43rd Annual Meeting, Electronic Media and Objects Joint Session, Co-Organized by Voices in Contemporary Art (VoCA), May 14, “Preserving What is Right: Learning the Ethics and Similarities of Collaborating with a Living Artist and Buddhist Monks,” Céline Chrétien

Object Conservator Céline Chrétien described her experiences working with contemporary artist Richard Fauguet to conserve his piece Mirida and her more recent work with Buddhist monks to conserve actively-used liturgical objects. Though on the surface these projects seem very different, they both raised interesting questions about how to apply conservation ethics to situations in which the artist – or, in the case of the liturgical objects, the believers – still have a living relationship with their objects.
While working at the FRAC (Regional Fund for Contemporary Art) in Besançon, France, Chrétien was responsible for the conservation of the 1993 piece Mirida by artist Richard Fauguet. Mirida consists of three translucent silicone rubber horse heads covered in glass marbles. The silicone heads are somewhat soft and intentionally deformed to evoke Fauguet’s dreamlike aesthetic. The heads were damaged from the mounting screws and the silicone had discolored. Conservation was necessary, but no alterations could be made to the piece without permission from the artist. During an initial conversation Chrétien had with the artist to discuss the condition of the piece and its need for conservation, Fauguet was concerned that the silicone had discolored too severely and he believed that the best approach would be for the piece to be remade, either by him or by Chrétien. The collections manager immediately rejected this proposal, however, since in reconstructing the piece its authenticity would be lost. Once Fauguet was able to come see the condition of the piece in person, he determined that the discoloration was not as drastic as he feared and agreed to treatment of the original work. Chrétien mended the horse heads with Beva and constructed new mounts and crates that offered more support to the silicone forms. Chrétien had to navigate complex ethical considerations through multiple conservations with the artist, his colleagues, and her colleagues at FRAC to arrive at the best outcome.
This collaborative experience served Chrétien well during her more recent work at a Buddhist monastery in northern India. The monastery was preparing for a new exhibition space, and many of the clay figures and masks used in religious ceremonies were in need of conservation treatment. These objects had never been repaired by outsiders, only local members of the community. Chrétien interviewed the monks to learn more about how the objects were used and their goals for treatment. People still leave offerings at the objects, which serve as homes to various deities. The deities will leave when the object becomes damaged, so they must be repaired in order to invite the deity back to reside there again.
Since the Buddhist objects were being actively used, they couldn’t be treated in the same ways ethnographic objects are treated in Western museums. As a result, Chrétien and her fellow conservators had to take an approach that is more similar to working with living contemporary artists. Chrétien drew interesting parallels between conservation of ethnographic objects in an active monastery setting and conservation of contemporary art in consultation with the artist. In both cases, the interview is a crucial tool. The conservator is an outsider and must act as mediator. And care must be taken not to privilege the norms of traditional Western conservation ethic.