Inside Installations: Mapping the Studio II

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Processes, prototypes and the museum

For some contemporary artists, the process of making the work has become more, or as, important as the final product.

As the singular, unique art object began to dematerialise in the 1960s, the possibilities for what art could be, expanded infinitely to include a hole carved in a wall, the exact measurements of a room, an unrecorded dialogue, a distance travelled, a closed exhibition, or the simple act of waking up day after day. Lange, Christy, ‘Open Systems I: Bound to Fail’, Tate Etc, Issue 4, 2005

In other cases - and Letter to the Censors it is an example of this - the initial installation acts as a prototype from which the work evolves.

In Letter to the Censors, Carlos Garaicoa produced the installation in an environment of experimentation and, even though the installation was sold, there remained work to be done to ensure that it could be displayed in a museum context. Letter to the Censors was commissioned for a particular exhibition, and uses techniques which were fairly new to the artist and experimental. In a commercial manufacturing context the work would have the status of a prototype. It may only be that when a work such as this comes into a permanent collection, and is considered in the context of a long term historical future, that technical problems are finally ironed out and the parameters of the work are fully articulated.

When Letter to the Censors was acquired by Tate from the art fair, Miami Art Basel, there were two types of unresolved issues. Firstly there were practical problems which needed to be resolved, for example, problems with elements of the work becoming too hot due to the equipment being located inside the model. For these issues the desired end result was clear and they were simply practical problems which needed a solution. The other group of unresolved issues were connected to the shift from creating a work as part of an event in response to a particular situation, to formalising that work into an installation that can not only be repeated but can be re-installed without the continued involvement of the artist. This is a different stage in the life of a work such as Letter to the Censors and this transition may take time and require that the work is installed on a few different occasions, in different spaces, in order for its parameters to emerge.

The process by which works evolve and adapt to situations, including that of entering a collection, is a phenomenon that challenges eighteenth and nineteenth-century notions of artistic practice and in doing so impacts the organisational logic of the museum. Instead of conservators being focused on finding solutions to slow down or prevent damage to works as they age, they become part of the team developing solutions to enable works to be displayed at the beginning of the life of a work in the museum.

Understanding the boundaries of the conservator’s role can be difficult. As Tate sculpture conservator Neil Wressel has said, in these circumstances, ‘it is difficult for the conservator not to become the artist’s technician or fabricator’. Negotiating the relationship with the artist, while the artist is still very much involved in the work, is one of the challenges of contemporary art conservation. It is a process of detachment, where the artist steps back and gains some distance, handing the artwork on to the museum and allowing it to find its own place as an artwork in the collection.

For conservators and curators there are ethical and professional concerns about the degree to which one influences the development of work and the decisions that an artist might make. This case study offered a valuable opportunity for the conservators and the curators involved to discuss their concerns.

Boundaries, authority and change

Tanya Barson, Curator
1 mins 15 seconds

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Conservators and curators are aware that the relationship with the artist changes over time. When a work is first acquired the relationship between the artist, curator and conservator is focused on collaborating to iron out any outstanding problems with the conservation and display of the work. If the work has been recently made, the artist is often still intimately involved in the work. Over time this relationship shifts as the work of art becomes more embedded in the museum.

For curators boundaries may also be blurred between their role and that of the artist, as often they will develop different display solutions in tandem with the artist.

There are many ways in which a work is affected by coming into a museum collection. Carlos Garaicoa, especially early on in his career, has chosen to exhibit outside the museum, and curators at Tate are conscious of the effect the context of the museum has on the way in which a work such as Letter to the Censors is read.

Meaning, context and the museum

Tanya Barson, Curator
2 mins 33 seconds

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Carlos is ambivalent about the experience of the work being in the museum. He is happy that it is preserved but also it is strange for him, having lived with the work for so long, that it is now outside his control. For him it is more than an object; it is about the dialogue. He jokes and calls it the Mona Lisa of Havana’ because of the degree to which it has become a controlled and protected museum object.