39th Annual Meeting – OSG Morning Session, June 3, “Variable Media, Variable Roles: The Shifting Skills Required in Contemporary Art Conservation,” by Gwynne Ryan

Gwynne Ryan, sculpture conservator at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden presented the paper “Variable Materials, Variable Roles: The Shifting Skills Required in Contemporary Art Conservation.” She said anecdotally that the title of her paper had changed even the same morning as her attempt to address current practices was constantly changing in line with the constantly changing practices of the Hirshhorn. Her paper is meant to inform on the way in which institutions can contend with the challenges that contemporary art presents to conservation. New skills and tools are required for the installation, acquisition, and treatment of contemporary art. In order to achieve this, the Hirshhorn has examined several publications on the topic (listed in presentation) in hopes that these will help provide guidance for the Hirshhorn. The museum’s small staff, approximately fifty people, four of whom are conservators, makes collaboration necessary especially given the paradigm shift of changing practices.

Throughout the presentation, Gwynne Ryan provided many specific examples of work at the Hirshhorn that have presented individual difficulties. Anish Kapoor’s At the Hub of Things

and Ann Hamilton’s Palimpsest http://hirshhorn.si.edu/visit/collection_object.asp?key=32&subkey=14949  were her first two examples. The use of unconventional material and the importance of the pieces’ abilities to develop lives of their own in exhibition challenge conservation efforts. To the best of their ability, the museum consults the artists and involves them in the associated decision making process. Ernesto Neto and Isac Julien (http://artpulsemagazine.com/the-cinema-effect/) were two more examples upon which Gwynne Ryan briefly extrapolated. She compared the museum’s efforts to those occurring in ethnographic collections (on which there were several presentations in the OSG) and the fact that there is more than just the material to preserve – there is something greater to the art. The concept of the original surface as well as the role that the art plays is essential. In hopes of preserving this, documentation emerges as one of the most important elements of contemporary art conservation.

This theme recurred throughout the paper, as Gwynne Ryan called for a new position to be taught, trained, and fulfilled – that of the documentation and new-media conservator. Treatment reports for contemporary art must include a commentary on interaction with the piece and the environment it is meant to create. For this to occur, treatment reports must become more narrative in style and incorporate various media and sources. Reports must communicate the way in which installation should occur, but this is information which originally comes from outside of the museum itself. The conservator must be on site documenting the installation, or deinstallation, or the pieces, many of which consist of many parts or organic materials. Installation of contemporary art, especially reinstallation, requires standards and the existence of an almost choreographed approach. The primary example given for the difficulties of reinstallation and maintenance was Wolfgang Laib’s Pollen from Hazelnut (video shown at conference).

The process must be fully documentated in order to maintain the integrity of the piece, which must be cleaned and reinstalled every month while it is on exhibit, a process that the artist can not logistically be involved in leaving the task to the conservators.

Gwynne Ryan went on to discuss an installation project occurring in Spain in which the use of videography has produced surprising but interest results, as well as the case of Doug Aitken (http://hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/view.asp?key=21&subkey=518), a future project requiring the organization of videography. One of the more extensive examples provided was that of Janine Antoni’s Lick & Lather, which occurs in a variety of ways but is a series of two busts, one soap and one chocolate, at the Smithsonian (http://hirshhorn.si.edu/visit/collection_object.asp?key=32&subkey=14823). Through this series, Gwynne Ryan discussed the boundaries of an artist’s voice as it relates to the role of conservators in light of the semi-rapid deterioration of the soap bust, requiring the recasting and preparation of a new piece. While this system is effective enough for the time being, Gwynne Ryan raised the question of what should be done in the future after the artist has passed. Preservation in the absence of the artist, the only one qualified to do the ritualistic bathing of the busts that is essential to the piece and its meaning, is a difficult task that has yet to have a solution. As Gwynne Ryan meets with the artist and discusses these questions, it has become more and more obvious that boundaries for the role of the conservator in contemporary art need to be established because they are quite blurry as it stands. The “double consciousness” and the role of conservator as “ethnographer” create a situation in which it must be asked if conservation is influencing the artistic process. Certain biases prevail simply through daily actions, memories, the way questions are posed, and our outside influences, which can have an impact on the supposedly impartial work of a conservator. Quoting another speaker, Salvador Muñoz-Viñas, Gwynne Ryan ended her presentation by saying “conservation is not a neutral activity.”