Conservation of ephemeral art: restoring banana skins in works by Lo Yi-chun by Ioseba I. Soraluze + Yu-chun Chen + Chien-hua Lu

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This project was first presented as a poster at the 2016 IIC Los Angeles Congress. The poster was selected as the best technical poster and the version presented here is an article update from the original work.

Process art deals often with unpredictable materials, such as living matter, including vegetables and animals. These organic components contain the experience of life and using those means accepting a degree of unpredictability and questionable permanency. However, placing process art objects in a museum context has introduced significant controversies about conservation and concepts of acceptable degradation, and requires a balance between conceptualism and materiality. The conservation of ephemeral art converges to satisfy the museum’s requirements without renouncing an artist’s intention.
The aim of our research was to study conservation approaches in ephemeral artworks by Lo Yi-chun. The artworks studied belong to the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Kaohsiung City, Taiwan, as well as the artist’s private collection, and they are made exclusively with banana skins. The conservation project has been a collaboration between the Conservation Centre of Cheng Shiu University, Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, and the artist herself. The works had mould and insect damage, including broken and detached skins. Furthermore, the configuration for the installation of the artwork chosen by the artist affects the preservation of the pieces. The project was focused around an interview held with the artist to learn and understand her intentions, in order to carry out treatment. The talk with the artist revealed that the artworks were produced while she was living in Japan and that she used bananas imported from the Philippines. The artist was very concerned about the origin of the bananas and felt that they could only be replaced if they came from the Philippines since otherwise the time-space concept would be lacking. She believes the material has its own life cycle and the bananas will thus have changed by the time they arrive. However, mould growth was seen as an aesthetic disturbance and a distraction for viewers. The artist hopes that her banana skin artworks may last at least 50 years and so she dried and waxed the skins to delay complete degradation.

This project worked on three of Lo’s installations with similar patterns of damage that were on display in the museum’s gallery. Each was hanging from the ceiling by nylon threads that were fixed to the skins and this system affected the structural stability of the works, causing the deformation of several skins. Nonetheless, the intervention was addressed specifically at the elimination of mould that altered the appearance of many parts of the installation.
by the artist, it was removed using quaternary ammonium salts after considerable testing. Moreover, the benefits on future growth of increasing airflow were evaluated, but it was concluded that further damage could result, due to the weakness of the works. Changing the environmental conditions in the gallery was rejected as Lo’s installations are exhibited alongside objects with different environmental requirements in the gallery. A combination of the brittleness of the skins and the installation system adopted by the artist made the bananas easier to tear. The breaks were fixed using new banana skins supplied by the artist. A polyvinyl acetate (PVA) glue was used instead of a water-based adhesive, to avoid adding humidity to the system.
The case study of the restoration of banana skins in works by Lo Yi-chun has demonstrated contradictions in the conservation of ephemeral art. Organic materials are intended to decay and have a short life span; however the
artist expects her works to last for several decades. Furthermore, the artist only allows broken pieces to be fixed if the stability of the work is in danger, and refuses a complete replacement of any skin to avoid changes in the space-time meaning of the work. In galleries without other objects, climate control will prove a key means not only to prevent mould growth but also to impede possible new deformation of the banana skins.

All images used in this article are copyright of the authors

About the authors:
Dr Ioseba I. Soraluze is a contemporary art conservator and Head of the Painting Department at the Conservation Centre of Cheng Shiu University. He received his PhD from the Polytechnic University of Valencia and has worked in several contemporary art museums in Spain. Since 2006 he has been based in Taiwan and has carried out conservation and research projects with different museums, galleries and institutions in the country. He also does consulting related to acquisitions and conservation of contemporary Chinese art for auction houses in Hong Kong.

Lu Chien Hua is a graduate conservator from the Institute of Conservation of Cultural Relics, Tainan National University of the Arts. Since 2007 she has been working as oil painting conservator at Conservation Center of Cheng Shiu University. During this time, she has been in charge of different restoration projects related to national heritage. Previously, she worked as conservator and curator at Kaohsiung County Cultural Affairs Bureau.

Hera Chen is conservator of paintings. She earned her Diploma in art conservation and Masters in management of cultural and artistic events from the Institute Palazzo Spinelli for Art and Restoration in Florence, Italy. She has gained various conservation experiences of both traditional and contemporary art in different countries since 2007. She has worked on large on-site institutional projects as well as for museums, auction houses and galleries.