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Documenting Complex Installations

In the wake of the international project Inside Installations, the pilot project Documentare Installazioni Complesse (Documenting Complex Installations) was established in Italy in 2006 with the aim of identifying a proper procedure and guidelines for the documentation and conservation of installations which are particularly complex from the material and conceptual point of view...

 
The working group is interdisciplinary in nature and comprises art historians, restorers and architects. The project represented a significant event also because it enabled a network of collaborations to be set up, encompassing a variety of institutions.
Together with the relevant curators, then, five works were selected which were very different from one another, providing the widest possible representative sample     
Each installation was scrupulously studied and authorial, historical and technical data  were gathered.  
Each element, material and immaterial, was individually documented and a determination was made of its authenticity value, its potential replaceability and its relationship with the other ingredients as well as with the work understood as a unique specimen and with the surrounding space.  
Accompanying the material analysis of the installations was an analysis of their previous stagings, working as much as possible with the various institutions which exhibited the work on other occasions and seeking photographic archive material, correspondence and, where possible, architectural drawings. The artists were then interviewed in detail, and discussion occurred of all the variables relating to the setting up and conservation of the installations in question.

The pilot scheme, which provided the basis for defining the project, involved documenting an installation by the Russian artist Alexander Brodsky, Coma (2000), owned by the Museo del Novecento (Museum of the 20th Century), comprising a zinc basin filled with hundreds of  small buildings made of unbaked clay, on which motor oil is made drip continuously until only the tops of the buildings can be seen.  The work is particularly interesting because it involves a performative aspect which is difficult to handle in a museum space: how does one exhibit such an installation in a museum while continually renewing its installation cycle? By restoring the small buildings on a cyclical basis to the status quo ante, and re-cleansing the basin? Or by crystallising the procedure at an intermediate phase and exhibiting documentary photographs of the whole process instead?

The second work examined is the audio-visual installation of Bill Viola Il Vapore (1975) owned by the MAXXI museum in Rome (the National museum for 21st century arts). Il Vapore was selected both in order to examine the specific processes involved in using video in installations, and for the controversial issue involved in setting them up, which turns their philological reconstruction into an issue of some complexity, especially with respect to the level of interactivity proposed with the spectating public: one element of the work, indeed, consists of a video projection mixed with the live image of the spectator. Analysis of the documentation shows that on the various occasions when the work was set up, different spatial solutions were applied which altered the perception of the work itself. Moreover, the staging of Il Vapore raised subtle issues concerning compliance with safety standards: the installation actually envisages a stove with boiling water.

The third case, an external installation which arose from the collaboration between Rudolf Stingel and Franz West - which recently became part of the Francois Pinault collection - is a work staged several times and radically altered on each different occasions. In the first version, in Salzburg in 2002, an untitled work of Stingel - a four-metre wooden room lined internally with insulation material and with a glass candelabra suspended from the centre – has affixed to its roof a white aluminium sculpture by Franz West called Lemure.  The public was freely permitted to enter the room and make engraving marks on the walls. In the second version, at Bolzano in 2006, the structure was raised up on steel posts, and a cart was positioned underneath with hotdogs for sale.  The version devised for the exhibition Sequence 1 in the Palazzo Grassi of Venice, however, involved raising up the structure anew from the ground, but with a different Lemure on the roof and with nothing underneath.
If it is the case that the museum has a duty to protect the work and preserve it in the state in which it entered the collections, what kind of policy should be applied to a work which appears to be based on the continuous modification of its status?

Field Dressing, (1989) was the first installation of Matthew Barney and it arose following a performance preserved by two videos and by various objects, formed using a variety of materials.   The first version was realized in two different spaces with a performance by Barney, but then the installation was concentrated in one single area with two screens documenting the actions performed, and it was staged several times, but with a number of differences. The version documented by us was displayed for the  Barney/Beuys show at the Guggenheim of Venice: All in the present must be transformed. Even in this case, the issue of the continuous modification of the work is fundamental, all the more so given that the work, owned by the artist himself, is still susceptible of variation over time.

Finally ChiaroOscuro (1983) by Mario Merz, a work located in the Mart collection of Roverto, has been selected because, in contrast to other works, it excluded the possibility of an encounter with the artist, lacking in 2003, and it raised issues relating to originality and the interpretation of a modus operandi originally delegated by the artist himself to others.
Even in this case, indeed, the igloo was photographed in different setups, and there were a number of differences in the manner of assembling its components (glasswork, clamps, wooden sticks).

Having examined these installations and the modifications which occur in their various modes of presentation, we come up against the difficulty associated with one category of works – the installation: how can it be historicised and adapted to the museum space if it is elastic in nature, if it is defined in the very process of being made?  
The setting up of the installation and its modes of presentation, indeed, are part of the very syntax of the installation, and the documentation must necessarily start out by defining the identifying parameters of the work and of its variables in the display space.
What happens when an installation is adapted to the museum space? Either the museum agrees with the artist on the standard dimensions in which to present the very same installation or, when it is being set up, it seeks to collaborate with the artist or with a person assigned by him  What effects may these two practices have over time? Crystallising an installation could mean negating its nature as process. Modifying the work and allowing it to be modified, however, means running the opposite risk of affirming its nature as process, with the result that the work could gradually lose its authenticity.  So what is original in an installation? The material part consisting of the elements composing it, or the immaterial part consisting of the relationship of the material elements with each other and with the surrounding space? And finally, on whom will the responsibility fall of establishing what is original in an artwork, as soon as it becomes part of the communal heritage? The artist? The restorer? The curator? It is not just the “creative”, non-philological choices of artists and curators which can represent risky moments of modification of the artistic message (occasionally irreversible): the strict nature of certain conservation policies can also have this effect.

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