Conserving an exhibition: new roles and emerging issues for the conservator of contemporary art

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After UUmwelt, 2021-22. Deep image reconstructions materialized deep image reconstructions (glass, synthetic resin, silicone, copper alloy, colophonium, minerals, bone, calcium, protein, sodium, sugar, agar agar, bacteria), generative adversarial network, face recognition, screens, sound, sensors, human cancer cells (HeLa), incubator, scent, bees, ants, mycelium, soil, pigment. At Grand Hall, LUMA Arles, France. Photo credit: Ola Rindal © Pierre Huyghe

By Shubhankar Pr Bharti

Looking back over the past several decades in the art world, the form of the exhibition has gone through several stages of experimentation since the 1960s, changing its conception and configuration, which led to exploring a new format: the exhibition as a medium. The artists belonging to land art, minimal art and conceptual art were all involved in the reformulation of exhibition-making and the way it is represented. Contemporary artists have increasingly explored unconventional formats and mediums, challenging the concept and values of fine art conservation.

In this article I will focus on the complexities, challenges and opportunities in the role of an art conservator using the case study of the exhibition After UUmwelt by Pierre Huyghe, commissioned by LUMA Arles, France from 26 June 2021 to 10 January 2022.

Born in 1962, Pierre Huyghe is one of the most important figures in contemporary art from the 1990s, belonging to a generation of artists such as Philippe Parreno and Dominique Gonzales-Forster. His art practice blurs the boundaries between the living and the inanimate, fiction and reality, nature, the human and technology (Le Comte, 2022).


Pierre Huyghe constructs After UUmwelt as an interplay of his previous and newly commissioned technological, biological and ephemeral artworks creating a self-regulated environment.

Entering the exhibition hall, one finds oneself in a dark space, struck by illuminated LED screens flashing “mental images”. In total, five large LED screens, connected to a main server with various sensors and scent diffusers, constitute the art installation UUmwelt (2018). The diffused images are the result of an artificial intelligence translating data from a human mind into visual forms through f-MRI in collaboration with Kamitani Lab, Kyoto University.

Moving towards the centre of the hall, one notices three sculptural objects, also called Mind’s Eye, which are 3D translations of the “mental images” visible on the screens. They are made of organic materials such as sugar, agar-agar, salt and bacterial elements. Further, we notice an incubator called Living Cancer Variator (2016) with a microscope that hosts HeLa cancer cells. The rate of division of cancer cells acts as a biological clock for the visual feed.

The living elements include two ant colonies (Tapinoma Magnum) and ant hills. Three beehives with Italian-Caucasian bees are also suspended in the exhibition space at around three metres of height. Each element, including the presence of the visitors, generates data through various sensors which are sent to the UUmwelt server, influencing the image feed in real time.

The in situ soil installation was created on a surface of 1860 m2 to simulate the experience of walking on the natural
ground of Camargue (southern France). A biweekly spraying of six organic colours on the soil surface gives an impression of 'leakage of the element', as if the colours present in other elements such as monitors, sculptural objects, etc., melted and dissolved on the soil surface.


After UUmwelt is much more than a site-specific installation, which the artist refers to as “situated artworks”. Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition “is rooted, situated, but remains a structural entity that could take place somewhere else in a changed form” (Hantelmann, 2016).

The artist’s concept of exhibition as a medium explores how the exhibition, as a tool, can influence the viewer's experience and how the experience can unfold over time. During After UUmwelt the viewer’s experience, as well as the artworks and the exhibition itself, changed over time forming a self-regulated environment.

It goes beyond the categorisation of conventional terms; Pierre Huyghe himself observes that he finds it less precise to use terms such as “work” or “exhibition” (Rafael, 2013).


As the exhibition was open to the public for six months, maintaining the integrity of artistic intent was essential requiring regular intervention. Considering the complexity, some of the strategies, theories and practices employed in conserving traditional artworks became problematic (Scholte & Wharton, 2011).

In this process, I was approached by Barbara Blanc, head of conservation at LUMA Arles, with the aim of preserving the exhibition and the artist's intention during its display, while testing and adapting the conservation methodology. Subsequently, we examined the practical solutions used to address the challenges and issues here. We looked at documentation, collaboration and decision-making as keys to a successful conservation strategy, also borrowing a distinction from R. Van de Vall, who states that rather than preserving objects conservators roles today are about managing change (Van de Vall et al., 2011).


The method of documentation here had the most significant impact on the trajectory and decision-making. Following the notion of “trajectory of the artwork ", it is possible to affirm that only an adapted documentation can define the limits of acceptability for future changes. In this line, a comprehensive, multi-level documentation methodology was adopted. Two different approaches were applied: one focusing on the artworks as individual entities and the other focusing on the exhibition as a single entity and locating its phases and trajectories.


