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News The conservation of ephemeral art

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​The startling simplicity of “Comedian” drew attention and many selfies in Miami. (Image: John Taggart for the New York Times.)

Lena (Carol) Stringari (WUDPAC '87), Deputy Director and Andrew W. Mellon Chief Conservator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, recently spoke to the New York Times about the challenges faced by conservators caring for conceptual and ephemeral art. From the September 18, 2020 article "It’s a Banana. It’s Art. And Now It’s the Guggenheim’s Problem." by Graham Bowley for the New York Times:

Few art works sold in the past few years have drawn as much attention as “Comedian” by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, in part because, despite its price and ironic humor, it is at its heart a banana that one tapes to a wall. The sly work’s simplicity enticed collectors to pay as much as $150,000 for it at a Miami art fair last fall, an act of connoisseurship that delighted them but astonished the many people who had not imagined that a, um, “sculpture” of fruit on a wall could command such a price. Now the work’s aesthetic merit is being reinforced by the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, which is accepting it into its collection as an anonymous donation. “We are grateful recipients of the gift of ‘Comedian,’ a further demonstration of the artist’s deft connection to the history of modern art,” said the Guggenheim’s director, Richard Armstrong. “Beyond which, it offers little stress to our storage.” In fact, “Comedian,” as sold, does not include a banana or tape. What one buys is a “certificate of authenticity,” a surprisingly detailed, 14-page list of instructions, with diagrams, on how the banana should be installed and displayed.

Lena Stringari, the Guggenheim’s chief conservator, said the instructions will be quite easy to follow and are quite complete in addressing questions like how often to change bananas (7 to 10 days) and where to affix them (“175 cm above ground”). “Of all the works I have to confront, this is probably one of the simplest,” Ms. Stringari said. “It’s duct tape and a banana,” she added. The conservation of conceptual art is not always so straightforward for museums increasingly asked to preserve works made from of all kinds of ephemeral substances, like food. How does one care for a scale model of an Algerian city made out of couscous? A sculpture made of interlocking tortillas? Fruit stuck on a coatrack? (All works the Guggenheim has shown.) Given the expectation that museums will preserve works for generations, centuries, maybe even forever, the host of tricky questions that surface around this sort of work go beyond the more typical concerns of how to touch up an oil painting or mend a crack in a sculpture. How do you preserve a balloon that contains the artist’s breath (it’s called "Artist's Breath") and that inevitably is going to deflate? (Tate Modern.) What about computer-based art when the computer or its software is out of date and can’t work anymore? Or the many pieces that have been created from fluorescent lights when the fluorescent lights are no longer manufactured? The answer, for some, is as high-concept as the art.

To see some examples of ephemeral art and read more about the care of conceptual art at major museums across the U.S., visit the New York Times website here.

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Guggenheim Chief Conservator and WUDPAC alumna Lena Stringari spoke to the NYTimes about the challenges of caring for conceptual and ephemeral art.

Guggenheim Chief Conservator and WUDPAC alumna Lena Stringari spoke to the NYTimes about the challenges of caring for conceptual and ephemeral art.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489