Art restoration is facing unprecedented challenges as contemporary art uses unconventional methods and materials that age prematurely or become obsolete. Some works are saved, others are left to self-destruct.

art restoration Swissinfo

All photos made at Bern University of the Arts in December 2012 by Christoph Balsiger,

Article published by on 26 December 2012 in the following languages (links):

TACKLING ETERNITY – Saving contemporary art from self-destruction
HALTBARKEIT – Kunst vor der Selbstzerstörung retten
PRÉPARER L’ÉTERNITÉ – Préserver l’art contemporain de l’autodestruction
TRA L’EFFIMERO E L’ETERNITÀ – Preservare l’arte contemporanea dall’autodistruzione
EN BUSCA DE ETERNIDAD – Para salvar el arte contemporáneo de la autodestrucción
COMBATENDO A ETERNIDADE – Conservadores salvam a arte contemporânea da auto-destruição
永遠を求めて – 現代アート、保存と修復への挑戦
بحثٌ دائم عن الخلود؟ – الفنّ المعاصر بين خياري الترميم المُتقن والتلف الذاتي
让艺术品永世流传 – 抹去当代艺术品上的岁月之痕

Manmade materials crack, spare parts for sculptures disappear and audio-visual equipments become obsolete. The use of untested or degradable materials, new media, performances and conceptual art since the 1970s has transformed the profession of art restoration and introduced new specialisations.

It has also become more complex with questions surfacing on whether all contemporary art should be conserved.

Every work of art is a new challenge,” Pierre-Antoine Héritier, a Geneva art restorer who is considered a leading expert in his field, told me. The advantage of contemporary art is that artists are often still alive which allows for a dialogue on preservation to take place.

The use of novel materials may make a work of art more vulnerable, because we don’t yet know how it will age, but it does not make it more fragile, or less valuable, he claimed. He is presently working on a canvas covered with splattered chewing gum.

Damaging conditions

Héritier is more critical of the poor conditions of display, storage and transportation that in his opinion are to blame for a lot of damage, especially since art has become so mobile as museums, galleries, collectors and investors compete for recognised artists.

Fungal attacks, spider webs, insect droppings and the use of bubble wrap for transportation, instead of proper encasings, are his worst nightmares. Although he maintains that his own work has changed very little since he started in 1975, he concedes that younger restorers tend to specialise. His own assistant, Anita Durand, wrote her thesis on the restoration of ephemeral art, like performance art, which only exists in the present moment.

As a result of specialisation, collaboration between different branches has become essential, including with scientists. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, the Getty in Los Angeles and the Tate in London Gallery have full time scientists dedicated to finding conservation solutions for unstable materials (see below).

art restoration Swissinfo.3

Photo Christoph Balsiger,

The costs of restoration are therefore rapidly rising, with insurance companies also requiring the presence of expert restorers to assess the condition of a work of art before and after it has travelled.

Sylvie Ramel-Rouzet, who focuses on art made from plastic, admitted: “Our understanding of the different chemical families that have contributed to man-made materials is never as rapid as their evolution.” For this reason, she works closely with chemists and curators in order to slow down the process of degradation, for example of sculptures made by the junk sculptor Arman from the 1960s onwards. “We cannot arrest time, we can only slow it down,” she warned.

But not all works of art want to arrest time, Bernard Fibicher, director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, pointed out. Deterioration is an integral part of Daniel Spoerri’s snare pictures made from leftover meals or Dieter Roth’s chocolate sculptures.

“We have to accept that in 20 to 30 years there will be little left of those pieces,” he explained.

Fibicher stressed the importance of documentation to allow some works to live on. The case of land art, that is conceived for a specific natural environment and is therefore non-transposable, needs to be documented to survive.

Listening to artists

Thomas Hirschhorn, the world-famous Swiss artist, was asked what could be done to ensure the longevity of his work. “My art is made for eternity,” was the answer.

Considering that he makes his art from postal wrapping paper and tape, with felt-tip writing that fades with light, scattered with press clippings or magazines that tap into the pulse of his world, the statement comes as a surprise.

