This week’s contributing blogger, Megan DiNoia, is a current M.A. student at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. She is a member of NYU’s Curatorial Collaborative and recently completed a curatorial internship at the Guggenheim Museum.
“When the intention of kinetic artwork is its movement, is it still a kinetic artwork when it does not move? Do we keep it moving even when it is detrimental to its existence?” These questions drive the work of contemporary art conservator, Reinhard Bek, who shared his research at The Institute of Fine Arts as part of the Topics in Time-Based Media Conservation lecture series. He began his lecture, entitled “A Question of Kinethics,” by positing these questions, urging the audience to consider the fundamental nature of kinetic artwork and the lines that must be drawn in attempting its preservation. Having served as the chief conservator at the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland for ten years, Bek consistently contends with these and other questions, and his research and experience provide others in the field with the tools and groundwork to confront such ethical dilemmas.
Voicing his concern about the ever-increasing obsolescence of materials used in kinetic works of art from the 1960’s and later, Bek introduced the two general modes of thought concerning kinetic art conservation: that of the practical conservator and that of the artist advocate. The practical conservator aims to protect the artwork by maintaining the integrity of its material. In dealing with an aging kinetic work in danger of irreparable damage, this conservator would cease the artwork’s movement in order to protect its materiality. On the other hand, the artist advocate aims to maintain the conceptual integrity of the work and would, therefore, always exhibit the work in motion, as that is the only way in which it is experienced as intended. Bek explained that these modes of thought occupy opposing ends of a spectrum, on which one must decide where to belong only after assessing every aspect of a specific work’s issues.
In dealing with the conservation of contemporary art, one must contend with both material, physical elements and immaterial, conceptual elements. In assessing the artwork, a hierarchy of these elements begins to form, creating the need for an ethical approach in deciding which are the most vital aspects to maintain.
Retirement, in which a work of art is exhibited in its current “off” state with no motion, is the most extreme way of dealing with the preservation of a kinetic artwork and should only be chosen when all other options are not viable for the specific object. The second option, replication, in which a fully functional copy of the original artwork is exhibited, typically in conjunction with the retired original or documentation of the original, is the best option for a work for which movement or participation are absolutely fundamental to its experience and the original cannot or will not function as intended. Finally, maintenance, in which an object is kept in a fully functioning state through replacement or repair of mechanical and material elements, is the ideal option, as it aims to maintain both material and conceptual aspects of the work.
To illustrate the ethical decision-making process in reaching each of these options, Bek presented six case studies. From Liz Larner’s Corner Basher, 1988, to Jean Tinguely’s Sculpture méta-mécanique automobile, 1954, these examples demonstrated the need to balance the material and the conceptual, while coping with the growing obsolescence of materials.
One specific case, Leo Villareal’s Flowers 8, continues to pose particularly troublesome issues for conservation. Bek was tasked with creating a plan when its LEDs began to fail, and only three years after the artist created the sculpture, the bulbs, lamps, and controllers used in the sculpture were all discontinued. While with previous works, Bek was able to document programming through reverse engineering, the only person able to verify the accuracy Flower 8’s programmed light sequences was the artist himself. The light sequence is controlled by a data interface system, which needs to be conserved with all its dependencies as the artwork continues to age and technology and software evolve. Villareal opposed the existence of two versions of the work, so, instead of replication, obsolete parts of the original sculpture continue to be replaced while old materials are archived.
This replacement of original materials with newer versions poses endless ethical questions for the contemporary art world, and we must ask ourselves where the line is to be drawn. A century from now, when most of Flower 8’s parts have been replaced with technology that doesn’t yet exist, is it fair to still call it the original? Is it enough to simply assign a series of version dates, or should the date remain at conception of the “original?” What is to be done when the artist insists on the death of their work? Are we obligated to comply? Is it our duty not to? Undoubtedly, these ethics must necessarily evolve along with artistic, curatorial, and conservation practice.
A video of this lecture has been archived and is available at https://vimeo.com/184878325