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Contemporary Art Network launches in style

The hottest ticket in town last month sold out within days, as the latest Icon Network launched in style.

Convened by Joint Chairs Deborah Cane ACR and Louise Lawson of Tate, the Contemporary Art Network staged an afternoon conference at the Zabludowicz Collection in North London.  The launch brought together a diverse brigade of conservators, conservation scientists, conservation managers, researchers and artists from a range of public and private sector contexts to discuss some of the issues facing the conservation of contemporary art, sparking a rich debate that illuminated the potential of the new Network to further the understanding, management and practice of the conservation of contemporary art.

First up was Icon member Bouke de Vries ACR, who provided an insight into the world of contemporary ceramic conservation.  His works use ceramics ‘as found’ – and rather than conserving the breakages, he re-imagines them into new forms.  The breakages then become key to the artwork – so how would the contemporary art conservator approach them?

The sector needs both knowledge and confidence to fully engage with the complex challenges of contemporary art conservation

Jack McConchie explored questions around the conservation of sound.  While this might evoke notions of audio files and recording equipment, Jack focused on the need to develop a lexicon for sound – particularly where the sound might be influenced by the unique acoustics of each setting in which a work of sound is performed. There is a need to experiment to ensure the documentation practice reflects the nature of the work and the technologies it uses – taking us into a whole new world of virtual reality.

Sarah Wishart explored questions around reenactment, which many artists feel is the only way to keep performance works alive.  Prominently, for example, Maria Abramovic re-enacts the work of other artists as well as her own.  In a different mode, Jeremy Dellers’ film The Battle of Orgreave brought together almost 1,000 people in a public re-enactment of a violent confrontation from the 1984 Miners’ Strike.  The event recast the battle as a performance, and the artist built up an archive around the piece to present it in its broader context: the work can now be adapted and enhanced by issues local to the borrower.

These presentations sparked a long discussion; taking in questions around documentation, sustainability and partnership working – but also reflecting on the the nature of contemporary art itself. Are conservators of contemporary art documenting the right things? Are decision-making practices recorded in the right way? How far might more traditional conservation practices inadvertently constrict a performance or sound artwork?

Questions of advocacy and sustainability also provided rich seams of discussion.  There was a recognition of the need to ensure adequate resources were in place to acquire, store and install contemporary artworks – along with a general consensus that it was the role of the conservation sector to advocate best-practice approaches.  To do this effectively, it will be necessary to navigate through complex forces in a time of economic uncertainty and restricted budgets; direct engagement with funders will be key.

Naturally, the £20,000 question remained.  How far does current training equip conservators to engage with issues around the conservation of contemporary art? The sector needs both knowledge and confidence to fully engage with the challenges  – and in this way, Icon’s new Contemporary Art Network has a clear role to play.  By providing new arenas for conservators to make connections, share experience, and develop knowledge, Icon’s Contemporary Art Network will generate new energy to drive practice onwards and upwards.

Image: Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2011, porcelain, Installation at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, London. Photo by Loz Pycock, Creative Commons Attribution License via Wikimedia Commons.


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