That each work of art is made for eternity, as Hirschhorn suggests, is a concept that restorers have to tackle on a daily basis, while dealing with the non-permanence of the materials used.

“Hirschhorn is a good example,” reflected Héritier, because he asks the questions art restorers also have to ask themselves.

“A work of art invents time,” Hirschhorn explained.

He was asked if he would agree to have a work of his identically reproduced if it were beyond repair. “Because my work does not disappear, it must not be reproduced,” he replied.

Other artists think differently and welcome the opportunity to revive or refresh their works, which is essential for restorers to know beforehand. For instance, Damien Hirst supplies an “after-sales service” for his decomposed works (see sidebar) and Paul McCarthy, the notorious California artist, is only too happy (not always successfully) to replace broken elements in his sculptures with even more shocking ones.

Sarkis, the contemporary conceptual artist whose installations made from various objects and media filled the entire Mamco in Geneva last year accepts that his work is shaped by the environment in which it is exposed.

Curator Sophie Costes explained that the artist considers his installations to be like a music partition that can be played differently each time.

To save or not to save

Art needs to keep moving and it is our role to keep it alive,” Costes continued, which is why she regrets that Yves Klein’s famous blue monochromes are often shielded by Plexiglas. Although monochromes are amongst the most difficult paintings to restore seamlessly in case of damage, she doesn’t believe it is possible to experience the International Klein Blue, as it has been patented, with a protective glass in between.

“We need to be more open-minded,” she said, but we also have to accept that not all works of art are meant to survive.

“If all the art from the past had been preserved, there would never have been any place for anything new.” Although art professionals rarely mention it, the costs of restoration must also be taken into consideration.

Fibicher remembers examining a work by the German Expressionist, Kirchner, with the legendary Bern art merchant, Eberhard Kornfeld. He commented on visible stains, to which Kornfeld replied: “Young man, I see that you already have white hairs. Everything in life deteriorates. Why not accept the same thing from a work of art?”


Art restorers today deal with a variety of unstable materials (incomplete list) such as polyurethane, petroleum jelly, chocolate, wax, felt, fat, chewing gum, decaying animals, plants or foodstuffs.

They must also address the issues of aging, erosion and corrosion of degradable polymers, mechanical movements, electricity, electronics, IT, photography and audiovisual materials.

Infrared microspectroscopy, multispectral high definition digitisation, thermal analysis and photo-elastic analysis are amongst the innovative techniques taught and applied.

Sound restoration has also become a new area of investigation as it is considered an integral part of some sculptures (Tinguely, Calder, etc)

The Tate in Britain has founded a “Time based materials” department to tackle technologies that become obsolete and performance art that disappears.

Modern restoration challenges

  • Matthew Barney (1967-) American artist making sculptural installations that combine performance and video. His tapioca filled mattresses and petroleum jelly drawings are famously difficult to preserve.
  • Joseph Beuys (1921-86) German influential performance theorist whose sculptures covered in dust to indicate the passage of time were until recently still religiously dusted by well-intentioned restorers.
  • Dan Colen (1979-) Young American artist who uses chewing gum and confetti to create “accidental” canvases that are already a problem for restorers.
  • Damien Hirst (1965-) British. When the shark suspended in formaldehyde in his iconic piece ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ became too decomposed, he simply replaced it.
  • Dieter Roth (1930-1998) made works of found materials, including chocolate, cheese and worms.
  • Sarkis (1938-) Turkish-born Armenian conceptual artist living in France. Accepts that his installations can never be identically reproduced.
  • Daniel Spoerri (1930-) Romania-born Swiss artist known for his snare-pictures, including of eaten meals.

___________________________________________ Links: Abegg-Stiftung Riggisberg: textiles Haute école d’arts appliqués Arc La Chaux-de-Fonds: scientific and technical objects Bern University of the Arts: modern materials and media (see photo reportage) Scuola Universitaria Professionale della Svizzera Italiana Lugano: architectural surfaces INCCA a network of professionals connected to the conservation of contemporary art The POPART project: Preservation Of Plastic ARTefacts in museum collections

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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