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The restauration of contemporary art is an art in itself


Plastic materials that change shape, installations that lose pieces, ready made that melt: the restoration of contemporary art is an art in itself. It is also an emergency for museums and galleries and a challenge that poses important questions on the very nature of art itself

We were told us that plastic is immortal. That once it’s put or thrown somewhere there it remains, forever unchanged. But by visiting the headquarters of OpenCare – a company in Milan that offers services on art, including the restoration of contemporary art – one realizes that it is not true. The dozens of restorers with masks and microscopes, in fact, are often occupied on works that have less years of their life, but that are literally unraveling before their eyes. Because plastic deteriorates: it loses color, fills with stains, deforms, becomes sticky. And bringing it back to its original state is not easy.

Here, on the workbench, there is for example one of Carla Accardi’s famous paintings on “sicofoil”. The artist spread colors on large surfaces made with this glass-like plastic that reacts to environmental variations, with the dual intent of ennobling poor materials and allowing light to pass through paint stains. But the cellulose acetate of which the sicofoil is composed is subject to a natural and irreversible degradation (for those who know about chemistry: the cause is a process of acid hydrolysis and the progressive loss of internal plasticizers). In practice, without any stabilizing interventions, the effects loved by Accardi are destined to a slow but sure death.

Pig Island at the Fondazione Trussardi

Talking about the restoration of contemporary art seems like an oxymoron. In fact, since 20th century artists used a variety of experimental materials, little tested, or born from undocumented mixes, the conservation of the works of authors who are often still alive has become not only an emergency for the museums, but also a challenge that poses important questions about the very nature of art.

«There are some myths to dispel when it comes to contemporary art»,  says Isabella Villafranca Soissons, director of the conservation and restoration department at OpenCare. «The first is that of fidelity to materials. In fact, what matters is not the artifact but the idea». To prove it, Soissons shows a lump of gray plastic. It is all that remains of one of the works of the series Evis of Loris Cecchini, a listed forty-year-old artist from Milan who from 1998 to 2007 worked with urethane rubber to print “non-sculptures”, 1: 1 scale reproductions of objects from daily life. The concrete colored agglomerate that Villafranca shows was a small can. «The artist knew that the material would be deformed with the years and he chose it on purpose. He wanted his works to “sag”. And he predicted that the rubber would lose its physical-mechanical characteristics over time, starting to melt ».

One of the myths to do away when it comes to contemporary art is the blind attachement to the material remains: but for today’s artists what counts is not the artifact but the idea

And how does a collector react to a work that turns out to be disappearing? «As I said, what matters is the idea. This is why these works are often rebuilt rather than restored. Or even, the pieces replaced. In the case of the work of Cecchini the owner, having understood that the true meaning of the work was just in its slow deterioration, asked the artist to redo the can with a more stable but always alterable material, even knowing that in this way the piece will not be eternal». But the most striking story is that of Damien Hirst’s tiger shark (The Physical Impossibility of Death in Someone Living), a 4-meter beast preserved in formaldehyde. Created in 1991 and purchased by collector Steve Cohen in 2004 for $ 9 million, it suddenly began to disintegrate. Thus, at the request of the owner, the artist replaced it in 2004 with another specimen fished on purpose.

One wonders if we can – in both cases – continue to refer to these works as the “originals”. «The eternity and originality of the artifacts are other myths to dispel», replies Soisson. «Until the early twentieth century, the works were born to be handed down to posterity. Today, however, they are designed to be understood in their immediacy. The project therefore assumes a fundamental importance and the perishable nature of the materials used is often underestimated, if not even sought by the artists, as an integral part of the work itself».

Putting hand to the works of art created in the last 50 years can be a very complex operation, first of all from a technical point of view. «Paradoxically we know more about the technique of an obscure artist of the fifteenth century than on that of some exponents of Arte Povera», says Soissons. In cases where the artist is still alive, after all, it is often him – more than the restorer – to intervene on the work. «When Massimiliano Gioni made Pig Island, the solo show of Paul McCarthy at the Trussardi Foundation in 2010, the artist sent his assistants to ensure that, despite the necessary adaptations of the works to the exhibition space, the essential elements were maintained. But there are also opposite cases in which the artist refuses to put his work back on. When Mario Schifano saw his paintings of the Jacorossi collection damaged by fire, he said: “Do not touch, they are more beautiful than before”. And then there are artists who do not stop and change not only the materials, but also the idea of ​​a work in which they no longer recognize. The ideal would be to have precise information, provided by the artists themselves, about the creative processes and the materials used. And on that basis let the conservatives work».

Mark Rothko at Harvard

It sounds simple, but it is not. Because when we talk about contemporary at stake, there are often interests that go well beyond the history of art. The former director of the Museo del Novecento in Milan Marina Pugliese knows this well, and while working with two important galleries (Lia Rumma in Milan and the Scudo in Verona) tried some time ago to involve a group of artists in writing special certificates on materials used, intended for conservatories. Although the project was designed to protect artists, works and collectors, only a few names were accepted, and not the most established ones. Why? According to Pugliese, the artists know that it is precisely the indefinite nature of the works and their duration that attracts collectors. «Contemporary art is a form of high-risk investment that brings strong gains and losses and reflects the recent trend of short-term investments», she says. «That trivial technical information remains obscure, it gives the artist and collector greater possibilities for maneuvering and intervening and therefore earning money. Within this framework, which also has exceptions, artists are generally reluctant to define their work technically because this allows changes to be made over time, possibly modifying an unsuitable result material, without the value of the work changing in virtue of the reoperation ».

An example? The Cigarette Chandelier by David Hammons, a “tapestry” made with the fabric of a seventeenth-century monastic dress, on which the artist has attached iron wires that come out like “arms” of a chandelier and hold lighted cigarettes (the ” bulbs “). The concept of the artist foresaw that combustion would generate the ash that should have been deposited on the product itself and on the ground. But the owner Agnes Gund (among the most important American art collectors), worried about the risk of damaging the work, at the time of purchase asked the artist to be able to expose her in her house, leaving the cigarettes turned off.

«Hammon has accepted», says Pugliese, «showing how the status of the collector can overwhelm the meaning of the work». And keep it, if not increase its value: a few months ago, the Lucky Strike of the Cigarette Chandelier were finally turned on at the last edition of Art Basel, when the new owner of the work, the gallery Salon 94, exposed it in perfect conditions and with a market valuation of one and a half million euros.

Even technology – which is a fundamental aid for restorers – often creates situations that are verging on being ununderstandable for the general public. The most recent case is that of Mark Rothko’s 1964 murals, totally deteriorated after being married for decades at Harvard’s Holyoke Center, in a room used for receptions, parties and dinners. Since a physical intervention on painting was impossible, due to the type of pigments and techniques used by the artist, a “compensated lighting” system was designed by Canadian conservator Raymond Lafontaine: five digital projectors emit a spectrum of light that makes re-emerge the original colors. And, a bit like in the Cinderella fairy tale, when the spotlights are turned off, the work is the same as ever: dull and colorless. The original remains, but must be seen in a new light.

(articolo pubblicato su D la Repubblica delle donne il 19 dicembre 2015)

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