AIC 41st Annual Meeting – Objects Session, Friday, May 31, 2013. Preserving an Aesthetic of Decay: Living Artists and the Conservation of Contemporary Objects by John T. Campbell.

Disclaimer: I am not the fastest note-taker, and may have misspelled some names or gotten some of the concepts a bit wrong.  If something I say is critical for you, please check directly with the presenter(s) for corroboration. 

The purpose of this presentation was to present a framework for collaboration between the artist and the conservator.  Of course, this is only possible with living and still-cognitive artists.  If you are working with such an individual, do not delay as the opportunity may close at any time without warning.

The presenter broke the process into two main areas.  The first is artist education – enhancing the likelihood of a favorable outcome.  The second is documentation – facilitated through an artist interview.  The anecdote presented was the work The Hill near El Paso, TX by artist Jim Magee.

Decay happens to all object with only a very few exceptions, especially those exhibited outdoors.  Complicating this fact is that some artists intentionally use decay (or “patination”) as part of their art.  What is intended, and what is not, that is the question.  And then there is the million dollar question, if decay is intended to be arrested at a certain point, can that be done, and how?

In order to even get to the artist documentation stage, it is necessary to foster a level of cooperation with the artist.  In some instances, this will be easy.  They will know about deterioration, conservation, maintenance needs, and so forth.  In other cases, they will be oblivious, or even worse, will have had a bad experience with conservation/conservators.  This requires diplomatic skills to foster a common ground that allows effective communication to occur.  At this point of common listening, it is possible to educate the artist, and of course the conservator as well.  The interview becomes possible.

Ideally, the interview will be in person.  Long-distance interviews are very difficult, especially if the object has not been examined in person by the conservator.  First, determine the artist’s expectations, then help manage their expectations.  Ask questions such as is deterioration wanted or not?  Entropic art desires deterioration as part of its evolution.  Is dirt/dust considered part of the object or an unwanted intrusion?  Is maintenance intended/desired or not? 

If time allows, create a manual of care for the object.  This will incorporate and memorialize in writing the intent and desires of the artist, as well as the recommendations of the conservator.  Of course, as with any written document, its presence must be kept in the consciousness of the responsible entity, or it essentially does not exist.  This is a HUGE problem.  How many of us have done CAPs for an organization, and five years later, no one there knows it exists, much less is following its recommendations?  It has happened to me probably a dozen times.  This problem alone could be the subject of a future AIC conference.

What was not discussed was how to affect arrested decay.  If layered on top of this is that the artist states they do not want any changes or alterations in appearance, the conservator is in an impossible position with our current technology.  Perhaps deaccessioning/selling is the best ethical solution? 😉

In my own practice, I did treatments for a California State Park where their park ethic and even motto was “arrested decay.”  Literally!  They were a mining-era ghost town supposedly left the way it was when abandoned.  In reality, a good deal of “interior decorating” was done in the 1940s and 1950s before it became a park, including cutesy furnishings of rooms, and decrepit horse-drawn vehicles in the fields.  But they wanted arrested decay, so they did not fix the holes in the roofs.  Not that long afterwards, the roofs began to collapse.  But they did not want to repair or fix anything, and no modern materials were supposed to be visible.  That had to change, obviously.  Now, they repair roof and other leaks, but still do not treat the exterior siding of the buildings.  I am sure their policy will have to change again.  Decay can be “arrested” perhaps for the memory of an individual, but not for centuries or millennia, at least for outdoor objects. 

My project at the park was to preserve several of the horse-drawn vehicles with minimal effect on their appearances.  The park staff wanted them to be continued to be exhibited in the fields, which was actively contributing to their deterioration.  But they did not want anything to change in their appearance.  The compromise reached was that some of them got moved to interior spaces in barns and sheds and their stabilization could be less invasive, but some were kept outside and had more aggressive treatments that altered their appearance a bit (but much less than what had happened because they had previously had no treatment).  But this treatment is destined to fail in a relatively few years, and hopefully the park will have awakened to a painful reality.  Arrested decay outdoors currently is not possible.