Thursday, May 31 • 9:00am - 9:30am
Materiality and Immateriality in Conserving Contemporary Art

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Conservators of contemporary art have responded to conceptual, ephemeral, and time-based media with new theoretical models and strategies for practice. Along with the need for new approaches to manage variability and change on a conceptual level, material matters persist in the new objects of contemporary art. Collected materials include deteriorated plastics, desiccated food, and obsolete playback equipment. Following artist expressions about their work, these objects may be conserved in a traditional manner or may be allowed to deteriorate over time. They may also be replicated or be migrated to new technologies.
 An examination of recent literature reveals tensions in discussions of materiality and immateriality for contemporary conservation objects. Often these tensions derive from artist statements, or directives regarding the future disposition of their work. Some authors write about the language of materials, with concern when unintended alteration communicates new meaning to the viewer. Others point to patina that develops on material manifestations of conceptual art that were meant to be ephemeral but were nonetheless collected. Interviews with artists expose complex responses to the status of these accidental testaments from past installations.  Time-based media conservators face similar dilemmas, for example with commercial monitors purchased somewhat randomly by artists such as Nam June Paik. They accrue historic value over time and are seen as important evidence of the past, regardless of the artist’s original intentions.
Some recent models for understanding materiality and immateriality in contemporary art are adapted from theory across the humanities and social sciences. Nelson Goodman’s distinction between autographic (object-based) works and allographic (performed and re-produced) helps us understand authenticity in variable works that radically change through migration and replication.  Similarly, the model of object biography was adapted from anthropology to conceptualize both physical changes and the layering of social meanings that artworks accrue over the course of their lives.
Conservators of contemporary art also draw from theory, practice, and professional ethics developed for traditional conservation objects to help them navigate new issues around materiality and authenticity. Recent attention has been given to the likes of Ruskin, le-Duc, Riegl, and Brandi to revisit earlier questions of preservation vs. use, noble and vile patina, and aesthetic reintegration in conservation. Notions of risk, sustainability, and minimal intervention also influence recent thinking about the materials of contemporary art.
This presentation will trace how material and immaterial matters are treated in contemporary art conservation literature and emerging models for practice. Through analysis of the literature, an argument will be made that the values and professional ethics developed for traditional conservation objects serve new models for objects of contemporary art that are less bound by traditional material concerns.

avatar for Glenn Wharton

Glenn Wharton

Clinical Professor, Museum Studies, New York University
Glenn Wharton is a Clinical Professor in Museum Studies at New York University. From 2007-2013 he served as Media Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art, where he established the time-based media conservation program for video, performance, and software-based collections. In 2006... Read More →

Thursday May 31, 2018 9:00am - 9:30am MDT
Texas Ballrooms A-D Marriott Marquis Houston