"Do conservators dream of electric sheep? Replicas and replication" by Louise Lawson and Simon Cane

As possibly one of the few people in the audience who has never seen the film Bladerunner (or read the book from which is was derived), I was at a real disadvantage at the beginning of this talk. However, the authors managed to explain the metaphor, interweaving the plot of the film with their experience in approaching the replication of Naum Gabo’s Construction in Space (Crystal) ca. 1965.

The plot of the film revolves around replicas of humans who have returned to earth (I never figured out why, but assume World Domination comes into it somehow). The difference between real humans and replicas can only be detected with a special machine, handled by Harrison Ford (role model for Conservation Scientists? You bet!). The replicas have been imbued with random memories and feelings, making the distinction between real and replica murkier, and Oh! the replicas have an undetectable, randomized, built-in shelf life.

Enter: Naum Gabo and cellulose acetate.

The sculpture, a complex creation in clear cellulose acetate, had deteriorated to such a degree that it was deemed undisplayable. This sculpture was itself an artist’s replication of the original, 1936 piece, which by 1965 had completely deteriorated. The Tate/UCL team, working with the artist’s estate, which exerted rigorous aesthetic control and who were the most decisive voice in the collaborative, made the decision to replicate the piece yet again. Making use of previous scans and measurements, a template created by Gabo, and examination of pieces in other collections, a new sculpture was created. The goal was to create an excellent reproduction, not to restore the original in a way that made it look perfect.

The authors covered much thorny philosophical ground concerning truth, authenticity and value in artistic legacy and artistic function, materials, dating, labeling and documentation, and they acknowledged the arbitrary decisions made (by which I mean: why now? instead of last year or next year or never?).

In the Q&A session afterwards, both authors said they felt as if they were collaborators, not co-producers (with the artist’s estate) of an artwork. (By the time this paper was presented, we all had a pretty good idea of the distinction between these two terms in conservation, as it was a thread running throughout the Congress. See other blogs for more info). And they expressed ambivalence about retiring an artwork, acknowledging that in order for the idea to remain in the world, the original object becomes a corpse.

Posted by Mary Gridley