Still Life
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Still Life

Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum

Fernando Domínguez Rubio

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eBook - ePub

Still Life

Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum

Fernando Domínguez Rubio

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How do you keep the cracks in Starry Night from spreading? How do you prevent artworks made of hugs or candies from disappearing? How do you render a fading photograph eternal—or should you attempt it at all? These are some of the questions that conservators, curators, registrars, and exhibition designers dealing with contemporary art face on a daily basis. In Still Life, Fernando Domínguez Rubio delves into one of the most important museums of the world, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, to explore the day-to-day dilemmas that museum workers face when the immortal artworks that we see in the exhibition room reveal themselves to be slowly unfolding disasters. Still Life offers a fascinating and detailed ethnographic account of what it takes to prevent these disasters from happening. Going behind the scenes at MoMA, Domínguez Rubio provides a rare view of the vast technological apparatus—from climatic infrastructures and storage facilities, to conservation labs and machine rooms—and teams of workers—from conservators and engineers to guards and couriers—who fight to hold artworks still.As MoMA reopens after a massive expansion and rearranging of its space and collections, Still Life not only offers a much-needed account of the spaces, actors, and forms of labor traditionally left out of the main narratives of art, but it also offers a timely meditation on how far we, as a society, are willing to go to keep the things we value from disappearing into oblivion.

