Living in the Material World: Making Sense of Material Matters in Relation to Temporary Artworks

by Sophie Kromholz, University of Glasgow

The traditional idea of the artwork as a singular and stable art object was destabilized by practices of the early vanguards of the twentieth century, who challenged institutionalized ideas around art objects.[i] The continued exploration of new art forms alongside the inclusion of new art materials has brought into question how to carry an artwork forward – forcing consideration of how to stabilize materials which are difficult, if not seemingly impossible to preserve, and what to do when the art object cannot be preserved. American artists Ann Hamilton (b. 1956) and Kathryn Clark’s (b. 1944) collaborative work palimpsest (1989) is a perfect illustration of the problems which go hand in hand with the diversification and expansion of material possibility.[ii] palimpsest consists of cabbages, live snails, and an electric oscillating fan in a steel and glass vitrine within a room covered in beeswax tablets, under which, encased in the wax, lies nearly illegible yellowed newsprint.

Figure 2
Ann Hamilton and Kathryn Clark, palimpsest, 1989.

The cabbages inevitably rot. The snails die. The fan gives out and needs to be replaced. Should the original fan brand and design go out of production, how should this element of the piece be sustained? As for the wax tablets, these begin to accumulate the debris brought in by the artwork’s audience, as the debris slowly becomes embedded in the wax. Hamilton discusses the work as ‘a meditation on memory, its loss and our finitude.’[iii] These are common themes among temporary artworks, evoked in part by the material selected, and in part by how the material moves and acts. The work’s material is vulnerable, and thus potentially the piece itself, depending on how important the original material is. The work in its fullness is experience driven, focused on a kind of immediacy in its interaction with the audience. Indeed, Hamilton is known for creating ephemeral environments which catapult the audience into immersive experiences as they stand in the work and interact with it.

Despite the highly impermanent selection of materials that are bound to change and degrade quickly, palimpsest (1989) still exists. From analysing the work’s physical composition, as well as reading the artists’ statement about the work, one would initially assume that the work is indeed a temporary artwork. This surprising twist raises the following questions, namely how do we recognize a temporary artwork? What role does material, both its selection and movement, play in shaping the work’s reading and experience? These questions will be addressed in this paper, in order to come closer to considering what it might mean to conserve the artwork without its material form and what a temporary artwork can be for non-primary audiences.

Theories and Concepts

With the inclusivity of materials and structural methods brought on by contemporary art, many materially unstable works are in fact not temporary artworks. The significance in exploring the ambiguity of material and how it determines the longevity of a temporary artwork illustrates the argument put forth by cultural theorist Fernando Dominguez Rubio and sociologist Elizabeth Silva, namely that, one has to explore the trajectories of these artworks, how they come to occupy different object-positions in it, and how these object-positions shape the specific ways in which subject and institutional positions, as well as boundaries, are distributed and transformed over time.[iv] The term ‘object-position’ is borrowed from the field of Material Studies.[v] It refers to the relationship between the material object and human social and cultural practices and experiences. The material object is significant because of what we think it might tell us.[vi] A temporary artwork is interesting because it straddles the line between object and non-object. There is a distinction to be made between works the transience of which is mitigated by making them permanent and those which become non-objects, which is to say works which physically cease to be. Whether an artwork is a permanent object or a transitory object is not evident from the material selection, as palimpsest (1989) illustrates. Rather, to recognize whether the artwork provides a stable material reference point – whether it can be repeated or replaced – requires additional information. An artist must disclose what the role of the material is within the work as a whole in order to discern the most appropriate treatment of their work.

Parallel to the material selection, the manner in which the material moves – specifically referring to the material’s inherent physical properties and behaviour – and acts, also impacts the way the artwork functions as a whole and how it engages with various stakeholders (which include the artist, the exhibiting body, the collecting body, the art audience, the curator, and the conservator). For instance, returning to the example of palimpsest (1989), which consists of many organic components, including snails and cabbage, the ability to replace both the snails and the cabbage inherently changes the shelf-life of the work and the manner in which the work is carried into the future.

