Confession time. Having done my third-year intern in the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), I was already familiar with the artwork and treatment involved in this presentation. The first time I heard about it, I was shocked, then curious, then awed. The complexity of the problem and solution never ceases to impress me and make me question my previous opinion, a feeling familiar to those who specialize in the conservation of modern and contemporary art.
Per Knutås, Paintings Conservator and Chief Conservator at the CMA, and Samantha Springer, Conservator at the Portland Art Museum and former Objects Conservator at the CMA, gave a joint presentation on the issues and treatment process of Gabriel Orozco’s Mapa estelar en árbol (Stellar Map in Tree). Their presentation was a drastic change of pace from the previous two lectures that dealt with 15th-16th century European altarpieces (the Ayala and the Monopoli altarpieces), both of which coincidentally had problems with the formation of insoluble oxalates on the surface (a possible topic for a future symposium?). Although a three-dimensional object, the thought here was to look at Mapa estelar en árbol as a modern panel painting which is how the artist conceived the piece. The treatment crossed traditional conservation specialty boundaries and required collaboration between conservators and the artist.
Mapa estelar en árbol is a 30-40 cm thick cross-section of a salvaged mango tree trunk, 70 cm in diameter. Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco wanted to resurrect the tradition of panel painting and used the tree trunk as a modern and unconventional panel. He prepared the end-grain surface in the classical manner by covering it with fabric and layers of gesso. The geometric sgraffito design was created by applying graphite all over the gesso and then incising into it with a compass, another tool that has fallen out of use. The back (other end-grain surface) was sealed with a waxy material. The work debuted at the Kurimanzutto Gallery in Mexico City in 2009. A CMA curator bought the work on opening night.
Mapa estelar en árbol arrived to the CMA months after its debut in Mexico City. The work had already developed hairline cracks and delamination in that short amount of time. It was unexhibitable within a year. The wood had shrunk with changes in RH, the canvas buckled, and the gesso/graphite layers were severely cracked and lifting from the surface. No conservation treatment, however extraordinaire, would be able to mask the damage and restore the pristine surface. It would leave a scarred surface and the viewer would only see the hand of the conservator. From the CMA’s point of view, the piece was dead.
Hoping to get a replacement or get the work re-made, the CMA team got in contact with the gallery and the piece was sent back to Mexico City to be examined by the artist and his team. The Mexico City meeting included Per Knutås, Reto Thüring (Curator of Contemporary Art at the CMA), Gabriel Orozco, his fabricator (who also happens to be a conservator), and the Kurimanzutto Gallery. While the artist initially said he didn’t mind the changes as they spoke to history of the piece, he then suggested his fabricator/ conservator carry out a restoration treatment to fix it. The CMA reserved the right to reject the restored work if the appearance didn’t meet their standards and expectations as this was an option they had previously discussed and rejected in-house. After a failed attempt by the Mexico City fabricator/ conservator, a new arrangement was reached.
Refusing to have the work remade in the same way as the original, the CMA staff proposed the addition of a new layer to the original stratigraphy: an inert substrate that would serve as an interleaf of sorts between the dimensionally unstable wood and the fabric. After several rounds of mock-ups and testing back in the Conservation Department at the CMA using green cuts of Mulberry trees (no mango trees to be found in Cleveland) to mimic the original, they settled on the use of a stainless-steel plate that would be adhered to the wood with a custom-made silicone adhesive that could be flexible enough to move with the wood. The canvas would be wrapped around the stainless steel and adhered with BEVA Film. Per traveled to Mexico City where he adhered the canvas-wrapped stainless-steel plate to the original tree trunk. Gabriel Orozco and his team completed the rest of the recreation.
The second iteration of Mapa estelar en árbol returned to the CMA months later, where it was left under watch in the Conservation Department for several months (this is when I first met the piece). The new inert layer worked perfectly and no changes or damages have since been observed on the piece, which is now happily displayed in the Modern and Contemporary galleries. The original creation date was kept as they deemed it to be too confusing to list a new intervention date. Also, the artist created another version of this piece (now in a private collection), and he wanted both to be a pair with the same dates.
While the artist retained the traditional conceptual role, this treatment put the conservators in the unusual role of producers driving the process and pushing ethical boundaries. Most would question if it even is the same work of art. Many in the audience struggled to come to terms with it. The Q&A session was dominated by questions on whether they tried to do any consolidation or transfer techniques before deciding to scratch the original surface. An audience member brought up an interesting point. Where Per and Samantha acting as conservators or collaborators? They were not using their technical information as conservators. They were collaborators and technical resources for the artist and as such, the ethics of our profession didn’t apply. This was one of the longest Q&A sessions I have been in, a clear sign that the presentation provided much food for thought.