Renata F. Peters "The parallel paths of conservation of contemporary art and indigenous collections"

As a conservator in private practice who works exclusively on contemporary art, this talk was a wonderful introduction for me to some of the ways my colleagues who care for indigenous collections or items have had to redefine their work in the face of a broadening interaction with the artists/creators or their descendants and communities.

Ms. Peters had some great examples of how indigenous cultures assign value to objects, accepting their decay, their full or partial replacement and stressing that their symbolic value is often greater than their physical manifestation. Re-creation is not a question of maintaining artistic vision or financial investment in the face of material change or damage, as is the case with contemporary art, but is a far more nuanced collaboration involving acceptance of change and taking into account the use and significance of an object for the community that produced it. Veneration in these terms means NOT leaving the object static and well preserved in a climate controlled space, but letting it out (at least in spirit) to live in the world and be part of the change.

My favorite examples were:

-The Zuni images of Ahayu:da, which are carved wood sculptures meant to be left in outdoor shrines. They are allowed to disintegrate, and at some point are retired and new ones are made to replace them. In this case the value lies not in sole authorship or even the original object, but in the sculptures’ relationship to the passage of time and human life spans.

-Ai Wei-Wei’s work with ancient Chinese pottery, which involves deliberate demolition of these treasured ancestral objects, or over-painting them with modern logos, in an effort to call into question the authorship and iconic status of artworks, including, in one work--a series of jars full of the crushed remains of ancient and modern pottery--the importance even of the materiality and form of an art object.

-The Glasgow Ghost Dance Shirt, believed to be a relic from a Lakota massacre, which had been in a Scottish Museum collection for over 100 years. When this item was repatriated to its tribe, a tribal elder sewed a completely modern, entirely different shirt, and gave it to the museum as a gesture of thanks. This, with the background story, is now one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.

The lesson for me was that my engagement with contemporary artists when thinking about conserving their work occupies a very narrow slot in the spectrum of what the interaction between conservators and various stakeholders can be.

Posted by Mary Gridley