The material’s role within the artwork and how the artist envisions this impacting the audience’s encounter and experience with the work can be divided into three main categories:

  1. Artworks made of fugitive or otherwise vulnerable materials for which the artist supports conservation methods and measures which keep the work viable. These may be applied by the artist or can be applied in collaboration with a conservation team.
  2. Artworks made of fugitive or otherwise vulnerable materials which make the work as a whole temporary, according to the artist’s intent.
  3. Artworks made out of stable materials which are destroyed and therefore become temporary nonetheless.

The first category concerns works which are in fact not temporary artworks, though due to their material selection they could be, were it not for the artist’s collaboration in countering the work’s material instability. palimpsest (1989) clearly falls into this category. The second and third categories both comprise temporary artworks, with the third category being fairly commonplace in commissioned work. The second category is primarily the focus of this paper. This is because it is notably difficult to determine on the basis of material alone whether an artwork is indeed meant to be temporary. There is a tension created by the difficulty of distinguishing between artworks made of fugitive or otherwise vulnerable materials for which the artist supports conservation methods and measures that keep the work viable, and artworks for which the artist does not support measures to sustain the physical work. It is particularly interesting, in relation to how an artwork is experienced, to consider how to relate the first and second categories, and to evaluate exactly what they say about each other. In both categories, artists use difficult-to-conserve materials, and the artist’s intent cannot be read from the material selection and action alone.[vii] Art critic Michael Archer discusses the challenge of seeing material purpose as the ‘conflict between transience and persistence’.[viii] In both categories, the material’s instability does not function as inherent vice, but rather as a form of creative hubris. Exploring the significance of the medium how its symbolism and duration play a role in the work, is a means of excavating the underlying narrative that material plays in constructing and supporting the artwork as a whole. The artist’s intention nonetheless becomes a necessary component in understanding what the possible future of the work is. Whether an artwork needs to completely cease to exist, or can be replaced infinitely, much like palimpsest (1989), depends on the artist.

In short, the physical properties of the artwork as a whole, the material selection, movement, and manner in which the audience is aware of and participates in its action, inform the relationship between the artwork as object and its transition to non-object. These dynamics shape and underpin what it means for the temporary artwork to continue to exist outside its original material form. Understanding the relationship between the artwork as a whole and its material provides insight into what is lost or gained through the temporary artwork’s material loss. How we understand the artwork both short-term and long-term is affected by these primary dynamics, which include the material significance and changeability of the work.

Artist’s intent and modern and contemporary art materials

There is a shift with works from the twentieth century onwards between what the work offers and what additional information needs to be disclosed alongside the work in order to read and understand it. Moreover, further information is lost when the artwork ceases to be physically present at all, as is the fate of a temporary artwork. There has been what critic and curator Francesco Poli refers to as an ‘epistemological break’ in artistic practice and theory.[ix] Poli uses the concept of the ‘epistemological break’ to describe the shift in creative practice that we see in the twentieth century. This shift in thinking and creative practice, including the use of unconventional materials, has changed the kind of art made and how we can think of collecting and conserving for posterity. While the presence of unstable and unconventional media as art materials is no longer unusual, now including everything from foodstuffs, taxidermy and excrement, the artist’s intent cannot be read from the selection and application of these materials alone. As art historian and conservator Lydia Beerkens observes:

‘The conservation practice of modern and contemporary art has become increasingly  complex and dynamic. A thorough analysis of the artwork and the collection of detailed material knowledge no longer suffice to solve conservation issues. The artist, the choices   made by the artist and the history of creation of the artwork play an increasingly prominent part as (additional) sources of information.’ [x]

In order to begin to understand how we might read the artwork, additional knowledge of the artist’s intent has become critical. The artist’s intent can be understood as the artist’s ideas and wishes surrounding the artwork, and where he or she envisions the identity of the work as a whole lying. This has an impact on the perimeters of how the work’s material can be altered and interacted with, determining the treatment of the artwork.

