bioephemera

My friend Nicole sent me this WSJ article about a month ago – it’s about the sad reality that artworks made with nonarchival materials often don’t outlive the artist:

Art is sold “as is” by galleries or directly from artists. (Can you imagine Consumer Reports reviewing art?) Still, dealers hope to maintain the goodwill of their customers, and artists don’t want to develop a reputation for shoddy work. But it’s not fully clear what responsibility artists bear to their completed work, especially after it has been sold. That’s particularly the case for artists who purposefully use ephemeral materials in their art (bee pollen, banana peels, lard, elephant dung, leaves, mud, moss and newspaper clippings, to name just a few examples) — isn’t it the buyers’ responsibility to know what they are getting?

Mr. Nerdrum, who is known for formulating his own paints (and constructing his own frames), was contacted by Ms. Hamilton about the deteriorating painting, and he directed the dealer to offer the buyer her choice of other works by him at the gallery in the same price range. The collector, however, didn’t want any other Nerdrum painting in the gallery, so the artist rehired the same model he had used originally and painted the image anew. The matter took a year to resolve.

Sometimes a little conservation is sufficient; in other cases, like the one described here, or Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (the decaying shark in a tank), the artwork has to be completely recreated. When that happens, is the artwork still an “original”? Can it be the original, if the previous, damaged version is destroyed? And is the artist or gallery responsible for making the buyer whole when an artwork falls apart unexpectedly?


This question was revisited recently on Ed Winkleman’s blog, with an extensive (and sometimes rather obtuse) comment thread. In part, Winkleman says,

A dealer can always give a collector their money back, should a work disintegrate unexpectedly or unacceptably, and in doing so keep their reputation intact, but if word gets out, it’s the artist who stands to really suffer. Even by phrasing it that way (“if word gets out”), I’m betraying what I personally feel is indeed the responsibility of the artist to become an authority on just how archival their materials and/or processes are. Again, it’s fine if work has a short shelf-life (so long as that’s conceptually sound), but it’s not at all fine to my mind for an artist to say, essentially, “I don’t know…buy it at your own risk” (unless, again, that contingency is an integral part of the work). Especially when experimenting with new materials, accurate information is IMO the responsbility of both the artist and the dealer. What it costs to get an conservator to research the longevity of a piece is money well spent when the consequences can be irreparable harm to one’s reputation.

I agree with Winkleman. An artwork can be necessarily ephemeral. An artist should be free to work in crappy paint, fragile paper, even dead meat and insect larvae if he or she feels the urge. But artwork should not be misrepresented to the buyer as an investment piece if it’s a transitory, ephemeral creation. Most buyers want their art to last, either as an investment, or (let’s hope) because they truly love it and want to enjoy it for decades.

That doesn’t mean an artist has to say exactly how long a work will last, because he or she doesn’t necessarily know. Many contemporary artworks were created in media that are recent technological developments. We cannot have a sense of their stability; there simply hasn’t been time to evaluate the media’s archival potential. And here’s another problem: artworks that require specific technology to read or display could become inaccessible if the necessary technology ages out. Have any mix cassettes from the 1980s still laying around? How about 3.5″ disks? I do. Though I could recover the data if I really wanted to go to the trouble, they’re degrading in storage; if and when I ever get around to accessing them, they may well no longer be readable. That’s already happening to film stock: according to the UCLA Film and Television archive, fifty percent of all films produced in the United States prior to 1950 have already been lost, the tape formats used to create them both obsolete and deteriorating.

No matter whether you are talking about film, music, or paintings, the varied ephemerality of artistic media invites some interesting questions about the value of original art, and whether artists, gallerists, and owners are accountable or responsible for its preservation – especially when the medium exploits technical advances that are new and imperfectly understood.

Comments

  1. #1 Mark
    February 24, 2009

    Come on, Jessica, I’m sure you know that diamonds are not thermodynamically stable! There’s a gibbs free energy drop of something like 4 kJ/kg (?) for diamond to transform to graphite. So, at infinite time, all diamonds will be graphite. Diamonds most definitely are NOT forever! :p

    Of course, kinetically it’s another matter…

  2. #2 Moopheus
    February 24, 2009

    Kodachrome lasts forever.

    But this has always been a problem for art–paintings get dirty, pigments crack and fade, papers may have acid (a problem for librarians, too). Light, and acids and other contaminants in the air, are bad for art–so just displaying art can be a problem. True, some materials hold up better than others, and some artists try to choose carefully, and some don’t.

    3.5″ disks? You child! I just tossed some 5.25″ floppies, CP/M formatted. I’d be impressed if anyone came up with some 8″ floppies, though.

  3. #3 Scrabcake
    February 24, 2009

    This is one of the barriers to Video Games becoming an art form, I feel. None of the great games of yesteryear run on today’s technology–games are ephemeral unless you want to go to a lot of trouble to get an experience through emulation that often pales in comparison to the original. (IE. The Sound isn’t emulated…)

  4. #4 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 24, 2009

    Speaking of preserving artworks: BioE, your octopus painting is currently being framed by our neighborhood framer under “museum” glass. I don’t know what the fuck that is, but he talked us into the upsell!

