A kinetic object, which requires motion for its interpretation,
presents conservation challenges unlike the typical static museum
object, protected in its Plexiglas case from dust, light, and human
interaction. A kinetic object’s very nature may promote its
deterioration, and the goal of conservation becomes the mitigation of
risk, rather than the absolute preservation of every original component.
It is a difficult balance, to preserve all that one can while accepting
that change is inevitable and occasionally an errant screw or motor may
After two years of WUDPAC coursework in Delaware, I left for Hamburg,
Germany to intern in the modern and contemporary conservation
department of the Hamburger Kunsthalle.
I had a variety of treatments and experiences here, which included the
removal of graffiti from an outdoor sculpture, the treatment of a metal
sculpture by a Hamburg artist recently accessioned into the collection,
and the participation in a workshop on the treatment of polyurethane
foam objects. The experience most new to me, however, was the
maintenance of two kinetic works: Rebecca Horn’s Chorus of the Locusts I (1991) and Jeppe Hein’s Moving Bench #2 (2000).
Horn’s work consists of 33 typewriters suspended upside down from the
ceiling and a white cane for the blind. A complex system of magnets and
motors makes the keys type, resulting in cacophonous noise that can be
heard several galleries away, while the white cane moves and taps on the
floor below. This work, which has so many moving parts, requires
frequent maintenance to tighten or replace screws and nuts, clean greasy
elements, and fix or replace motors and fuses. Treatment involves
working on ladders from below, with the ever-present threat of hitting
your head on these hard metal machines. As with any conservation
treatment, diligent documentation is required, and any changes or
replacements are carefully noted.
The second kinetic work, by artist Jeppe Hein, is participatory for
visitors. Upon sitting on one of these plain-looking benches, the bench
will begin to slowly move across the gallery. They are programmed to
only travel a certain distance and will stop before reaching a wall or
window. Frequent use combined with uneven distribution of weight caused
problems to the mechanics. Occasionally the benches went off course,
requiring their realignment. Unlike the typewriter work, these benches
are powered by batteries, which means weekly charging to keep them
running. More traditional conservation treatment was also required,
including consolidation, filling, and inpainting of losses at the edges,
caused by usage of the artwork.
Furthering my interest in kinetic art, I attended a conference in
Milan in July on the subject, where I gained insight into the various
approaches to the conservation of kinetic art used around the world.
Conservators from New York, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, and elsewhere
presented case studies on the conservation of a work which needs to be
moving in order to be understood.
The conservation of kinetic art requires a different perspective than
the approach one might take for a static museum object. A kinetic work
which ceases to move may be considered a relic, no longer representing
the intention of the artist, though it may look pristine in appearance.
Keeping a work functioning while balancing the need for preservation is a
tightrope one must walk in kinetic art conservation.
-- Samantha Owens, WUDPAC Class of 2017