Needless to say, it was not possible to adopt a single format and method for complete condition assessment. I have therefore chosen to categorise the artworks as such:

Time-based media: A three-step documentation process was established with the conservator Zoë Renaudie. Firstly, an identity report was produced, listing all the components of the installation. For this I also referred to the research and report by the Guggenheim conservators as part of the Conserving Computer-Based Art (CCBA) initiative. Secondly, a functionality report was created in collaboration with engineers and IT specialists to verify the functional status of all the listed components in the entire installation. Thirdly, I relied on the report developed by Matters in Media Art which explores the software issues, warranties, imminent risks and other vulnerabilities to the artwork.

Ephemeral objects: A periodic condition report was produced to document all changes in the work on a biweekly basis. The aim was not to reverse the impact of the passage of time, but to identify unintended impacts on the artworks such as fingerprint marks, cracks and broken elements due to vandalism or staff error.

Living Matter: An appropriate methodology of documenting living elements in conservation literature is almost inexistent. I decided to create a document similar to an identity sheet used by biologists and added a logbook to record the conditions and interventions related to care.

Ecosystem: The existence of the exhibition ecosystem is based on the specific configuration of tangible artworks and their interrelation. I created a diagram, along with the written documents, to identify how the artworks are related to one another.


In order to document the important trajectories of After UUmwelt, I referred to the concept of artwork having a biography (Kopytoff, 1986; Appadurai, 1988). By looking at an artwork through its biographical approach, I was able to identify important phases and moments of transition which proved essential during the decision-making process.

The biographical information was completed in three stages: first, daily reports (notes, visuals and regular interventions); second, bi-weekly and monthly reports (major developments, updating protocol, etc.); third, a work dossier completed at the end of the exhibition (all the technical and conceptual details, production stages, major interventions, modifications and changes in the works).


This extensive documentation became an essential tool to identify the variability of the artworks and the limits of acceptable future changes. With this information I created a framework of important decisions in collaboration with the artist and his representatives, owners, art historians, conservation team, registrar and technical consultants.

To answer questions related to the viability of the work, collaboration with technical teams proved to be an important asset to better understand the technical aspects and to enable more accurate documentation and decision-making. Working side by side with exhibition registrar Nicolas Pêne and closely with IT specialists, oncologists, beekeepers, myrmecologists as well as biologists proved the collaboration to be an active conservation methodology.

The protocol of intervention became the main source of reference documents. Every decision had been carefully analysed because every action taken or withheld directly influenced the presentation of the work to the public. To avoid a stagnant care procedure when faced with the changing impact of time on the exhibition, the protocol was regularly reviewed and updated with the relevant stakeholders.

Following this line of thought, it is possible to consider that the role of conservators is similar to the role of the modern dramaturge in the theatre arts (Phillips & Laan, 2022). Like a dramaturge, conservators today guide the artist by asking questions, listening to their answers, and then negotiating with all stakeholders to authentically realize their work and ensure its representation to a larger public.


Conservation research within exhibition as a medium is constantly evolving and remains a challenge in its application in museums and cultural institutions. The purpose of this article is to introduce the outcomes of my research while working as an art conservator in After UUmwelt. It could also be seen as an attempt to test the limits of the role as conservator in the context of an exhibition and to provide an example of an adapted conservation methodology in practice. Following this line of thought, it is possible to consider that the key to conserving complex artworks of contemporary art lies in exhaustive documentation, technical research, collaboration and critical decision-making.


Appadurai, A. (1988). The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

Hantelmann, D. V. (2016). From Exhibiting to Embedding: The Situated Artwork. Institute of Contemporary Art Miami.

Kopytoff, I. (1986). The cultural biography of things: Commoditization as process. In A. Appadurai (Ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (pp. 64–92). Cambridge University Press.

Le Comte, V. (2022, May 9). "Pierre Huyghe, exposition “Offspring” | Kunsten Museum | 25 mai – 30 oct. 2022". Animots.

Phillips, S., & Laan, S. van der. (2022, May 24). Flora and Fauna as Art: A Contemporary Art Conservation Approach to Living Systems. Living Matter: The Preservation of Biological Materials in Contemporary Art, An International Conference Held in Mexico City, June 3–5, 2019.

Rafael, M.-F. (2013). Pierre Huyghe. On Site (Introduction). Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Köln.

Scholte, T., & Wharton, G. (2011). Inside Installations: Theory and Practice in the Care of Complex Artworks. Amsterdam University Press.

Van de Vall, R., Hölling, H., Scholte, T., & Stigter, S. (2011). Reflections on a biographical approach to contemporary art conservation. AlmadaCritério.


Shubhankar Pr Bharti is an art conservator and artist. Currently head registrar at 193 Gallery, Paris, he has previously worked at the Collection LAMBERT, Avignon, LUMA Arles in France and at INTACH-CKP, Bengaluru India. Specialised in contemporary art, he holds a degree in art conservation from the Ecole Supérieure d'Art d'Avignon (ESAA).

(Read the article in the April-May 2023 "News in Conservation" Issue 95, p. 12-18)

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Looking back over the past several decades in the art world, the form of the exhibition has gone through several stages of experimentation since the 1960s, changing its conception and configuration, which led to exploring a new format: the exhibition as a medium.
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