Material Futures Conference 2017 – A review

Material Futures: Matter, Memory and Loss in Contemporary Art Production and Preservation
 28th – 30th June 2017
 Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow

Speakers from both the curatorial and conservation professions came together in Glasgow to share their experience of exhibiting, documenting and preserving contemporary art in its many forms [by artists living and dead] and the ethical issues therein. How can conceptual and performance art be preserved and how can it be replicated? Ownership… who retains the copyright and control? How can the loss of digital art [particularly that of women] through media obsolescence and patriarchal systems be prevented? The breadth and diversity of the questions under discussion and the commitment of the speakers in grappling to find answers was enlightening and very stimulating.


Karla Black giving her keynote lecture

It was insightful to begin the conference from the perspective of a leading contemporary artist. Karla Black, with great articulacy and honesty, described the creative drives and processes involved in the creation of her work. She clearly defined the importance of the materiality of her sculptures, which by nature are often almost entirely ephemeral and site specific, but have permanence for her, even if completely destroyed after an exhibition. She explained that commercial success and the inclusion of her works in national and international collections while gratifying and important brings with it difficulties and frustrations; the necessity of compartmentalising a sculpture into a series of recipes and measurements, the creation of detailed documentation and the impossibility of working while scrutinised by conservators and museum technicians can, she explained, kill the creative process.

Here in lies one of the many issues under discussion over the following two days. How to solve this difficult, sometime, seemingly diametric relationship between artists and museum /institution professionals? As Simon Fleury described it, ‘…the gap between the existential and the systematic.’ It became apparent as the conference progressed, that at this early stage in the development of this new field of conservation, a common language with which artists and museum professionals can communicate and an accepted protocol of how to observe, record, store and re-create works of art appears yet to be standardised. The lexicon of terms that emerged, over the course of the conference, to describe the re-display of contemporary art illustrates this point: re-enactments, re-interpretations, re-activations, versions, re-makes and iterations.


Conservators from NGS and Glasgow Museums with Carol Campbell, wife of the late artist Steven Campbell

Many talks supported the idea that, in the case of contemporary art, the role and influence of the conservator is changing. For example, conservators are central to the development of new methods of documentation and forms of recording or mapping of modern artworks [for example: the use of Go-pro technology, Tate Live List and the mini archives created by Japanese art handling company Higure 17-15 cas].  In undertaking rigorous documentation and dialogue with a given artist, conservators can, in some instances, be the only people who know how to construct [often extremely complex] work of arts. Fascinatingly, several speakers cited cases where conservation documentation was the catalyst for brand new works of art.


The creation of new art: an artist’s response to a condition report photograph as described by Simon Fleury


Ulrich Lang describing his work as a conservator in realising the vision of Maurizio Cattelan at the MMK in Frankfurt, 2007

The idea of the trajectory of an artwork was discussed as was the notion that the collective memory of the piece changes irreversibly each time it is re-enacted or exhibited; as conservators, the tenant of reversibility is paramount… it is an interesting thought to consider preserving the integrity of the collective memory of a work.


Clare M. Holdsworth discussed the work of performance artist Stuart Marshall’s piece Mouthworks from 1976


Obsolete forms of recording equipment as discussed by Adam Lockhart, DJCAD

Keynote speeches from Tiziana Caianiello from the Zero Foundation in Dusseldorf and Annie Fletcher from the van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, illustrated the depth of thought and respect for artwork and artists that their respective institutions give to the both the display of art, the collection of art. and the role of the modern art museum; it was particularly fascinating to hear about the Picasso in Palestine loan of 2011.


Annie Fletcher from the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven discussing the Museum Index : thumbnail photographs of every artwork in the collection, colour coded to denote location.

The aim of this conference was to engage with the issues surrounding preserving concept, performance, digital and transient, ephemeral modern art.  As an observer from the field of traditional oil painting conservation, I felt that with each talk the complexity of this field of conservation became more stark and seemingly insurmountable and at the same time so very progressive and exciting. It was an important meeting of minds and demonstrated that Scottish institutions are at the heart of the debate.

Hazel Neill












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