41st Annual Meeting – Contemporary Art Session, May 31, “Modern Ruins Restored: The Conservation of Monday, Wednesday, Saturday” by Tasia Bulger

Placed in a storage facility for 24 years and severely damaged, the polyurethane foam, wood, and pigmented plaster sculptures “Monday, Wednesday, Saturday” presented an excellent challenge for Tasia Bulger, Claudia de Hueck Fellow at the National Gallery of Canada in 2012.

Modern Ruins 1

Created by the Canadian artist collective General Idea, “Monday, Wednesday, Saturday” was one of General Idea’s works based on ruins or fragments “excavated” from a mythical pavilion.  The original three components traveled during the 80’s between Basel-Switzerland, Eindhoven-Netherlands, Toronto-Ontario, and Montreal-Quebec.  However were damaged during transit and the artists eventually chose to rebuild the sculptures in Toronto, leaving the original sculptures to be destroyed in Eindhoven. The rebuilt sculptures were composed of blocks of polyurethane foam on a wooden base, covered with multiple layers of pigmented plaster, and sanded down to resemble camouflage. The sculptures were shipped to the final venue by truck in skeleton crates with insufficient support, ultimately causing more damage.  They were exhibited in Montreal, placed in storage in 1986, and never shown again, however in 2010, were donated to the National Gallery of Canada (NGC).
During her fellowship, Tasia spent the year researching these pieces and possible treatment avenues, and then commencing treatment.  The sculptures had severe cracking propagating from their tops, delamination, and the visible foam was crumbling, friable, and discoloring.  The NGC team’s primary fear was that the entire interior of the sculpture was deteriorating in a similar manner. Initial analysis and examination lead the team to believe the foam was of an ester-type polyurethane foam, which degrades through hydrolysis and would lead to the plaster detaching from the foam.

Modern Ruins 2

 Additionally, the NGC team was left instructions from Felix Partz, the original member of General Idea credited with designing and building the sculptures, for how to repair Monday, Wednesday, Saturday.  The instructions, from 1994, stated that “Cornucopias: the large Cornucopias could be destroyed or else repaired with the repairs left visible in white or off-white plaster.”
Due to these initial considerations, and not wanting to destroy them, the team investigated the possibility of foam extraction, knowing that all research and testing leading up this treatment would provide lesser-invasive alternate possibilities, influence final treatment decisions, and provide information to the conservation community.  A mock-up was then used to test producing an exo-skeleton to provide support to the plaster surface if the foam was removed.  Cyclododecane (CDD) was found very useful isolation layer and temporary facing adhesive for this matte, uncoated multi-colored surface, where any solvent contact would have resulted with tidelines.  This would then be coated with a stronger facing adhesive.  During exoskeleton testing, Tasia actually found that the CDD, even with layers of butyl methacrylate and saran wrap on top, the CDD was sublimating directly into the plaster mockup, and determined it would not suffice as a long term solution for this type of object.
TIP: While CDD begins to cool and solidify once removed from the heat source, Tasia found that it was best applied with scraps of polyurethane packing foam and tongs, since polyurethane has excellent thermal insulation properties.  
 However, upon further investigation into the foam, the NGC conservation team found that the foam was actually an ether-type polyurethane, susceptible to photo-oxidation and thus was not degrading as rapidly as thought.  From this information and with further ethical consideration, it was determined not to extract the foam and chose the lesser invasive option within Felix’s parameters.
Modern Ruins 3
Final treatment consisted of consolidating the plaster surface with Aquazol 500, an isolation layer of B67, and filling the cracks with a mixture of Primal AC 35, hide glue, calcium carbonate, and fine glass beads.  This treatment is still in progress and future exhibition will be limited to the National Gallery of Canada.
One question requested more information about General Idea, which can be found in The Canadian Encyclopedia, who apparently also predicted reality TV and Facebook.  Another question was concerning health and safety of Cyclododecane, in regards to an image of Tasia applying CDD to the sculpture in which she was wearing gloves with a fume extractor over the sculpture.  Since there are no current published safety standards for exposure to the chemical, the inquirer suggested a look at an AIC news article, which the author believes may be the 2006 Health and Safety article “Some Chemical Things Considered: Cyclododecane”.
I, personally, thought it was an excellent and informative talk- and of course rather fun to hear about an artist collective that began their career by turning their home’s storefront window into fictitious locations as a joke   🙂