The not-so-much talked about subject of fragility and ephemerality of contemporary art is one of the most pressing issues for collectors of today. If you’ve just bought an incredibly pricy piece by your favorite artist, you should definitely take in consideration the matters of contemporary art preservation, which could prove to be a pretty complicated thing. Not too long ago, even tattoos became part of the art-preserving issue. Modern creators often explore the impermanency and vulnerability of contemporary life through their artwork, and when it comes to preserving their art for future generations or your personal collection, sometimes, that can become a daunting challenge. Certain pieces, and even artists, make every conservator laugh, but no one is telling collectors who still dish out enormous amounts of money for something that might not be a lasting investment. So, what’s the solution for these kinds of situations?
An embalmed lamb submerged in a vat of formaldehyde. Damien Hirst created this installation for the Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles, and for every installation of this particular work, named Away From the Flock, workers in hazmat suits have to refresh the toxic fluid and occasionally replace the lamb itself. Not really an ideal scenario for the conservators… Another example, on the other side of the world at London’s Tate Modern Museum, Doris Salcedo cracked open the concrete floor of the WWII-era building as part of her work Shibboleth. This particular artistic expression required workers to partially destabilize the building’s foundation during the run of the show. Exhibitions like these show the important issues of contradictions and challenges facing the contemporary art. The irony is that on the one hand, many modern creators are producing work that is commenting on the transitory nature of all things, and yet they don’t want their comments to be transitory or fleeting. Then again, a lot of authors tend to engage audiences in their work, or create pieces that contain everything from chocolate syrup to television tubes and radio transistors, all the way to Amazon fruits and chewing gums, so they probably create their work with ephemerality in mind. For instance, sculptor Ron Klein creates art using organic materials collected from around the world, including fragile and rare items such as a flower from the Amazon or a specific fungus on a piece of wood. Klein stated that art responded to its time, and that he wouldn’t go out of his way to use fragile materials, but remains adamant about not updating his work with a more permanent material if someone asked him to, the artist doesn’t want to be an interruption in the ongoing process of deterioration.
Founder of the Art Preservation Index, Emily MacDonald-Korth, said that collectors need to include the information of preserving the artwork into their budget before buying art. Her company currently employs eight conservators and is issuing reports on the stability of materials used in specific works of art, as the founder stated, collectors need to be reached out to ahead of time so that they could make informed purchases. The starting fee for their services is $1,975, and they are raising funds with plans to launch an index that would assign ratings to art based on its material durability, which could prove to be a very important, if not even crucial, element in art buying. Compared to the works of Old Masters, contemporary art presents more challenging conservation issues, according to the London-based dealer and collector Kenny Schachter. According the experts, the challenge for conservators is only going to grow as the digital age leads to artworks with more sophisticated and developed technological components. Just take a look at the controversial creators like Eduardo Kac, he made artwork which he refers to as “biotelematic” and “transgenic” art. His work involved scientists injecting jellyfish genes into the fertilized egg of an albino rabbit. The result was a bunny named Alba, which had a permanent fluorescent-green effect when viewed under certain light. Of course, these cases are rather extreme and even sometimes cross the moral line, but they only show that art will always keep expanding and developing, finding new ways to express the creative force behind the artist.
What many dealers do nowadays is to “wisely require purchasers to sign a release at the time of sale”, which would absolve the gallery of responsibility should things go wrong. But even without such a disclaimer, it would be difficult for collectors to gain compensation from the dealers, considering the fact that some materials are so obviously fragile and subject to deterioration that you would have to say you knew what you were getting involved in beforehand. Another thing you should keep in mind when purchasing an artwork is the storage and the risks/costs that follow. An interesting discourse may rise when the information provided by the Art Preservation Index meets auctions. MacDonald-Korth hopes that once her company launches the ratings system, it would be displayed next to works in sales catalogues. Of course, she anticipates resistance from the auction houses since a low rating could lower the value of works of art, but then again, it could also raise the value of others. Either way, information provided by the Art Preservation Index could be a huge selling point for many buyers, and if the collectors start demanding this information, the auction houses will have no choice but to include it.
All images used for illustrative purposes only