BY Alison Bracker in Opinion | 30 SEP 12
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Damien Hirst Sparks Debate on Art Conservation

The artist's infamous sculpture prompts debate on the ethics of art conservation and when to accept the death of a work

BY Alison Bracker in Opinion | 30 SEP 12

In the spring of 2000, an argument broke out between Paris’s Musée des Arts décoratifs and London’s Saatchi Gallery over the condition of Damien Hirst’s 1991 sculpture, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. According to media reports, the work — a tiger shark suspended in a glass tank filled with a five-percent formaldehyde solution — had deteriorated so badly that exhibition organizers at the museum deemed it unfit to cross the Channel and ‘too rotten to go on show’. The Guardian reported that the shark had turned green, smelled and had lost a fin; the Evening Standard described it as lingering ‘in a severe state of disrepair’; and The Sunday Times intimated that ‘poor workmanship’ induced its (alleged) disintegration. In response, the sculpture’s then-owner, Charles Saatchi, declared that the work was in ‘fantastic condition’ and insisted that it was he who withdrew Hirst’s sculpture after deciding that the planned exhibition didn’t meet his standards. The museum, claimed Saatchi, simply attempted to save face by blaming the state of the shark.

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, installation view. Courtesy: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

That a debate over the condition of a contemporary work of art commanded the attention of the national press testifies to the prominent cultural position to which Hirst’s sculpture has risen since its creation. More interestingly, it highlights the questions that public and private collections now confront following several decades in which the production of works of art comprising non-traditional materials — such as blood, flowers, grass, animals and food — has escalated: What constitutes the object? What are the elements that convey its potential meanings? Are these elements replaceable? What is the object’s predicted life span? Has the artist communicated his or her wishes for the work’s future care? And, finally, is it more important to preserve a work’s materiality or its underlying concept? As Hirst once asked: ‘Are you looking for the original object, is that what you want to preserve, or do you want to communicate the idea that was originally intended?’

Through formal documentation processes developed over the past 25 years, museums, galleries and collectors of perishable works of art now have the necessary tools to address Hirst’s query. At their heart lies the artist interview. Ideally conducted at the time of acquisition, such interviews inform the object’s ethical care by recording the artist’s views on its various facets: its appearance; the significance of its materials; whether (and where) extra parts for installations and time-based works are available; how the artist defines decay in terms of the art work; identifying if and when a conservator should intervene in the work’s deterioration; and determining who (artist, representative of artist or conservator) may carry out the conservation or re-creation of the object. It is imperative that we comprehend how and why artists use impermanent materials, and the deterioration processes involved, else we risk losing or distorting material evidence, and thus our understanding of 20th- and 21st-century visual culture. The need to document the artist’s philosophy regarding the conceptual and material reconstruction of his or her work therefore becomes vital.

Damien Hirst poses in front of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living at the Tate Modern, 2012. Courtesy: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

But while honouring artistic intention plays a key role in the ethical conservation and documentation of ephemeral art works, decision-making based solely upon artist statements proves problematic. Intention is neither static nor always conscious; it is both difficult to determine and virtually impossible to delimit. Moreover, the passage of time introduces the potential for the artist to reconsider — and misremember — the work both conceptually and materially. And, crucially, time’s passage reminds us that the artist will eventually be absent from future consultation. For this reason, contemporary art conservators consider the object, rather than the artist, the focus of principled decision-making. Together with conservation codes of ethics, the object’s materials and, significantly, its own history largely determine its maintenance and treatment. Indeed, when renowned contemporary art conservator Christian Scheidemann received a request to over-paint a well-known American sculptor’s work using the artist’s own paint, he refused, stating: ‘I will not do it because it changes the traces of history visibly.’ He told me: ‘We collaborate with scientists, with the artist, with art historians [...] but my idea is that, in the long run, we have to do the decision ourselves, because we are labourers on history.’

As the guardians, creators and inheritors of cultural history, public and private collections, artists themselves (and we as a society) have to grapple with the ramifications of artists’ use of impermanent or non-traditional materials. Museums considering the purchase of a perishable work of art, for example, must contemplate such factors as cost (often attempting to negotiate the price of such works downward), whether they can display and/or re-create the work in a way that approximates the artist’s wishes, resources for storage, the demands of conservation, and the thorny question of whether publicly funded institutions should commit themselves to works that may last only ten years. Private collectors assume identical obligations for ethically displaying, storing and conserving unconventional works of art as museums, yet often without their extensive resources. And artists exploring impermanent materials confront the constant uncertainty of locating collectors who have the financial, physical and intellectual resources to exhibit and store such works, to undertake the responsibility of maintaining or re-creating them, or to agree to allow them to die. Ultimately, the object’s maintenance becomes a collective responsibility.

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, installation view. Courtesy: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Unimpeded decay or death materially performs the concept of mortality in many organic works, invoking the complex issue of lifespan. When unintentional decomposition occurs, as with The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, an artist may agree to re-create, or replace elements of, the work of art. Saatchi’s sale of Hirst’s sculpture in 2004 prompted the artist to replace the original shark. He admitted: ‘It didn’t look as frightening. You could tell it wasn’t real. It had no weight.’ But when an artist conceives of a perishable work as embodying and enacting death, and considers degraded materials integral to the work, how and when — if ever — do its caretakers declare it dead? As Scheidemann notes, ‘This is the question: What is the end? When is the end?’ Some artists avoid delineating lifespan, believing their work does not have a definable expiration. The artist Dieter Roth, who began utilizing organic materials in the mid-1960s precisely in order to expose deterioration processes, refused to ascribe an end to individual works. Other artists accept and even expect that a work, in part or in whole, will require fresh reconstruction or substitution with every exhibition. But those artists of the past half century who never anticipated their works’ demise, or the rapidity of its decline, or the subsequent obsolescence of constituent elements, present dilemmas that throw into question their works’ future display.

The disappearance of materials that were once plentiful arguably poses contemporary art collections and conservators with their greatest challenge today. Some museums report that it is now impossible to exhibit some of their holdings. Kodak recently discontinued Kodachrome products, which will affect impending time-based media conservation. Sylvania ceased production of the bulbs that frequently constitute Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light ‘propositions’ in the late 1980s, inducing him to stockpile the remaining bulbs he found available at the time. Ironically, for an artist who advocated mass-production and transience, reiterations of his work nowadays require the creation of handcrafted copies of bulbs, and fixtures fabricated from their original factory’s vintage templates. Yet since Flavin’s death in 1996, his presence within visual culture depends upon the perpetuation of his work.

Dan Flavin, 'Dan Flavin: A Retrospective', 2006, exhibition view. Courtesy: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

This, then, is the nub of the problem for impermanent art conservation: the transfer of cultural memory from one generation to another has heretofore largely depended upon physical evidence. Collections expect conservators to maintain objects for prospective, as well as current, audiences. Whether a work is stable or perishable, their caretaking decisions must be consistent with the original feel and presence of a work, and transmit to audiences the uniqueness of the artist’s vision. It therefore matters that, through the creation of identical bulbs, a reinstalled Flavin work retains its original colour and intensity throughout the years. As art dealer Fred Hoffman observed to me: ‘A hundred years from now [...] there won’t be anybody around who can say “I remember what it was like when it was first shown.”’ With considered consultation, and sensitivity to the surface, structure and significance of ephemeral works, conservation can provide what Hoffman describes as ‘a chain of command back to the day all these pieces were first created’.

Main image: Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, installation view. Courtesy: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Alison Bracker is an art historian writing about contemporary art, culture, and travel.