'Modern works, modern problems?' IPC conference

Jane Rutherston
Book Conservator, Conservation Department

Tate Gallery 3-5 March, 1994

The Clore Gallery Extension of the Tate Gallery proved to be a more than pleasant venue for this efficiently organised and well attended conference. The organisers are to be congratulated.

The three days were broken up into sections: Prints & Printmaking, Modern Papers, Disappearing Art, Collage & Special Papers and Unusual Media. Papers were both professional and thought-provoking, reflecting innovative techniques, research and ethical approaches to proposed treatments.

Reports on individual papers will appear elsewhere, so I will concentrate on the ensemble. I would like to point out that three speakers were unable to give their original papers owing to lack of consent from the owners to identify their objects. It is evident that some clients are not allowing conservators to identify works that have been treated because of an apprehension that conservation leads to loss of value.

Modern works reflect the social and cultural aspects of current society, experimenting with new media and techniques which move away from traditional materials. Conservation intervention risks changing an original composition and destroying evidence of the artist's working method. The dismantling of a collage for treatment can be considered reconstruction when reassembled. Experimentation and investigation inevitably incorporates the use of unstable and ephemeral materials leading to deterioration and change to the object. But the transient nature of the object may well be the artist's design and choice. Mistakes, structural additions, food stains, material interaction, etc. are all part of the whole.

The importance of knowing the works and background of an artist in order to get a better overview and to understand the work, as well as discourse, when possible, with the artist to ascertain materials used and information of intent and aesthetic, aid the conservator in choosing informed non-invasive treatments that are not influenced merely by personal interpretation.

Things are often not what they seem. For example new technology produces new working methods and developments in printmaking which could lead the conservator into misidentifying a technique, with the consequent danger of choosing an inappropriate treatment procedure. Contact with the printer may aid in identifying printing techniques and inks used as most printers keep a day book and archive. Fibre furnish in paper is also not always as stated and, as efficiency in de-inking and recycling in-creases, the quality of paper will change as cheap paper is introduced into the pulp. Two speakers pointed out the problems caused by the migration of acid in paper after the introduction of moisture during treatment, resulting in activated acid migrating from a support paper to picture substrate or board to paper substrate. In one case acid migration caused the printing inks used on a collection of German 1920s film posters to become fugitive. Fax and photocopy papers, as used by David Hockney in his 'home-made prints', also pose an array of conservation dilemmas.

Problems of deformation and dimensional change due to environmental changes and physical reasons cause damage to objects. Expansion and contraction due to humidity changes can cause cracking of the paint surface, splitting of the substrate and damage to differing layers as used in photomontages. Exhibitions and loans often involve circumstances that are detrimental to objects such as humidity and temperature fluctuations, poor framing and vibration during transit. From the 96 fragile original photomontages by John Heartfield that formed part of a traveling exhibition in 1993, over 100 examples of further damage were recorded. Dialogue between owner/keeper/agent/ trustee of an object and the conservator aids decisions on interpretation, exhibition and preservation of these works.

It was suggested that art students should be better educated in the use of more stable materials, although I personally feel that opposes and obstructs the objective of exploration and expression. Longevity is not always important to the creator: it is therefore, as was also suggested, important for the owners, conservators and dealers to accept change as part of the ephemeral nature of the work. Materials are often chosen for the effects they create as well as economic reasons as illustrated by one speaker, both an artist and conservator, who has used media as diverse as bitumen, shoe polish and wax in her works. The sculptor Anish Kapoor reportedly uses powder pigments and polymer resins in the creation of his small sculptures which he adheres to a paper substrate (I have been consulted on and had analysed an example in a magazine held by the National Art Library), and buys many of his materials from theatrical suppliers.

What I found most interesting was the constant reference to the importance of the artist's intent versus the collector's and the conservator's interpretations. As the NAL increases its collection of book art and demands for conservation increase due to the instability of many of the materials used, dialogue between the conservator, curator and artist may inevitably become significant in identifying materials used and deciding conservation treatments. At the same time the importance of not infringing on the artist's work is imperative when addressing the legal obligations a conservator undertakes when working on an object, as laid out in the 'Copyright, Designs and Patents Act' 1988, Sections 80, 83 & 84. A change to an artist's work can allow the artist's name to be removed from that work, during ,the artist's lifetime and by the artist's Estate for 50 years following death. A salutary issue to be aware of.