M. Barger, Fail Better - Decision Making in Conservation Practice of Modern and Contemporary Art, e-conservation Journal 2, 2014, pp. 23-26
Available online 21 May 2014
doi: 10.18236/econs2.201405

Fail Better

Decision Making in Conservation Practice of Modern and Contemporary Art

Review by Michelle Barger

December 6-8, 2013
Hamburg, Germany

Organised by:
VDR Verband der Restauratoren

The opening of the symposium Fail Better coincided with the worst storm in Hamburg since 1962, yet international speakers and participants prevailed in a successful meeting at the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Interdisciplinary in nature, conservators, curators and other caretakers of modern and contemporary art gathered to address the challenges we face in caring for objects made from unorthodox materials and methods, and explore necessary shifts in our roles and decision-making models. Organized by Barbara Sommermeyer, conservator of contemporary art at Hamburger Kunsthalle, the symposium took place over two days, incorporating guided tours of the Eva Hesse, Gego and Santiago Sierra exhibitions, an evening reception on a touring barge down the Elbe in the thick of the storm, hearty local cuisine, and a hard-hat, behind-the-scenes tour of the ambitious Elbphilharmonie project.

Prof. Hubertus Gassner, director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, provided opening remarks and charged the group with two directives to consider: what are the changing roles as caretakers of contemporary art, and how has decision-making changed. Sommermeyer introduced the themes for the conference, offering her goal to foster a more positive idea of failure. She shared examples of conservation treatments at the Hamburger Kunsthalle where replacement or replication of elements was a viable solution, followed by an example where this approach was deemed “going too far”. In the latter example, the artist shifted  her opinion over time, ending with acceptance of disfiguring change in her work. The notions of changing opinions – whether it be artist’s, curator’s or conservator’s – and of acceptance of ageing in art work were themes that continued to resonate throughout the symposium.

The symposium was divided into four moderated half-day sessions, beginning with Session 1: Failure. IJsbrand Hummelen (senior researcher/ conservator, RCE, Amsterdam) moderated this session which included presentations by Brigitte Kölle (curator, Hamburger Kunsthalle) and Silke Zeich (conservator, Museum Folkwang, Essen). Kölle curated an exhibition at the Hamburger Kunsthalle entitled “Fail Better” (1 March – 11 August 2013) inspired by Samuel Beckett’s quote: Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. She offered examples of artists through time who have explored failure in both playful and tragic aspects. Zeich recounted historic examples of failure in art work that are revered objects in their respective cultures – inclusions in the glaze of a Korean vessel, rivets in the lid of a wooden Japanese tea jar, or the melding of an Etruscan body and a medieval head into a sculpture two centuries ago. She finished by sharing a recent conservation treatment of a Paul Thek  experiential installation work in the Museum Folkwang collection. Due to fragility in the materials, visitors can no longer enter the meditative space created by the artist, but must experience it from just outside the environment. Moderator Hummelen introduced a concept in the Netherlands where they talk about “curating of conservation” and posed this idea specifically to the issue of communicating failure to your audience. This opened the discussion into ways that we as curators and conservators use opportunities to inform visitors of failure, whether through physical space – a narrow hallway for Francis Alÿs’ Sisyphean video of a Volkswagen Beetle repeatedly making its way up a hill only to roll back down – or with the use of labels and videos to convey experiences that are no longer possible.
Moderated discussion, Session 1 (left to right): Brigitte Kölle, IJsbrand Hummelen, and Silke Zeich.

In Session 2: Replacements, approaches in the conservation of minimal and serial art were shared by Eleonora Nagy (conservator, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Elisabeth Bushart (head of conservation, Museum Brandhorst, Munich). Iris Winkelmeyer (head of conservation, Lenbachhaus, Munich) moderated the session. Nagy opened her presentation with examples from her extensive experience in treating Donald Judd’s sculptures, sharing her deep knowledge in specific qualities of the artist’s materials and fabrication details. She noted that Judd held a standard for the “highest quality” which is not the same as perfection – a quality we often project on his work. The notion of perfection in the 1960s/70s is different from what can be achieved today, given that fabrication methods are much more precise. Nagy also presented the treatment of Ice Bag-Scale C, a kinetic sculpture by Claes Oldenburg in the Whitney collection, which provided a good case study for exploring fine line between replacing elements in an art work vs. deeming the entire work a replica. This project also exemplified the new role of the conservator of contemporary art as facilitator and master documenter, and the importance of maintaining a network of specialists as dictated by the needs of complex works of contemporary art. Bushart recounted a devastating example of accidental damage incurred on an art work by a visitor, resulting in a complicated journey of decision-making. Katharina Fritsch’s Display Stand with Vases toppled over when a visitor backed into the work while taking a photograph. The aluminum trays in the stand dented and buckled, and numerous mass-produced plastic vases were chipped and fractured, with ink from the printed image transferring to other pristine surfaces on the sculpture. Challenges in decision-making ensued when the museum tried to reconcile the artist’s approach which differed from what they had understood to be so intrinsic to her work. To complicate matters, the artist’s opinion changed over the course of the long discussion, ultimately coming to a place of acceptance for the damage as part of the history of the work. Winkelmeyer moderated a lively discussion which highlighted the challenges in reconciling differing opinions by artists: one approach for market-driven treatments vs. another for works in an institution.