The difficulty of understanding the role of material and artist’s intent is illustrated, among other cases, by the works made by German-born American artist Eva Hesse (b.1936 – 1970) in the 1960s. Hesse pioneered the use of latex, fiberglass and plastics in the Sixties, when little was known as to how these materials would age and affect the work as a whole. Hesse ultimately developed cancer and died at the tender age of 34 while her work was still gaining recognition.  Due to the heavy use of chemicals within Hesse’s work, as well as the material selection, Hesse’s oeuvre has aged poorly. As it was not known at the time how the material would age, and due to the untimely death of the artist, it is difficult to read from the material alone what Hesse would have wanted to happen to her work. In an interview, Hesse is recorded having said she was confused about the longevity of her works, elaborating to indicate that the complete properties of her materials were still unknown, and that her own stance was unclear.[xi] She discussed her awareness that the rubber she used in some of her works did not last, but that the creative use of the material might be more important than its longevity.[xii] However, she also indicated that she had thought about making more durable works to counter some of these problems. The interview makes apparent the artist’s own lack of clarity about her ultimate intentions. Mostly, the works seemed to be produced with a kind of immediacy and only later, when confronted with the work’s material change, did the artist begin to think about the work’s future.[xiii] The ambiguity of the material’s future is paralleled by further enigmatic statements made by the artist, including “Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last. It doesn’t matter.” which are often applied to considerations of how Hesse’s work should be treated.[xiv] Arguably, in the case of Hesse, the reading of her choice of materials is influenced by an imposed reading of her illness. Art historian Anne Wagner criticizes this romanticisation of Hesse, stating that it creates a myth which does a disservice to the artist’s work.[xv] In the absence of the artist, traditionally one could expect the work to speak of the artist’s intention. Yet as we see with Hesse, and with some other artists’ works from the twentieth century, this is problematic. When deciding upon possible treatments, camps are divided. Art critic Stuart Morgan argued that ‘any attempt to ‘restore’ these late pieces by Hesse would be a travesty.’[xvi]  However, in opposition, fellow artist and friend Sol Lewitt argued that Hesse would not have wanted her work to completely vanish, arguing ‘She wanted her work to last’.[xvii] Yet this seems contrary to some of Hesse’s statements about her work, such as: ‘I think people should see it in all its faded glory.’[xviii] Discussions around Hesse’s work have formed part of the discourse on contemporary conservation and display practice and come to grips with material and artist’s intent – both shaping and being shaped by current conservation ideas on when to intervene with a material work, how to display it and when a work should be deaccessioned.

Moreover, the extent and manner in which an artist should control their work, particularly after the work has already been completed, is controversial.[xix] The artist is not always right. Artists’ concerns for their work are at times different from the conservators and the collectors. Furthermore, the artist’s original intent is a concept in flux, as artists may change their minds.[xx] In particular, later interventions suggested by the artist may no longer represent the artist’s own original intent when they first conceived of and made a work. This is notably a question of ethics, raising the issue of trying to evaluate at which stage the artist’s intention is most authentic, and equally when it ceases to be.

Taking an anthropological approach, philosopher and sociologist Renée van de Vall and art theorist Vivian van Saaze both propose that the artwork can be understood as having a biography, which is layered and dynamic.[xxi] The idea of an artwork as having a biography is indebted to anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, who first used the concept of a biography in application to things and whose work focused on the ‘life’ of things.[xxii]  Additionally, the notion that an artwork can have multiple authenticities is also acknowledged.[xxiii] It therefore follows that the artist’s earlier and later ideas can both be seen as part of the work. Through having a series of interviews with an artist over time, where possible, a change in the artist’s ideas can be documented and taken into account.[xxiv] However, at times artists may change their minds and express interests which are ‘either unachievable or undesirable by current owners.’[xxv] In these instances there is a clear conflict and the artist’s interests and intent cannot always be accommodated. When the artist’s intent is converted into action, it becomes what art theorist Sherri Irvin discusses as the ‘actionable sanctions’ which must relate to the identity of the artwork, lest this identity be changed and the work ultimately transformed into another work.[xxvi] The artwork’s identity is at the heart of what is at stake.

