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//The Conservator Is Not as Conservative as He Is Painted...// - Katarzyna Wincenciak talks to Zofia Kerneder

The Conservator Is Not as Conservative as He Is Painted... - Katarzyna Wincenciak talks to Zofia Kerneder

Katarzyna Wincenciak: In the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow, you oversee one of the very few studios for the conservation of contemporary art in Poland. We normally think of conservation as something that relates to old art. Conservation of contemporary art – this sounds a little enigmatic…

Zofia Kerneder: I am often asked, ‘Why would you need a conservator in a museum of contemporary art? After all, you have new works there, nothing deteriorates…’ Such an outlook is derived from the perception that all the conservator does is ‘repair work’, and it also stems from ignorance about what modern art is, and what problems and requirements it has. In order to understand the essence of this kind of conservation, it is first necessary to revise our thinking about both a work of art and the roles of an artist and a conservator. Contact with each new work is a new challenge, during which a confrontation is necessary with the ‘curse of the imagination of contemporary artists’ [1].

Why do so few conservators decide to get involved with contemporary art?

Marek Chlanda once told me that if ‘a given object had the bad luck to become a work of art – tough luck’. This tough luck also befalls the curator, responsible for the future of such an object. The most recent art falls outside of the rut of traditional thinking about artistic productions. It is unpredictable both in relation to the materials used and their configurations. Often, the author himself decides the intended longevity of the work and the technique, which is frequently the outcome of experimentation, becomes a greater and greater ‘mystery’, even to the artist. Contemporary art is unpredictable. Unforeseeable.

I recall a story about the abstract painter, the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, to whom some museum workers come with an unusual problem. They announce that one of the artist’s paintings had unexpectedly ‘flown off the canvas’. Asked what they should do about it, the artist replies that, as far as he is concerned, they can even burn the work. Conservation is not just confrontation with the work of art, but also, and perhaps, especially so, with the artist.

The role of the conservator does not boil down exclusively to protecting, cleaning, glueing, replacing etc. A work of art has ceased to be merely an artefact and more and more frequently, it may, although it does not have to, become a means of expressing an idea. It is impossible to work as a conservator of contemporary art without getting to know the artist, his intentions, his method of work, materials and what they mean. All this serves the purpose of trying to convey in the best possible way the essence of the work and this is what matters the most at this point, this is the crux of the work and its expression, and not just its material dimension.

Many contemporary works of art are made of materials never tried before. Others are ephemeral. How can one preserve the essence of such works, which you have mentioned?

It used to be the case that the material level of the work conveyed its content. At that time, the task of the conservator was clear-cut: he had to ensure the best possible visual and aesthetic state of the work, applying the same materials and techniques that the artist had used. His priority was to ensure the long-term survival of the work. Today, the visual side is just one of the aspects of the work, all of them servicing its leading concept. The role of the conservator is then to keep up to date with monitoring the life of the work of art and its forms. First of all, he has to get to know all the levels and dimensions of the work or in which it functions. You must also remember that contemporary works of art are not created on the material level alone. They are complemented by non-physical elements such as sound, smell or sensory impressions. Some of them function as a process, directly influenced by the artist himself and the audience, as is the case with a happening or a performance. This is where the difficult question arises: how can one preserve thosee works which by definition are not meant to last, and the material objects are no more than a remnant of the event in which they had participated? How can one reconstruct events the concept of which assumes the artist’s presence? In those cases, documentation, as precise as possible, does provide a certain form of conservation and preservation of the work, allowing it to endure – obviously, in a different form from the original one. And this is exactly what being a conservator is about – it means to accompany a work of art, even though each time this might mean something else.

At which point of the creative artistic process does the conservator become involved?

Frequently, the conservator becomes involved even before the work is produced, for example at the stage of choosing materials. In this way, the conservator becomes an adviser or assistant of the artist, whose authority in the area of the technical and production expertise is not as obvious as it used to be. Often, the artist’s mastery of the creative process is no longer a criterion of his professionalism, nor the decisive factor for determining whether or not his work is significant or ‘great’ art. Nowadays, the artist is not expected to have in-depth knowledge of materials and how to use them; it is the conservator who is expected to have such knowledge.

Artists are usually great individualists. Nobody would be surprised if an artist did not want a conservator to become involved in his creative process. Have you ever been in a situation where an artist refused to co-operate?

