“Considerations on the acquisition of contemporary artworks: Refabrication as a preservation strategy” by Gwynne Ryan

The topic of replication of contemporary artworks in its many ways was very recurrent throughout the Congress, which brings us to the understanding that even with all the opportunities for debate we have seen during the past years on the issues faced by conservators working in this field, there are still no definitive answers and plenty of room for discussion.

Gwynne Ryan, conservator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (HMSG), Washington DC, USA, focused on this topic in her presentation, emphasizing acquisition as a key moment to collect information about an artwork, to define it and fully understand it. The Hirshhorn collection focuses primarily on modern and contemporary art, furthermore, around 25% of the collection qualifies for refabrication or replacement of elements, as stipulated by the artist’s studio or gallery as a requirement for exhibition. Hence the importance of the acquisition as a beneficial moment for research, when as an interdisciplinary collective, the registrar, curator and conservator evaluate the artwork.

As part of this documentation process the Hirshhorn Museum has developed the Artist Interview Program, stressing the importance of building trust with the artist in a long term relationship and to maintain confidentiality in the dialogue as essential to getting unfiltered responses and understanding their thought process. Ryan stated that by definition artworks are new and are happening as the artist is still deciding, their history is still taking form, and that’s why when working with a living artist, best practices should involve revisiting the parameters for refabrication throughout the life of an artwork and of the artist, especially since emerging, less-stablished artists shift their attitude towards the piece’s conservation influenced by the market’s demands. In the acquisition process, decisions are made prior to knowing how the art will behave, so material samples are collected from the artist for mock-up and testing, and stored as part of the artwork’s physical archives. In the case of donations this process has a special connotation as usually the documentation occurs after the work has been acquired.

Ryan shared some concerns based on the Museum’s experiences with refabrication as a preservation strategy, showing how every case requires a different approach. “Five Nights” (2014) by the Cuban artist Reynier Leyva Novo is a mural installation which represents the amount of ink spilled in five revolutionary 20th-century manifestos that gave rise to totalitarian regimes by Lenin, Hitler, Castro, Mao and Gadhafi, and must be remade every time the artworks is displayed. In this case the acquisition contract with the artist requires a video and photos of the artwork being installed and de-installed. In Jimmie Durham’s “Spirit and Xitle”, the car can be replaced as it ages and falls apart, but in the original artwork, the car model (a Dodge) was selected based on the socio-political context of México City where it was staged, and Durham says the car that would replace it should be important for the context of Washington DC; this raises the question, would it then be a new artwork? Every artist grants a different importance to the production process and their direct implication. In the case of Ernesto Neto’s “Dangerous Logic of Wooing” (2002) consisting on hanging fabric nets filled with styrofoam balls, the acquisition decision happened after the work was shipped back to Brazil; the artist suggested the option of refabricating the artwork and every time the artwork has been reproduced the size and materials have been different and are considered exhibition copies without the artist making any difference regarding their authenticity. Though, the copies were made by the artist's steward; what will happen when she is no longer available? The African artist Senga Nengudi has different ideas from Neto’s; her work “R.S.V.P. X” made with pantyhose, sand and rose petals was originally fabricated in 1977 and then refabricated in 2014, when the materials failed beyond repair; in this case the artwork was assigned a new date 1977/2014. She has supplied the materials in the case that refabrication is required again, but she prefers reparations, and most repairs have been done by the artist.

After the presentation the audience discussed with the panel how refabrication as a strategy works in the different scenarios of museums and private collections. The ethics of the conservator was also debated, as we are trained not to make anything new, but to conserve or restore. Ryan also raised the question, to what extent have conservators participated and contributed to an artist's feeling that they cannot create an artwork that can die.

Post by: Salome Garcia Art Conservation student at the University of Arts, Havana, Cuba.