Temporary works are created with a particular limited lifecycle in mind, within a particular time and context. What defines the artwork and is critical to its state(s) is dependent on the conditions that the artist has intended and specified for the work.[xxvii] In cases such as German artist Gustav Metzger’s (b. 1926) auto-destructive art, the artist intriguingly decided to recreate his acid action painting from the Sixties for a retrospective of his work for Tate Britain in 2004. The remade work’s relationship towards the first work, made more than four decades prior, is not straightforward and how it is understood depends in part on how the artist sees this relationship. The compilation ‘Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979’ sets the framework for much of the discourse around the debate of performance and object and how to keep artworks ‘alive’.[xxviii]

Figure 3
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1999.

Related to the complex discussion of remaking work and the life of the artwork, British artist Damien Hirst (b. 1965), infamously replaced the core material, namely the shark, in his piece The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1999) when the work was sold from one collector to another in 2004, and the artwork had aged poorly. The work consisted of a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde solution suspended in a glass and steel vitrine. After the artist replaced the contents, the vitrine was the sole ‘original’ material from the initial work. Nevertheless, Hirst maintained that it was the same artwork. The conservation treatment of the work in question poses considerable ethical questions around how to define and understand the ‘authentic’ artwork and where the boundaries of its integrity lie. Hirst has claimed that material posterity is not one of his concerns, but rather that he is focused on communicating an idea.[xxix] Cases such as Hirst’s are interesting because they signal the artist’s voice as the primary source of authority. They mark the stark shift away from a focus on original material.

Working with the artist at the time that a work is created and directly documenting their ideas regarding the constraints of the work is desirable, where possible. This helps to avoid the confusion, or later change of heart, which comes from reflection and time and might interfere with the work. We need to rely on the artist to disclose additional information which cannot be read from the work’s material alone, but we must also be sensitive to factors which are introduced and which may change and influence the artist’s understanding of their own work. These include considering when the artist’s intent is recorded – right after the work is made or much later, whether the work behaves as the artist has anticipated, and being wary of not influencing the artist. Jill Sterret, Director of Collections and Conservation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, notes ‘the artist’s intent is still our touchstone. But it shifts. You interview artists when their work first comes into the collection and then, years later, call for a clarification.’[xxx] It is worth noting here that for some of the works in question, there are no years.

The process of material unmaking as used in temporary works removes the focus from the object and places it instead on what curator Maria Lind refers to as the ‘performative structures’ – that which the material object ‘does’.[xxxi] The essence of the artwork and the purpose of the object are reconsidered through its material unmaking. The process of material obsolescence becomes part of how the work is read. The reality of its inability to physically survive is in accordance with the artist’s wishes.

Keeping a temporary artwork relevant, and indeed whether a work should be kept at all, for future generations of audiences depends on understanding how the artwork is made, and in this exploration also on figuring out where the artwork draws its perimeters, how it is defined, and the point at which is ceases to be – the artwork’s ‘death’. By necessity, the future of the work includes a kind of variability in understanding that what the work is in its material presence is not the same thing as the experience of the work in its absence. The artwork that no longer physically exists can continue to resonate with new generations of audiences and new experiences can be shaped from second-hand information. In trying to keep the work relevant, what matters is how its absence is contextualised. What exists after the work’s initial primary existence is no longer the material artwork, but rather as traces of the work, documentation and the memory of something that no longer is. The experience of absence does not replace the experience of the material presence of the artwork, but rather complements it, and could even be said to be an extension of the artwork’s life.