  5. #5 Patricia
    February 24, 2009

    One of my art friends is studying art conservation. I sometimes wonder if that knowledge would limit my creativity. I use a lot of found materials in my collage and sculpture and I have no idea how long my works will exist.

    To help them last longer I : sometimes experiment with materials to see immediate reactions before creating the art; frame, mount or lacquer as appropriate. I do try to be sensible in my material choices and avoid anything that looks like it would shed particles, or is already too far in a state of degradation no matter how beautiful. My works seem to be holding up fine so far!

  6. #6 Moopheus
    February 24, 2009

    “”museum” glass”

    Glass (or more likely acrylic) with UV filtering. It’s a little more expensive than the regular acrylic.

  7. #7 Jessica Palmer
    February 25, 2009

    Mark! you said “gibbs free energy” and just totally outed yourself as a science geek!

    Scrabcake, the fact that my boyfriend maintains a Windows PC *solely* for the purpose of booting up old games (like Portal) is testimony to the accuracy of your statement. Emulation often sucks. The PS3 version of Joust, for example – what gives? Terrible handling.

    Moopheus – I remember 5 inch disks, but haven’t seen them in years. My first computer was a TRS (trash) – 80, though, and that used. . . . cassette tapes! So freaky.

  8. #8 Jessica Palmer
    February 25, 2009

    Eek! The glass has got to be worth more than the painting now. 😉

  9. #9 Mark
    February 25, 2009

    I do not deny my science geek nature. 🙂

    I’m pretty sure I still have some 5.25″ disks around somewhere (though of course no easy way to read them). I actually still remember the very first 5.25″ disk I bought for myself, it was “Elephant” brand and I remember being so excited that I could put “Taipan” and “Lemonade Stand” on it. For the Apple II series. In… 3rd grade?

    Jessica, I’m with ya on the cassette tape thing, though I had a Commode 64 not a Trash 80.

    I have seen and touched 8″ disks, but have never owned nor used any. I think an old computer teacher might have had some lying around just as keepsakes.

    I am no archivist, but I do believe that Kodachrome basically is forever, as is a silver-gelatin print on fiber-based acid-free paper, selenium toned (even just a touch, not even enough so it’s visible is fine), washed with print wash stuff (hypo? can’t remember). Of course, storage conditions are key. Probably 50°F, 40% rh? I’m just pulling that out of my butt, but something like that.

  10. #10 wunx~
    February 26, 2009

    I myself have a loverly octopus print at the framer’s. It’s going into a mahogany frame with all achival matting, etc. and museum glass (not acrylic.) I kinda figure it deserves it. Also plan to hang it out of direct sunlight.

  11. #11 Jessica Palmer
    February 26, 2009

    If anything should happen to it, wunx, like if it fades or anything, mail it to me and I’ll make you a new one the same size. (I have the high-res file still). I am not sure if I should 100% trust the printer involved – I am going to get a better one soon, am saving up. 🙂

  12. #12 Joe Leasure
    February 26, 2009

    Honestly, I’m rather torn on the question. My first reaction is that in no way should the artist be accountable.

    For a “buyer” to place conditions on a work is to have a hand in creating the work and therefore contrary to buying that artist’s work in the first place.

    That’s just the stubborn idealist in me 🙂 On the other hand, when I’m commissioned or selling a piece, I’m so delighted by the compliment that I go out of my way to make sure the work pleases.

    In the case of gallery representation, of course it’s the gallery’s responsibility. They’re the ones selling the work. That’s their job. All within reason though, I think Odd Nerdrum did the right thing.

    Your question about the original work is most interesting. To add to it; can an artwork be copied and still retain the aesthetic value of the original? We assume so with books and movies. But it implies that aesthetic value is independent of the physical medium which conveys it.

    Ontological questions are kinda tangential to the post though and I’m blabbing :D.

    I did wanna mention another work by Damien Hirst which I thought was fitting to the post. It’s a real diamond encrusted skull. He better HOPE that one stays together!

  13. #13 Jessica Palmer
    February 26, 2009

    I love skulls, but I find Hirst’s “For the Love of God” about the most annoying object ever. Seriously, what a piece of pretentious crap. It’s like those iPhone apps that don’t have a function, expect to indicate that you’re rich enough to buy them.

  14. #14 Hungry Hyaena
    February 26, 2009

    Oh, come now, Jessica. “For the Love of God” isn’t all bad. It has some redeeming value, I think…but we can agree to disagree. 😉

  15. #15 Joe Leasure
    February 26, 2009

    haha, yeah. The majority of his work seems to be based on little more than tedious provocation. That iphone app is hilarious though. I didn’t even realize there’s more than one!

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