Authenticity in Installation Art

This week’s contributing author, Joy Bloser, is an objects conservator specialized in modern and contemporary art and is the David Booth Fellow in Sculpture Conservation at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. She earned her dual master’s degrees in art conservation and art history from The Institute of Fine Arts, NYU and bachelor’s degree in Chinese and art history from Middlebury College.


On May 23, 2018 at the Dedalus Foundation in New York City, the panel entitled, “Take a Deep Breath: A Case Study of Authenticity in Installation Art,” explored the ethical limits of preserving authenticity in the exhibition of conceptual art and considerations for its display. The panel was organized by former Dedalus Fellow Lia Kramer, a current graduate student specializing in the conservation of time-based media art at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. Kramer primed the audience for discussion with a sticky case study of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Last Breath (2012), in which she probed artist intent, authenticity, and institutional authority of its most recent iteration at SFMOMA. Her case study skillfully traversed the minefield of re-displaying conceptual art in static institutions, setting the intellectual scene for panel discussants.

She then opened the floor to her panelists, Brian Castriota, Chrissie Iles, Julie Reiss, and Glenn Wharton, with a few of the many plaguing questions her case study laid bare. Are there new terminologies or approaches that could help propel forward the discussion of authenticity in conceptual art? Is the artist intent a valid factor for considering a particular iteration authentic? Where do the boundaries of obligation fall for institution, conservator, curator, and viewer? A refreshingly candid discussion ensued with each panelist contributing thoughtful considerations of theory, practice, and ethical implications in both the preservation and display of conceptual art.

VoCA, Contemporary Art, Authenticity, Dedalus Foundation

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Last Breath, 2012; motor, bellows, Plexiglas, digital display, custom circuitry, Arduino processor, respiration tubing, paper bag, and HD video with sound on screen, 23 5/8 x 10 13/16 x 9 1/16 in. (60 x 27.5 x 23 cm); collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; installation view, SFMOMA, 2017; © Rafael Lozano-Hemmer; photo: Katherine Du Tiel.

The lively discussion among the five panelists addressed the idea of authenticity through two thorny conditions: the unreliability of artist intent and the ephemerality and changing quality of installations over time. Kramer posited that with change over time, artist intent is stated and interpreted, and is thus an unreliable component of an artwork’s identity. In what seemed to be a conversation they have been having for years, Wharton and Iles playfully sparred over their theoretical disagreement of how artist intent factors into authenticity. Wharton finds authenticity to be something that is both negotiated and constructed by all the stakeholders at the table, and the artist is just one voice among them. Iles countered in passionate defense of the artist as the Voice in determining authenticity, and no other. Despite their divergent theories, in practice they both espoused the absolute importance of documenting installations and the changing nature of conceptual art. They agreed the best way to ensure authenticity over time is to document and preserve the conversations, decisions, stakeholders, cultural context, installations, and reactions to an artwork so that in the future, a work’s authenticity can be approached and understood through the depth of its archive.

One thread that wove through the discussions was the burden of responsibility institutions bear in presenting installations, as they hold unquestioned positions of authority in society. Kramer questioned SFMOMA’s authority in presenting Lozano-Hemmer’s Last Breath (2012) with wall text that shifted the conceptual nature of the installation, and both she and Wharton argued for transparency in museum presentations of conceptual installations. Illes countered that we should be wary of too much transparency, that there should also be opacity: “Artwork is overly lit, we need shadows and spaces in between the transparency.” Depending on the degree of transparency or opacity, and the viewer, the authenticity of the work may change.

VoCA, Contemporary Art, Authenticity, Dedalus Foundation

Lia Kramer, Glenn Wharton, Chrissie Iles, Julie Reiss, and Brian Castriota at The Dedalus Foundation, May 23, 2018. Image courtesy of Michele Marincola.

Brian Castriota shifted the panel discussion by positing that in each iteration of a work there exists varying degrees of authenticity, that a work isn’t just authentic or inauthentic, but somewhere in between. He and Reiss addressed how external factors change artist intent, how conceptual work is ephemeral, and how change over time to both the artist intent and conceptual work itself is inevitable. Castriota suggested that a return to Cesare Brandi’s theory of “potential unity” could be instructive in addressing these multiple iterations of an installation. Each installation could be seen as a new translation of the conceptual work, and just as in textual translation, no single translation can effectively capture the entirety of the original concept. It is in the multiple iterations and translations that a work is manifested into a more complete whole; preservation and retention of authenticity are thus better achieved through multiple installations and iterations.

Kramer opened the panel with her own term for these types of artworks as “conceptual installation art,” and as the discussion came to a close, it returned to this methodological concept. Perhaps we need only to consider the term, conceptual installation art, to address authenticity. Conceptual installation art necessitates an iterative approach if it is to persist as an artwork beyond the ephemeral, and each installation is unavoidably a new translation of its concept. The authenticity of a conceptual installation artwork is thus proved much like a mathematical proof; if the concept is applied to create the installation, the resulting iteration is partial proof of the concept. Only when the concept is applied over and over again in multiple installations is the full authenticity of the artwork ever achieved.


A video recording of this event can be seen HERE. Thank you again to the panelists:
Lia Kramer, former Dedalus Fellow, Conservation of Modern and Contemporary Art and graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU
Brian Castriota, Marie-Sklodowska-Curie ITN Research Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate, History of Art, University of Glasgow
Chrissie Iles, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art
Julie Reiss, Associate Professor and Program Director, Modern and Contemporary Art and the Market, Christie’s Education NY
Glenn Wharton, Clinical Professor, Museum Studies, NYU

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