Accepted Paper:

Conserving minutes, wishes, advice, and The Gift: employing ethnographic methods for the conservation of relational art  


Caitlin Spangler-Bickell (Museo delle Culture, Milan / Maastricht University)

Paper short abstract:

The challenge of conserving ephemeral artworks defined by material or experiential exchange can be addressed with a 'biographical approach to conservation.' This paper discusses the use of ethnographic methods to document the lives of artworks in the contemporary art exhibition Take Me (I'm Yours).

Paper long abstract:

The conservation of contemporary art has evolved from traditional aims of resisting physical decay and stabilizing materials to managing change and documenting ephemeral events. A 'biographical approach' to conservation (Van de Vall et al., 2011) attempts to record the variability of artworks through significant life stages while preserving their artistic integrity over time. Many organizations document the creation of artworks through artist interviews and collaborative documentation projects, as well as ensure their retrospective presence in collections through innovative archival practices; but the life stage of artworks during exhibition is under-represented in documentation that informs the writing of their biographies. This problem is particularly urgent for works that are relational in nature, meaning they fully exist only in the event of encounter in exhibitions where the accumulation of real-time developments between people, places and things constitute the work's very identity.

This paper argues that ethnographic methods are ideally suited to study and document such complex art works. It outlines the use of participant observation for conservation purposes during the exhibition Take Me (I'm Yours) at the contemporary art space Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan, Italy. From November 2017 to January 2018, the author studied how artworks behaved in the exhibition space at varying moments with different publics, tracked institutional practices which adapted to this behaviour over time, and personally engaged with each artwork as an invested participant. These methods yielded greater material understanding of the works and a sharpened sense of the factors necessary for their successful preservation.

Panel P054
Ephemeral, transformational and collaborative: Ethnographies of art events