Back To Schedule
Thursday, May 16 • 4:00pm - 4:30pm
(The Evolving Role of the Conservator of Contemporary Art) Art that Lives and Breathes: Conserving Creatures in Contemporary Art

Log in to save this to your schedule, view media, leave feedback and see who's attending!

Conservators of contemporary art are often faced with unusual and challenging materials that defy artistic tradition. When these new “materials” are living beings, the conservator’s role must expand in new and unexpected ways. This paper presents two case studies involving live animals as part of contemporary art installations. In each, the author focuses on preparatory steps, initial and evolving protocol for how to best care for the animals and art, and the importance of collaboration and innovation in successfully executing such works.

 In 2013, Ann Hamilton’s Palimpsest (1989) was installed at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC. Palimpsest is a room-sized installation consisting of beeswax tiled floors, notes with fragmented memories pinned to the walls, and a terrarium with about 20 live snails feeding on two heads of cabbage. Roni Horn’s Ant Farm (1974 - 1975) was installed at the Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland in 2017. This piece is a large ant farm containing approximately 5,000 live ants tunneling in soil sandwiched between two panes of glass and housed in a wood frame.  In both cases, the author worked with fellow staff and outside professions to install suitable environments for the animals, develop and implement daily care routines, and problem solve as new and unexpected challenges arose.

 Honoring the artist’s intent while caring for living beings proved challenging in both cases. Particular species were chosen for conceptual or artistic reasons, but logistical and even legal challenges arose when the animals were placed in new geographical environments and gallery settings. For example, the brown land snails utilized in Palimpsest are considered an invasive species in Washington, DC, and their importation required a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as strict adherence to government protocols. Bringing Florida harvester ants to Maryland also required specific permits, and keeping these ants content and productive in a museum setting had its own set of challenges. Collaboration and training with two entomologists was key to maintaining the colony’s health and comfort. In each instance, keeping the artwork alive as a whole meant developing specific feeding and cleaning practices, and dealing with the life cycle and inevitable death of one of its components.

 Conserving sentient art utilized many of the problem-solving skills conservators are equipped with. The role was also forced to stretch into entirely different fields, however, in order to acquire living things and modify environments to keep them productive. In these instances, installing and conserving the artwork required collaboration on many levels in order to serve as both conservator and resident animal specialist. In discussing these two experiences, the author stresses the importance of preparation, innovative thinking and creative solutions, and collaboration both within an institution and between conservation and outside professions.

avatar for Pamela Johnson

Pamela Johnson

Assistant Paintings Conservator, Modern Art Conservation
Pamela Johnson is Assistant Paintings Conservator at Modern Art Conservation in New York City. She received an MS in Art Conservation from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation in 2016, where she specialized in paintings conservation, with a focus on modern... Read More →

Thursday May 16, 2019 4:00pm - 4:30pm EDT
Salon A2-A3, Uncas Ballroom Sky Convention Center, Mohegan Sun
  General Session, The Evolving Role of the Conservator of Contemporary Art
  • Ticketed Included in Main Registration
  • Authors in Publication Order Pamela Johnson
  • Abstract ID 19141
  • Tags live animals,contemporary art,Ann Hamilton,Palimpsest,Roni Horn,Ant Farm,snails,ants