(CAN! The Evolving Role of the Conservator of Contemporary Art) Art that Lives and Breathes: Conserving Creatures in Contemporary Art by Pamela Johnson

By Martha Singer posted 06-04-2019 06:45


“Art that Lives and Breathes” was an excellent presentation by Pam Johnson, a paintings conservator working at Modern Art Conservation in New York City (see abstract here).

In her talk, Pam Johnson presented two case studies about the treatment of artworks that featured live creatures: At the Hirshhorn Museum, she cared for Ann Hamilton’s Palimpsest, which includes snails and at Glenstone, she maintained Roni Horn’s Ant Farm, which includes Florida harvester ants. The two artists had very different approaches with respect to the use of live creatures. Hamilton’s work required larger snails than the local DC variety, so they had to be imported. This requirement had the unintended consequence that the snails had to be destroyed at the end of the show because the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the importation of species that are considered invasive pests. In the case of Roni Horn, the artwork called for the ants to live in a dark soil, although the ants chosen by Glenstone for their excellent tunneling skills naturally inhabit sand. Thus, Glenstone staff had to devise a way to make a sandy soil that met the ants’ needs while simultaneously satisfying the artist’s aesthetic. Johnson suggests that people caring for living creatures should have a plan to keep the species healthy. For both artworks, this involved creating two groups of animals: team (a) and team (b) so that while one team was on display, the other could be spared the stressors of the installation and benefit from environments better adapted to their needs. Working with live species in contemporary art challenges our role as conservators. What is our function? To these ends, Johnson and her colleagues consulted experts (entomologist and ecologist), researched new materials, mitigated potential problems, fostered a relationship with the artists, as well as documented and saved as much evidence as possible as references for future iterations. And, as is often the case with contemporary art, they implemented treatments with creative problem-solving. #AICmtg19 #CAN!