away from this exhibition?
Visitors can expect to see incredible works of art which include neon works and master woodblock prints by Brook Andrew, altered ceramics by Penny Byrne, paintings and anamorphic works by Juan Ford, ink on paper and unique objects such as cacti on shelves by Ghostpatrol and video work and installation using strawberries and cream and raspberry lollies by Claire Anna Watson. We filmed each of the artists in their studios discussing their materials, techniques and thoughts on conservation which offers a behind the scenes insight into each artist’s practice. I hope the exhibition highlights the importance of gathering information on the artist throughout their career and how this can inform conservation decision making strategies when considering the preservation of contemporary art.
There is also a small section of the exhibition which demonstrates the investigative role of conservation: visitors can peer into the ultraviolet light box and witness some materials fluorescing; accelerated aged samples of paint, paper, and adhesives show how some materials behave over time; and an example of how works are safely packed, all give an insight into how works are cared for. There will be a range of public programs associated with the tour of Made to last such as the opportunity to bring in your treasured items and receive storage, display and treatment advice from professional conservators. Visitors will be able to take what they learn from the conservators and transfer this knowledge to preserving cultural material in their own home regarding the best methods of storage, display and handling.
What have you discovered from working with these artists and learning more about their practice?
When asking artists questions about materials, techniques and their thoughts on conservation, another layer of their practice is revealed allowing for a greater understanding and respect for their work. To preserve and conserve their work for the future, an understanding of their intentions and thorough documentation is very important. I think it is also important that artists know that we care about their work and their thoughts behind it. I’ve also learnt that there is no easy solution when it comes to conserving contemporary art – each work may require quite different considerations depending on the materials and techniques used and the meaning behind them.
Made To Last will be on display at Latrobe Regional Gallery from the 12th of September to the 28th of October, 2012. For more information visit NETS Victoria