Conclusion

The importance of a temporary artwork’s material life is highlighted through an examination of the role that material selection, action and singular physical embodiment play in the work as a whole. The examples given illustrate the difficulty of placing a work in a stable object-position based on material alone. The changed nature of material and how it shapes the artwork conflates the idea of what it means to care for an artwork, and what it means for a work to endure. As the role of material within the art object has opened up with practices from the twentieth century onwards, our understanding of when and where there is material irretrievability has been challenged, and the myth that the work’s longevity can be read from material alone has been dispelled.

Conservators Salvatore Lorusso et al. maintain that in considering treatment for the artwork, ‘One must employ a methodology based on the critical study of not only the materials used, but also the philosophy and creative conceptual intentions of the artist.’[xxxii] Temporary artworks can be made out of traditional materials which include but are not limited to: bronze, wood, oil paint, marble, terracotta, as well as the non-traditional, including for example: perishables, fat, flowers, twigs, ice, blood, excrement, and cardboard. Knowledge is needed not only of the material, but also the artist’s philosophy behind using and applying the material. Where possible this requires direct input from the artist, or else from the artist’s associates who can clarify the artist’s intention. And even here we need to be wary of how time influences opinion, even that of the artist. What becomes clear is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer, but that all of these works pose similar questions and issues. Critically, materialism puts into question the desirability of permanence. And yet, if there is a desire to preserve these works, it is necessary to understand how their temporary nature is framed, so that we might conceive of ways to address the works’ evanescent quality while still conserving some aspects for future non-primary audiences. Understanding the role of material becomes the first step towards understanding how the artwork is made present and experienced.

***

[i] Martha Buskirk, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art (London: MIT, 2003).

[ii] The use of lowercase within the title of the work is a conscious decision made by the artists.

[iii] Jonathan Padget, ‘For Snails, The Slimelight Is Fleeting’, The Washington Post (December 22, 2005),

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/21/AR2005122102274.html, (accessed, March 7, 2015).

[iv] Fernando Dominguez Rubio and Elizabeth B. Silva, ‘Materials in the Field: Object-trajectories and Object-positions in the Field of Contemporary Art’, Cultural Sociology vol. 7 no. 2 (June 2013):161-178, 164.

[v] The field of Material Studies researches the relationship between people and material objects, including their history, making, use, preservation and interpretation. Material Studies takes an interdisciplinary approach, drawing from multiple fields, including art history, archaeology, anthropology, history, and museum studies.

[vi] Webb Keane and Christopher Tilly, ‘Subjects and Objects’, Handbook of Material Culture, ed., Christopher Tilley, Webb Keane, and Susanne Kuechler-Fogden (London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2013), 198.

[vii] Note that these can be organic e.g. foodstuffs, or inorganic e.g. plastics.

[viii] Michael Archer, ‘Contemporary art is not ephemeral’, The Guardian, (November 18, 2009),

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/nov/18/contemporary-art-ephemeral,

(accessed March 7, 2015).

[ix] Francesco Poli, ‘Preface’, Conserving Contemporary Art: Issues, Methods, Materials, and Research, ed., Oscar Chiantore and Antonio Rava (Los Angelos: Getty Publications: 2012), 7.

[x] Ibid., 9.

[xi] Eva Hesse, ‘Eva Hesse on Impermanence of Her Materials’ http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/128, (accessed March 9, 2015).

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Tate Modern, ‘Teacher and Group Leaders’ Kit – Eva Hesse 13 November 02 – 9 March 03’, 12, http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/hesse/hesse_tp.pdf, (accessed April 19, 2015).

[xv] Mignon Nixon and Cindy Nemser, Eva Hesse (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

[xvi] Stuart Morgan, ‘Oh! More Absurdity!’, Frieze Magazine, Issue 11, (June-August 1993). http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/oh_more_absurdity/, (accessed February 19, 2012).

[xvii]Jonathan Keats, ‘The Afterlife of Eva Hesse’, Art and Antiques Magazine, (April 2011), http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2011/04/the-afterlife-of-eva-hesse/, (accessed February 17, 2012).

