In advance of the class meeting held on October 1, 2013 led by Professor Hanna Hölling, students made the trip to the Museum of Modern Art to view two exhibitions: “Images of an Infinite Film” and “Soundings.” They were asked to take note of the media formats and display techniques employed in these exhibits, including playback equipment and screen technology, and to contemplate how these elements relate to the meaning of the works on display. The following class summary was written by Lisa Adang, a student in the course.

The session entitled “Hybrid, heterogeneous and compound objects: installation art and aspects of its conceptualization and conservation” began with a conversation about the decision-making model used by conservators to determine strategies for conservation treatment of artistic or ethnographic objects, be they preventative, remedial or restorative actions. As a prerequisite to any treatment, conservators undertake a full assessment of the physical condition of the object(s) to be treated. Additionally, they attempt to grasp the meaning of the work through discerning its key aesthetic or artistic qualities, functionality and historicity, often looking to the creator’s intentions for guidance on determining the most essential, defining elements of a piece. The conservator’s charge is often to negotiate the discrepancy between the condition of an object and its meaning.

Through the example of Nam June Paik’s Noah’s Arch (1989), the class explored various conceptual challenges in the conservation of this piece (assessed and examined by Hölling for an exhibition at Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe in 2008). Challenges arose from several factors, including the artist’s impromptu additions to the piece after its ingestion into the museum collection, strongly temporally and spatially-linked elements, its heterogeneous material composition that necessitated the work’s departmental dispersal in storage, the wide-ranging physical permanence of the materials, as well as the guidance of the conservation effort by the artist’s former assistant, rather than the artist himself (Paik passed away in 2006).

The conservator’s decision-making process is guided by ethical mandates set forward by organizations such as International Council of Museums Committee for Conservation (ICOM-CC) and American Institute for Conservation (AIC), yet theirs is necessarily also a practical task affected by financial and technical constraints. Additionally, conservators’ approaches to treatment may be shaped by their subscription to one or more broad philosophical camps that frame ideas of the historicity, identity, mutability and authenticity of objects. The writings Viollet-le-Duc, John Ruskin, Cesare Brandi or Salvador Muñoz-Viñas were specifically cited as strongly influential to the development of conservation practices as we know them today.