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Art General

Part 1

Ecologies of Care



An Ethnographer on the Verge of an Aesthetic Breakdown

If I had to pick the most enduring memory of the research leading to this book, it would be—undoubtedly—the first time I entered the main conservation lab at MoMA.
It was a typically dull and shivery January morning in New York. One of the conservators of the museum had invited me to tour the main conservation facility located on the ninth floor of the museum’s west tower on 53rd Street. The visit was particularly thrilling because, as is true for most of us, my interaction with artworks had been up to that point entirely restricted to the highly regimented encounters one is allowed to have with them in the context of the museum or the art gallery—spaces that, after years of subtle but effective indoctrination, had managed to instill in me the particular “habitus” (to use Pierre Bourdieu’s felicitous term) of relating to artworks as objects to be looked at from a peculiar form of distance: a distance that, as an 1880 label in Oxford’s Bodleian Library put it, enables you to “touch what you like with the eyes, but do not see with the fingers.”
4 The conservation lab at the Museum of Modern Art.
As an exemplarily obedient modern subject, I had come to accept this peculiar form of distance as just another fact of modern etiquette. Not unlike the way I have accepted the idea that one is not supposed to talk to strangers in an elevator, I have also accepted the idea that art spaces are to be treated as “sites of exception” in which we are supposed to suspend our otherwise promiscuous relationship with things and accept the paradoxical form of distance that emerges when something is seemingly at hand but remains forever withdrawn from us—the paradox that enables even the most banal of things to acquire the mystery of presence that Benjamin called the “aura.”
Perhaps this explains the inevitable blend of mistrust and awkwardness I have always felt upon encountering one of those contemporary artworks that attempt to subvert this logic of separation and invite us to approach them, touch them, or even interact with them—a mistrust that emerges from never really knowing whether the invitation is entirely sincere or is just a simulacrum, a trap, or a joke to be made at our expense. I must say such mistrust is not entirely unjustified, since more often than not the attempt to restore a “normal” relationship with these objects ends up triggering the forbidding presence of a security guard who gently but firmly reminds you to be careful with the object you are so fondly manipulating because, after all, it is still an art object.
Entering the Conservation Department was memorable because, for the first time, I was entering into a space in which that particular form of distance I had learned to inhabit was suspended. The room I was entering was not one of those carefully curated spaces designed to produce choreographed encounters between bodies and artworks that one finds in museums and galleries. Nor did it have the air of secular transcendence that typically fills those spaces. Instead, the room had the unmistakable air of ordinariness that you would expect to find in any workspace on a Wednesday morning.
At the same time, there was little that was ordinary about this room. While I was supposed to be inside MoMA, that is, inside a museum of art, the room was filled with all sorts of objects that you do not typically expect to encounter in an art space. There were huge fume-extraction tubes snaking down from the ceiling, x-ray spectrometers, data loggers, zoom microscopes, syringes, tweezers, headband magnifiers, strobe lights, and dozens of cabinets filled with intimidating-looking liquids with even more intimidating names. This, I thought, was the sort of technological mirabilia one would expect to see in a scientific lab dealing with cell cultures or electromagnetic waves, but not precisely the kind of stuff one would expect to find in a space dealing with aesthetics.
It took me a few moments to realize that, amidst all this technological paraphernalia, there were in fact artworks in the room. But unlike in the art spaces I had learned to navigate, artworks were not drastically excised and quarantined from their surroundings. Instead, they were scattered around, enjoying what seemed to be a perfectly peaceful coexistence alongside more mundane objects like pens, chairs, computers, desks, and the occasional coffee mug. I still remember my sense of bewilderment when I saw one of Magritte’s paintings (a real Magritte painting!) casually lying on a table among other artifacts and notes, much the way your morning newspaper sits on your breakfast table alongside a half-empty cereal bowl. Or when I spotted the chaotic exuberance of de Kooning’s Woman—which I had only been able to see from behind crowd-control stanchions—sitting idly on a modest wooden easel placed between a workbench and a wall of cabinets filled with all sorts of utensils. Or when I chanced upon four mini-canvases of what seemed to be variations of Yves Klein’s signature blue sitting atop those very same cabinets. Or when I saw on top of a table three basketballs presenting slightly different degrees of discoloration—which, I surmised, probably had something to do with the ineffable Jeff Koons.
The result of this rather unusual view was that for a few moments—which felt like a few eternities—I simply could not move. This paralysis was not due to the fact that I was suddenly overtaken by the kind of aesthetic rapture that, if we are to believe Romantics à la Edmund Burke, one (supposedly) experiences upon encountering these auratic objects and that (apparently) results in the mind becoming “so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other” ([1757] 2015, 47). Much to my regret, my paralysis seemed to find its origin in a much more prosaic but equally powerful sentiment: confusion.
For there I was, in a space where the fourth wall that had been so laboriously erected over the last three centuries—and which I had learned to “see” and respect—was gone, leaving artworks in a position I had never seen them in before. The very same objects I had learned to experience as unapproachable and untouchable were now unceremoniously lying on tables, or leaning idly against walls in a way that threw their very artness into question. For the first time, they did not appear to be extraordinary and distant but seemed ordinary and mundane . . . like things among things.
The unexpected mundanity and ordinariness of these artworks was not simply anticlimactic but deeply disconcerting. I did not have any available cultural script telling me how to behave in such a room, what kinds of interactions, if any, with these objects were appropriate in this context, or what kind of physical distance I should keep from them. In the absence of the usual signposts, such as wall labels, stanchions, or museum guards, it was not even clear how to distinguish what was art and what was not, or what was touchable and what untouchable. I still remember how my initial sense of bewilderment morphed into something closer to what we often call “horror” when I saw some people engaged in the sacrilegious act of touching (!) the untouchable surfaces of some of these art objects.
What made this room so disorienting was that the modern imaginary line separating “art” from “life” was unnervingly blurred, if not entirely absent. As I moved along, I felt as though I were traversing an aesthetic minefield in which I could accidentally touch and damage an invaluable—or worse, extremely expensive!—art object. Not an unlikely possibility, especially if we bear in mind that a significant part of art since the beginning of the twentieth century has been purposefully construed as an attempt to elide any tangible difference between art objects and merely quotidian ones. How, then, was I supposed to know if the Yves Klein mini-canvases I saw on top of those cabinets were actual artworks or “just” preparatory sketches, forgeries, or maybe even “ex-artworks”? How was I supposed to know which of the three basketballs on the table was “art”? All of them? None? Or whether any of the artifacts sitting on the workbenches were mundane objects or components of some art installation?
Fortunately, what seemed to be the beginning of an aesthetically induced panic attack was averted upon realizing that some charitable soul, mindful of the disconcerting implosion of categories taking place in the room, had sought to restore some intelligibility by placing small labels here and there reading “Art Below.” At least, I thought with some relief, the good old Western border between art and life was secured. (Besides, it was also comforting to know that I was not the only one needing assistance to make sense of this weird space. You know what they say: two in distress makes sorrow less.)
While these visual aids helped to restore some legibility to the room, they did not entirely succeed in dissolving my anxiety. The room remained an egregiously confounding space in which everything seemed to be out of place, creating unexpected juxtapositions that defied some of the most basic categories and distinctions I had learned to inhabit over the years. This was a space, for example, in which the modern boundary separating art and life, ordinary things from extraordinary objects, seemed to be inoperative. At the same time, art and science, two registers of activity that have long been described as not only different but antagonistic, here seemed to enjoy a peaceful cohabitation. The bewildering result was a space in which Magritte’s oneiric musings were sitting right next to acid detection strips; a space in which scribbled notes about organic chemistry and polymer structures could be found in the same folder containing copies of Picasso’s love letters; or in which conversations freely wove terms like “Fluxus,” “alkalization,” “meaning,” “off-gassing,” and “intentionality” within the same breath. And no one raised an eyebrow.
5 Where is art? Making the boundary between categories visible.