Lyndsey Morgan (Patina Art Collection Care Ltd., London) opened Session 3: Models for Decision Making with a thorough summary of the ambitious replication project of Naum Gabo’s Circular Relief at Tate, where she was employed for many years. The original sculpture was made from cellulose acetate, an unstable plastic which quickly deteriorated during the course Morgan’s tenure at Tate. The institution worked closely with Gabo’s daughter and her spouse – Nina and Graham Williams – at every step of the multi-phased process, highly technical replication project, cautiously reviewing the results at each level before taking the next step. The resulting replica is very convincing, yet Morgan shared that she felt an emotion of sadness upon seeing it – “as if the work had died again.” During her presentation, Morgan shared a quote by the Williamses: In making a replica, subjective judgment, personal task and individual skill are involved. Perhaps they were suggesting that simply following a rigorous and exact replication ignores a need to work “in the spirit” of an artist for a more convincing replication.

Michelle Barger (deputy head of conservation, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) highlighted her work with living artists as the starting point for informing decision-making. This approach grew out of challenges she experienced while preparing for an Eva Hesse retrospective and the difficulty in reaching decisions when the artist is no longer living. SFMOMA works with 30-40 artists each year, and is committed to developing relationships with them at the point of acquisition of their work in the collection. With an ambitious expansion project scheduled for completion in 2016, SFMOMA is in a position to design spaces that support this activity, and will have an area in their new conservation studio that can serve as an artist studio, interview space, or public program.

Derek Pullen (SculpCons Ltd., London) moderated the discussion which centered on the factors that go into making decisions about replicating a work. Examples shared by participants suggested that decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, citing examples where installation-based works could be successfully replicated, especially with assistants who worked very closely with the artists. Pullen asked Barger her feelings on whether Hesse’s work should be replicated. Although several of Hesse’s assistants are living, Barger does not support replicas of the artist’s deteriorated works, but has explored making mock-ups with an assistant – Doug Johns – as another point of access for understanding the artist’s work. Other participants cautioned that it is not our role to be creators, and the danger in the uncertain status of replicated works was raised.
Symposium participants.

IJsbrand Hummelen and Matthew Gale (curator, Tate, London) presented for the final Session 4: Roles in Decision Making. Hummelen opened his presentation by reflecting on three case studies presented in the seminal conference Modern Art: Who Cares? (1997). He noted that artworks develop a biography that is shaped by the people, documents and photographs around them. Over time, these elements gain agency in telling the story of an object. Hummelen posited the idea that artworks become networks and move beyond their physical being; the artwork is the basis for the script, but the script is enlivened by all the agents/ actors. Gale recalled examples in history where replicas have achieved a level of authenticity: San Marco Campanile, which was restored in 1912; Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) 1965 replica at Tate created because the original was too fragile to travel. He commented on authority that is transferred to a replica once exhibited, and questioned the authenticity of aura: is the passing of an aura into a replica “more of a hope than actuality” (Yves Alain Bois), or is does the aura come from the viewer viewing? For example, most visitors to Tate do not realize that The Large Glass is a replica. In closing, Gale – who worked closely on the Tate’s Sculpture Replica Project – shared a curatorial code of practice for replication, prompted by the experience in the project.

Barger offered closing remarks to the symposium, recalling the initial charge by Gassner. What are our changing roles as caretakers of contemporary art, and how has decision making changed? She noted that the shift from traditional art-making to more unconventional modes in contemporary art requires a parallel shift in how we as conservators approach our work. There is a new player on the field – the artist – and we need to more comfortably incorporate them into our practice. Similarly, our training is rooted in the materials of art, yet it was apparent during the symposium that we need to shift our skills sets to make room for the immaterial in decision-making: the layers of meaning, the role of the biography that grows with an art work, reconciliation with changing opinions of artists (and conservators and curators), cultural perceptions of aging. Barger noted that the decision-making model continues to be based on an interdisciplinary group approach as it was defined in Modern Art: Who Cares, but artists are becoming more fundamentally integrated into this process. With respect to decision-making for replicas, there is a tendency to strive for guidelines and standards. She proposed that decisions would be better served by the approach outlined by philosopher Renee van de Vall in Modern Art: Who Cares?: an accumulation of thoughtful, case-based examples which will undergird and guide decision-making where every object requires a customized solution. 
The recordings of symposium are available online at http://restauratoren.de/fachgruppen/ moderne-kunst-kulturgut-der-moderne/aktuelles/fail-better-symposium.html

Michelle Barger
Deputy Head of Conservation, SFMOMA
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