Some artists working in time-based media try to ease the conservation stresses on museums. When Tate bought Michael Craig-Martin’s 2003 work Becoming – an endlessly changing computer-generated animation on an LCD screen – the artist provided its source code to help create future exhibitions on whatever displays might be around.
Further challenges are posed by artworks based on live performance. Pip Laurenson, Head of Collection Care Research for the Tate, explains how Tate Liverpool approached a 2019 display of Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain, a live film and musical work by Tony Conrad, which existed only as a string of individual performances since its 1972 debut in New York.
“Although we started conversations with Conrad when he was still alive, the work was acquired after his death. He didn’t like producing scores, so he taught performers what to do each time it was staged,” she explains. “So we collected people’s accounts of performing it, and learned what aspects needed to stay the same and where there was scope for improvisation and interpretation.”
This broadening of the idea of how museums conserve and display art is both a challenge and an opportunity. “It has forced us to rethink what our job and role really is, and in so doing, expand our thinking about what care is and can be,” says Brian Castriota, Time-Based Media Conservator at National Galleries of Scotland.
It’s a living thing
One of the newest categories of art keeping museum curators awake at night is the (literally) growing body of work made with living organisms. How do you conserve and display a work of art that is alive, that can evolve or die?
Take Liz Larner’s works made with bacteria, such as 1988’s Every Artist Gave a Breath. For this, Larner asked fellow artists to exhale on to an agar culture in a petri dish, which was then put on display. Over the exhibition run in the Austrian city of Graz, bacteria in the dish grew into blooms free of any guiding influence from the artist. They then eventually died and turned black.
Another striking example is Simon Starling’s 2006 Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore). This featured a full-scale steel replica of Henry Moore’s Warrior with Shield which was submerged in Lake Ontario for 18 months to slowly become covered by zebra mussels that couldn’t care less if they made their home on a rock or a piece of modern art. The invasion of nature into art took a further twist when the piece went on show at the Art Gallery of Ontario, as it became further infested by moths.