Of Absences and Erasures

The confusion I experienced on that winter morning can be understood as the result of an encounter with an absence.
Conservation labs like the one I visited at MoMA have long belonged to that register of orphaned spaces relegated to the background of official histories and deserted by the master narratives of art. Thus, although there is plenty written about what goes on in exhibition rooms, art galleries, auction houses, art fairs, biennials, and artists’ studios, you will be hard-pressed to find much about conservation labs and the kind of work that takes place in them. It is as though these spaces did not exist, as though they did not have narratives and histories of their own, or as though those histories and narratives were irrelevant.1
This absence has to do in part with the relatively recent history of conservation and its weak institutionalization as a professional field. Although the practices we now group under the label of conservation are almost as old as the process of image-making itself, conservation only developed as a recognizable professional field in the mid-nineteenth century.2 Prior to this, the work of conservation was typically done by craftsmen or by the artists themselves, either as part of the contract to maintain the artworks they produced or as a way of making a living by working as “hired hands” to conserve the collections of kings, noblemen, and the clergy.3
Only in the second half of the eighteenth century did the figure of the conservator and that of the artist begin to differentiate as princely and royal collections began to be transformed into large public and national collections—a development accelerated by the emergence of the first museums and, of course, Napoleonic war lootings. The need to care for those new collections gradually led to the professionalization of conservation and the creation of the first permanent institutional positions devoted to conservation, as in 1797, when Pietro Edwards was appointed Director of the Restoration of the Public Pictures of Venice and charged with taking care of the art confiscated by Napoleon after his Italy campaign.
However, it was not until well into the nineteenth century, and especially between the 1850s and 1870s, that the professionalization of the discipline began in earnest thanks to the unlikely marriage between art and the nascent field of organic chemistry. This union allowed conservation to demonstrate that it was a bona fide scientific practice, rather than a mere form of craftsmanship for failed artists or an esoteric, and dubious, practice developed by self-proclaimed experts. This marriage between conservation and chemistry formed the basis for what later became known as “technical art history,” which transformed art, for the first time, into a sui generis scientific object of study. The emergence of this new form of inquiry created what has been the central promise of conservation ever since: that aesthetic problems can be solved through scientific analysis, by transforming questions about authorship, authenticity, and meaning into questions about polymers, solvents, dilutants, or halogenation.4
Despite this promising nineteenth-century marriage, conservation has suffered from a weak process of institutionalization. Part of this has to do with the liminal position that conservation occupies within the modern institutional division of intellectual labor. Caught between science and art, conservation has found it difficult to carve out an institutional space within modern university systems organized around an uncompromising separation between humanities and science divisions. There are pragmatic reasons as well, not least that conservation is extremely expensive. The cost of creating and running a conservation lab is beyond the reach of most museum budgets, which results in museums having to subcontract conservation work to external labs and private practices. Even in those museums that have the means, conservation labs are relatively new additions. MoMA, for example, operated without a conservation department for almost three decades after its creation. It was only in 1958, after a devastating fire destroyed several masterpieces, including two recently acquired Monet Water Lilies, that MoMA decided to establish a conservation laboratory . . . in the basement.5
However, the absence of conservation labs and practices from the modern narrative of art cannot be simply explained as a by-product of the relative novelty of the field or its weak institutionalization. This absence must be understood as part of a larger history of erasures.
Conservation belongs to a register of practices that has traditionally not enjoyed much consideration in Western thought. These are the practices of maintenance and repair that constitute the bulk of what I call here “the arts o...

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