Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

The Fine Art of Conserving … Teddy Bears?

National Post, 5 February 2000

Paper yellows and crumbles. Steel rusts. Plastic toys wear out. Food rots. This is the nightmare world of contemporary art conservators, where advanced chemistry and inspired guesswork meet, where everything including the kitchen sink (or kitchen cupboard, or even the pickle jars inside) might end up as weapons against the ravages of time.

When most people think of art conservation, they imagine Michelangelo’s glorious frescoes on the ceiling and west wall of the Sistine Chapel, now restored to their original garish magnificence after more than ten years of artistic therapy. Of course, five centuries of accumulated smoke, dirt and varnish will take a toll on even the sturdiest of materials.

But art conservators are beginning to discover that works created within the last century, even within the last decade, can be in need of some serious restorative work. The surface of Piet Mondrian’s pristine geometric canvases from the 1920s and 1930s have been disfigured by “craquelure” – the spider-web of minute cracks most often associated with centuries-old oil paintings. The unprimed cotton canvases used by Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis during the 1950s are becoming jaundiced under the glare of museum lighting.

Are modern and contemporary artists just sloppier than their forebears, cutting corners with substandard materials? Certainly not, says Sherry Phillips, a conservator at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). “Most contemporary artists are extremely sensitive” to the quality and durability of the materials they use, she insists in an interview.

But contemporary art has certainly increased the diversity, if not the frequency, of art conservators’ nightmares. “With contemporary and modern art,” says Richard Gagnier, conservator at Ottawa’s National Gallery , “a much wider variety of materials is being used in different ways.” Pigment applied to canvas, wood, or plaster is one thing—but what do you do when a clear liquid begins to ooze out of the chocolate in Joseph Beuys’ Two Frauleins with Shining Bread? Or when moths attack the felt material in another of his works?

In the case of the chocolate, brief rehab in a cool dark corner of the AGO did the trick. But the moth-infested felt needed some recuperative time in the deep freeze—conservators later carefully swept away the remaining bug carcasses before displaying it to the public.

Some works simply need a little pampering. When AGO curators display light-sensitive works by Agnes Martin or Morris Louis, for instance, they slide the dimmer switch down a few notches. For others, conservators simply monitor. And hope. In Iain Baxter’s Animal Preserve #2, stuffed animals submerged in jars of water are slowly losing their soluble dyes. The foam rubber stuffing in Claes Oldenburg’s enormous Floor Burger at the AGO is deteriorating, but seems to be stable for now.

Gagnier has recently turned his attention to a work by Canadian artist Roland Brener, entitled Bad Trick. In it, a talking teddy bear with blinking eyes—a modified children’s toy—conducts a recorded “dialogue” between artist and art dealer. But its moving parts use plastic gears that are slowly wearing down, and the original talking bear is no longer being commercially produced. “One day I’ll probably have to modify the mechanism by replacing the plastic pieces with aluminum,” reflects Mr. Gagnier. In the meantime, the bear’s movements are carefully regulated by motion detectors in the room: the bear will only launch into its spiel when visitors enter.

Other problems have potentially fatal consequences, and are not so easily resolved. Vancouver artist Liz Magor’s Time and Mrs. Tiber features jars of preserves recovered from an abandoned homestead on Cortez Island, British Columbia. But some additional jars, improperly prepared by Magor herself, developed botulism and began to leak. The National Gallery’s concerns over public safety had to take precedence over strict respect for the work’s artistic integrity—Magor agreed to replace the jars that had gone bad. But she resisted the National Gallery’s suggestion that the work be irradiated, since this would have compromised the essential character of the piece, a reflection on “the effects of time and aging and death.”

“Many conservators wonder why we don’t always use the most permanent materials we can get our hands on,” Magor says from her Vancouver studio, “and I say that the materials have to be consistent with the subject. A lot of contemporary art is about transition and insecurity and impermanence, so it wouldn’t make sense to make something out of bronze if your subject is insecurity and change.” But even she is ambivalent about the essential impermanence of her work. “I think that conceptually, I would like Mrs. Tiber’s original jars to be the measure of how long it lasts—I say conceptually, because emotionally I might behave differently if the time came. I’m hoping that I won’t be around to make that decision.”

When artists die, museum curators and conservators must step in to make such decisions. And while they insist that their primary goal is to respect the artist’s wishes—even if that means the loss of a museum’s investment—it’s hard to believe that they aren’t swayed by Seneca’s famous dictum, Vita brevis est, ars longa. (Life is short, art is long.) Margaret Haupt, conservator at the AGO, outlines her conservation philosophy in more practical terms. “We move very gradually, very carefully … trying to respect exactly what [the artist] intended,” she explains, “while at the same time not letting the moths take over the museum.”