[xviii] Washington Pullman, ‘Eva Hesse sculptures deteriorating at WSU museum’, North County Times (October 4, 2006), http://www.nctimes.com/entertainment/art-and-theater/visual/article_0c0a1951-8ea5-5f58-8dd4-9ce196b3d30c.html#ixzz1ng3n3jXq, (accessed February 16, 2012).

[xix] This is indicated throughout conservation discussion by amongst others: Barbara Ferriani, ‘How to Pass on an Idea’, Ephemeral Monument – History and conservation of Installation Art, ed., Barbara Ferriani and Marina Puegliese (Los Angelos: Getty Publications, 2009), 120.

[xx] David Lowenthal, ‘Changing Criteria of Authenticity’, Proceedings of the Nara Conference on Authenticity in Relation to the World Heritage Convention, ed., K. E. Larsen (Norway: Riksantikvaren 1995): 121-135; David Lowenthal,  ‘Managing the Flux of Authenticity’, Proceedings of the Nara Conference on Authenticity in Relation to the World Heritage Convention, ed., K. E. Larsen (Norway: Riksantikvaren 1995):  369-370.

[xxi] Renee van de Vall et. al., ‘Reflections on a biographical approach to contemporary art conservation’, Proceedings ICOM-CC 16th triennial conference, Lisbon, ed. J. Bridgland (Critério, 2011); Vivian van Saaze, ‘authenticity in Practice: An Ethnographic Study into the Preservation of One Candle by Nam June Paik’, Art, Conservation and Authenticities: Material, Concept, Context, ed., Erma Hermens and Tina Fiske (London: Archetype Publicaitons, 2009): 190-198.

[xxii] Arjun Appadurai, ‘Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value’, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986): 3-63.

[xxiii] Erma Hermens and Tina Fiske, Art, Conservation and Authenticities: Material, Concept, Context,  (London: Archetype Publications, 2009): 190-198.

[xxiv] Crystel Sanchez, ‘VOCA’S Artist Interview Workshop: Crystal Sanchez’s Experience’, Voices in Contemporary Art (June 6, 2013, http://www.voca.network/crystal-sanchezs-experience/, (accessed March 4, 2015).

[xxv] Glenn Wharton, ‘The Challenges of Conserving Contemporary Art,’ Collecting the New, ed., Bruce Altshuler (Princeton University Press, 2005).

[xxvi] Sherri Irvin, ‘The Artist’s Sanction in Contemporary Art’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 63 (2005): 315-326.

[xxvii] Pip Laurenson, ‘Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-based Media Installations’, [Im]permanence. Culture In/Out of Time, ed., Judith Schachter and Stephen Brockman (Pittsburgh: Center for the Arts in Society, Carnegie Mellon University, 2008).

[xxviii] Paul Schimmel and Kristine Stiles, Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998).

[xxix] Alison Bracker, ‘Oh, The Shark Has Pretty Teeth, Dear’, Conservation Journal, Issue 35 (Summer 2000), http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/journals/conservation-journal/issue-35/oh,-the-shark-has-pretty-teeth,-dear/, (accessed August 20, 2015).

[xxx] Jill Sterret, ‘Competing Commitments: A Discussion about Ethical Dilemmas in the Conservation of Modern and Contemporary Art’, The GCI Newsletter 24, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 18–24, http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/24_2/dialogue.html, (accessed March 11, 2015).

[xxxi] Carlos Motta, ‘Relations in Real Time: A conversation with Maria Lind’, Sjónauki 3, (2008), 1.

[xxxii] Salvatore Lorusso et al., ‘The Traditional, The Innovative, The Ephemeral: Conception, realization, intervention in contemporary art’, Conservation Science in Cultural Heritage, Vol. 9 (Mar. 2009,): 170-214.

 

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Nixon, Mignon, and Cindy Nemser, Eva Hesse (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

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