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.
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
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
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.