As part of the inaugural installation in the newly opened Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), an embalmed lamb stands submerged in a vat of formaldehyde. For every installation of this Damien Hirst work, called “Away From the Flock,” workers in hazmat suits must refresh the toxic fluid. Occasionally, the lamb itself must be replaced.
Half a globe away, at London’s Tate Modern Museum, Colombian artist Doris Salcedo recently cracked open the concrete floor of the World War II-era building as part of her work “Shibboleth,” an installation piece that required workers to partially destabilize the building’s foundation during the run of the show.
These exhibits underline an important concern shared by modern artists who say they are exploring the impermanence and vulnerability of contemporary life. Even as they engage audiences on that topic, works that contain everything from chocolate syrup to exotic Amazon fruits to television tubes and radio transistors often present daunting challenges for museums, collectors, and artists themselves when it comes to preserving their art for future generations.
“There is a wonderful irony in all these things,” says Lynn Zelevansky, LACMA’s curator of contemporary art, “because on the one hand, many of these artists are commenting in their artwork about the transitory nature of all things, and yet they don’t want their comments to be transitory or fleeting.”
The issue is taking on urgency as institutions face the passing of many 20th-century artists, and consulting them about their ephemeral artwork is no longer possible.
Major institutions such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), as well as LACMA, have developed protocols for gathering both the philosophical and practical information from artists to create support materials that will help preserve a fragile object or recreate a conceptual work.
LACMA routinely has an artist fill out a detailed questionnaire. An increase in photo and video record keeping has turned such evidence into a kind of companion art form, says art historian Jennifer Way, who teaches at the College of Visual Arts and Design at the University of North Texas, Denton.
But the challenge to conservators is only going to grow, says Ms. Way, as the digital age leads to artworks with more sophisticated technological components.
Other questions arise from the business side of the art world.
Not unreasonably, collectors have an interest in preserving value as well as artwork, says Heather Darcy Bhandari, director of Mixed Greens Gallery in New York. “Once you enter the world of commerce, you have to be willing to be concerned with the issue of maintenance,” she says.
A liquid sculpture made with Gatorade, as her gallery once exhibited, requires a willingness to buy the gallons of the bottled sports drink needed to keep the fountain fresh. And what happens, she asks, if Gatorade is no longer available? Do product substitutions change the nature of the work?
High-tech components present a similar problem, says LACMA’s Zelevansky. Video-art pioneer Nam June Paik left instructions to help answer those questions for future generations, says Zelevansky, but as the old Quasar TV sets in his 1968 “Video Flag Z” installation recently have begun to blow out, curators have been dismayed to discover that not only can’t they find such sets, but new screens are no longer square.
The museum found a workaround, she says, by keeping the old frames and adapting other parts of the sets. Still, she says, “it’s an issue on an ongoing basis.”