Well, there are conservators and conservators and there are artists and artists … There are some who are willing to co-operate but only if something goes wrong. Others will use the advice or expertise of the conservator at the creative stage, for example to make sure that the canvas is well prepared. Many don’t care and use any materials that are to hand without a thought to for the longevity of the work. Usually, artists imagine a museum conservator as a mysterious or even somewhat alarming figure… I try to alter such a perception, provide a more user-friendly image. After all, the conservator is not as conservative as he is painted…  I always try to have a chat with the artist before I do anything at all, following the 1997 recommendations of the Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art in Holland. I conduct an interview to find out about the life of the work of art and the artist’s attitude to such matters as the selection of materials and their significance, the method of work, whether the work has been produced by the author himself, whether it has been made out of authentic materials, the issue of professionalism, and also the way that the work is displayed and stored, the againgageing process and its significance for the message of the work, and finally – the artist’s intentions for the future of the work, including any possible conservation and its scope. On this basis, it will be possible later to preserve and transmit as fully as possible the truth about the work. Co-operation with the curator is extremely important in the process of assistance to the work as it helps to get to know the work as fully as possible.

The desire to save the work is part and parcel of conservation, but you often have to go against that principle. What, then, is the basis of the ethics of the conservator’s work related to contemporary art?

The conservator’s work does primarily relate to saving the work. This stems from the function of art, which is to provide communiationcommunication between different epochs. Works of art have a lasting presence as a relic of the past and provide a cultural base, which enables us to find out more about ourselves. Of course, there are also various legal conditions which affect the work of the conservator. The work needs to be made secure, but in the case of some works, their passing, degradation or total destruction are all written into their DNA. The matter gets even more complex when we are dealing with a museum and its collection. Such an institution generally collects works in order to display them, so first they must be safely preserved.

But often, this is at odds with the idea behind the work and the artist’s message. Then, what?

Obviously, one has to look after such a public good as works of art. However, many works step beyond materiality and others, according to the artist’s intentions, are supposed to fall apart. The conservator cannot go directly against the artist’s wishes in preserving the work at all cost. This often leads to various compromises, some of them incredibly difficult. But I always try to take the a course of action to ensure that the work remains authentic. So that the truth of it is as close as possible to the artist’s own idea of the work. I think that it would be unethical to behave in any different way.

Well, exactly. Today, the issue of the work being authentic or true to itself is very problematic.

These days, what guarantees the authenticity of the work is not the original material but the authenticity of the message. This can be achieved via a faithful reproduction of the concept which the artist had in mind or, simply, being able to preserve it. This is especially the case with ready-mades or with multi-element installations. When I was in the process of reproducing a work by Jerzy Kałucki, I renovated some of the installation, having first consulted the artist, who had agreed that I use some of the bent slabs from twenty years before. But I had to create the second part of the installation from scratch and the artist did not mind me doing this in the slightest. Obviously, I had to follow the instructions sketched by the artist. Even though it was I and not the artist who produced part of the actual installation, it still remains a work of art with its message and value intact.

The conservator vis-à-visvis à vis the recipient of art is another relationship which is provides  fodder for thought. You are always on the side of the work, but at the same time the aim of the museum is to make the work accessible to the widest possible audience.

The role that the consevatorconservator plays in this is not easy, either. On the one hand, he must act as the spokesman and patron for the work, regardless to what extent it may be bother a number ofsome  people or how complex it may be. If so, the conservator ought to ensure the most faithful rendition of it possible, by reconstructing it according to the artist’s idea and displaying it according to the artist’s instruction and under his supervision. On the other hand, the conservator needs to ensure that the work is protected, whether from exposure to light, temperature or humidity etcetera, which often entails certain restrictions regarding the length of the exhibition and it accessibility. You must, though, bear in mind the function of the museum and the fact that the existence of the work is complemented by the presence of the artist. After all, there are works which can or, indeed, should be touched, because that is what their nature requires. For example, the works of Zbigniew Sałaj, which are made from paper (processed books) are forms, which change their shape, but only following interaction with a viewer. It is the presence of a member of the spectatorthe audience which makes the work complete. To be the spokesman of the work is to work on its behalf, but also on the behalf of the spectator.

Is there still room in your professional lifve for old art, or have you become totally consumed with the art of contemporary artists?

For the sake of my mental hygiene, so to speak, I still deal with old art… But in my day-to-day work, I mainly deal with artistic experiments, those ‘curses of imagination’; but – but they are exactly what I adore in my work.


Zofia Kerneder - (born 1981)
Graduate of the Faculty of the Conservation and Restoration of Art Works at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, conservator of art works at MOCAK, translator, received a grant from the Minister of Culture. DistincitonDistinction in the Competition of the General Conservator of Historic Relics and the Association of Conservators of Historic Relics. Worked as conservator of the Collection at the Potocka Gallery. Collaborated as a conservator of works of contemporary art with the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery of Contemporary Art in Krakow.


[1] ] Quoted after the title of the exhibition The Curse of the Imagination, which took place at Bunkier Sztuki Contemporary Art Gallery in Krakow in 2010 (curators: K. Bujnowicz, M. Ujma, conservatorial supervision: Zofia Kerneder).