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Mouse Tooth Marks and Other Adventures in Conservation

Miranda: P1020238

Photo: J. Katz

post by Rachel Pastan

One of the things I try to do in this blog is give readers a sense of some of what goes on behind the scenes here at ICA: what the people are doing while the art is out there posing for you in the galleries. I was delighted when, the other night, ICA presented a program all about what happens behind the scenes at other kinds of museums—the kinds with permanent collections, something ICA doesn’t have. “Conversation: On Conservation” was not just a panel we put together because we liked the title (though it is a good title). It was fantastically interesting look at what conservators do: not just how they care for, clean, and repair art (you may remember my post from last summer about Q-tips and saliva), but the ways they decide when and how to do these things.

Contemporary art is notorious for being made out of weird stuff. How do you conserve a Matthew Barney Idaho potato, or some Chris Ofili elephant dung, or Zoe Leonard lemon peel and thread? Say you have a Kelley Walker silkscreen of two kinds of chocolate over an inkjet print: what do you do when bits of the chocolate start falling off? This was one of many surprising challenges panelist Johanna Hoffman has faced in her job as Chief Conservator at Contemporary Conservation Ltd., a private art conservation company. Indeed, not only was the unstable chocolate naturally coming loose, but mice were finding their way to the artwork and nibbling it off. They especially liked the white chocolate. What to do? In this case, the artist was still alive, so Johanna contacted him and asked his advice. Walker, apparently, thought the mouse participation was cool—he said he’d had a dog licking one of his works once. But the owner of the artwork felt differently (if there’s no chocolate left, is it really a Kelley Walker?), so Hoffman figured out how to secure the chocolate, refitting loose particles back into their original positions like doing a jigsaw puzzle.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s Gwynne Ryan spoke about a different kind of challenge, that presented by time-based media like video and film. How do you conserve an artwork made of 30 CRT monitors, like the ones in Gary Hill’s “Suspension of Disbelief (for Marine),” if no one makes CRT monitors any more, and even eBay has run out? The Hirshhorn, which co-owns this work with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has eight back ups, but those will only last so long. Like Walker, Hill is alive, and he’s working with the Hirshhorn to plan for future conservation, but Paul Sharits, the creator of “Shutter Interface,” consisting of many 16 mm film loops running on many film projectors, is not, so conservators like Ryan just have to do their best. She said she thinks about “stepping away from the material and looking at what’s at the heart of the piece—and how to preserve that.”

Sally Malenka, Conservator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) worked with ICA on Set Pieces, which is made up of PMA works restaged by artist Virgil Marti. Malenka talked about more conventional works of art than the other two panelists, but in some ways this made her presentation all the more interesting—the familiarity of the materials seemed to make the issues surrounding them loom larger.

Malenka was positive about the experience of working with Virgil on Set Pieces. She talked about how watching him visit PMA’s storage facilities often made her smile, because through his eyes she’d see afresh objects she’d known for many years. Still, her priorities and his were sometimes different. “The most difficult objects from my point of view were the marble busts,” she said. They were dirty, constraints of time made it difficult to clean them, and—as she remarked—“cleaning is a subjective process.” You might allow fingerprints on a Paul Thek Brillo box with meat (“Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box”), where they don’t look incongruous because we’re used to seeing boxes handled, but you might not want any on the nose and cheeks of a marble bust. “I have an expectation that marble will look a certain way,” she said, and when she showed a photograph of a marble head that looked as though it had used newspaper for a washcloth, it was hard to disagree.
Miranda: Countess on back

Photo: Aaron Igler / Greenhouse Media

Then there was the question of exhibiting the 1780s sculpture, believed to be by Guiseppe Ceracchi, Bust of the Countess of Albany, on her back—as Virgil had encountered her in storage—rather than upright as she was originally intended to be displayed. The marble bust on its back was clearly a delight to Virgil, but for Sally Malenka it was difficult. Part of her job is to think about artistic intent, even if she can’t call the artist up to discuss it like Johanna Hoffman and Gwynne Ryan often can. Malenka presented a wonderful brief biography of Ceracchi, showing us other works of his and making us remember that he was not some anonymous shlub from long ago, but a real person, a serious artist, who had a certain understanding of the way his work would appear in public. He’s not here to enforce that understanding, but conservators like Malenka are trained to do it for him. It’s a trust they take very seriously.

I’m not saying Virgil was wrong to exhibit the Countess lying down. But he might be glad to know that, a hundred years after he’s dead and gone, people like Sally Malenka and Gwynne Ryan and Johanna Hoffman will still have his back.