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The Specific Nature or Publicness of the Conservation of Contemporary Art and the Functions of Art Museums

Kunihiko Aizawa

Translation: Christopher Stephens



It is widely known that deterioration and damage to works of contemporary art is often beyond the scope of existing restoration methods developed for traditional cultural properties, mainly due to their material and structural properties. Similarly, the effectiveness of preventive conservation is also extremely limited, and problems often occur soon after the work’s creation, meaning that temporary stopgap measures, or even full-fledged (drastic) restoration measures, are often required at a very early stage. Incidentally, such material, structural, and technical particularities can be seen in works not only of contemporary art but also of modern art, and in modern and contemporary cultural properties more broadly. From the perspective of conservation, even if a work of art is modern in terms of art history, in cases where conventional methods of conservation cannot be applied because of such characteristics, it can be said that the work ought to, or must, be treated as a “modern work with contemporary-type elements” in terms of materials and structure (or technique).1


The diversity of materials, forms, and structures in works of contemporary art is undoubtedly derived from the “one-time-only nature” and diversity of the works’ subject matter, mode of representation or expression, arguments, ideas, and issues raised. The pursuit of one-time-only nature in the production of a work of art may lead to increased complexity of the work itself, and thus there are cases where it is a challenge even to interpret the “original” of the work. Even if explanations and commentary are provided when it is exhibited, this can sometimes have the effect of exacerbating the perception that “contemporary art is hard to understand.”2 It is not uncommon for modern and contemporary artists to avoid seeking sustainability of their own works, and in fact, this may also relate to “the pursuit of one-time-only nature.” No doubt works of art will continue to be created every day, and their diversity will grow in the future. Even today, it is often difficult to distinguish between art and non-art, or works and non-works.3 It should be noted that these categories appear to be closely related to the current state of society and the world in which contemporary art is created.


In present-day society an infinite variety of things are produced, but it seems that virtually nothing is made to last for a long time. If this is the case, then museums, which have the function of preserving things for long periods of time, should be considered exceptional now more than ever. Or, perhaps the point can be made that the activities of our current society, especially economic activities, are inevitably at odds with the process or concept of preservation. Not only works of art or cultural properties, but all manner of things, are often lost in an instant. One might also say that whatever the object is, a change of state or transformation can occur even with the passage of a small amount of time. Things that withstands the passage of time, and are less likely to undergo change or transformation, may be limited to written or printed information such as literature, discourses, articles and the like.


Martin Heidegger noted that what is inconspicuous goes unnoticed, and the work of conserving artworks is not visible when the works are exhibited and is generally not recognized.4 However, what is required of today’s museums, i.e. their “specific nature,” is that they select and acquire objects as “public assets” and make them accessible (visible) and make their presence known to all, not only now but also in the future, and also that they have multifaceted mechanisms for doing so, even if they are inconspicuous.


However, contemporary art is being created all over the world at this very moment. The contemporary era is one in which anyone can be an artist, using products available at home improvement stores, computers, smartphones, or the Internet and social media, and in which the world is flooded with artworks and creative endeavors that have the property of one-time-only nature. This applies not only to art and creative expression, but also to all cultural assets produced in the current age. Naturally, it is impossible for museums to collect all of these, and it is also impossible to conserve (or maintain) them all. Moreover, the world is full of countless other objects besides artworks and cultural properties that should be protected and maintained. That is why it is important to ask: “What should museums select?” This could perhaps be rephrased by noting that museums have a great deal of responsibility and power through the acts of acquiring, exhibiting, and conserving objects. For example, when a museum acquires and exhibits works of contemporary art, cultural assets including the selected works of contemporary art inevitably or automatically become “public property.” One of the unique characteristics of an art museum is that it specializes in “fine art” or more broadly in “art.” However, the works of art a museum selects often have, from the stage when they are created, the intention (or expectation) of being acquired and exhibited by a museum. However, this phenomenon is fundamentally alien to museums other than art museums, and this can be called part of the specific nature of art museums. Edward Said commented on “the preservation of the written or printed word” and “the possibility that this preservation may lead to something else being excluded (through violence),” and this may also apply to museums in general, and to the various “selections” made by art museums in particular.5


The specific nature of conservation of works of contemporary art can be described in terms of the fact that methods and options for handling them are severely restricted by the various limitations of the works themselves and their surrounding environments, including those of art museums. The following is a rough list of the limitations of works of contemporary art, including those mentioned above: a work may be materially and structurally fragile, and may consequently have a short life span. Therefore, it is sometimes difficult to apply the principle of reversibility in restoration procedures. More fundamentally, artists do not necessarily make the sustainability of their work a priority. Forms and states (concepts) of artworks are diverse, and further diversification will bring about more limitations. For example, the use of barriers or plastic cases to protect works when exhibiting them can significantly interfere with the work itself. Many works are very difficult to display, handle, unpack, and transport in the first place. In addition, it is sometimes difficult to obtain equipment or replace parts of the artwork due to product model updates, and to make matters worse, the cycle of model updates is gradually becoming shorter and shorter. Also, it is difficult to secure storage space for works and peripheral equipment. There are limitations on the use of language to interpret a work, and limitations on dialogue or discussion, including interviews aimed at obtaining information, conducting research, and discuss procedures. Furthermore, it is often difficult even to interpret the “one-time-only nature” or originality of the work. The reputation of a work or an artist is not always established. There has still been little research on the conservation of contemporary art, and the history of said research is extremely short. There are limitations on budget, manpower, and time available for conservation in general and related areas. Underlying this is the fact that neither contemporary art itself nor its conservation are easily recognized or understood by society.


With this many limitations, in most cases not just one but multiple limitations (sometimes all of them) simultaneously affect the individual cases to be addressed, in which case restrictions become more severe. For example, in cases I have handled thus far, I dealt with various constraints and limitations to the best of my ability, but not all issues were resolved. If it were possible to look around the world for examples of contemporary art conservation practices, I imagine that they might similarly face limitations, even if the specifics differ, and fail to reach fundamental solutions.


Considering the pursuit of one-time-only nature as a major characteristic of contemporary art, its accompanying diversity and further diversification in the future, and the reality of various limitations or unique aspects of the conservation of contemporary art, it is difficult to establish across-the-board “guidelines,” or even more relaxed “principles,” for the conservation of works of contemporary art. If these were to exist, they would pose a risk of excessive or unnecessary restorations that would fundamentally alter the nature of the work. Max Jakob Friedländer’s assertion that “restoration is a necessary evil” may be all the more accurate, and important, with respect the conservation of contemporary art.6 On the other hand, in practicing contemporary art conservation, we must inevitably work toward the development of new practical methods while also drawing on examples of the conservation of ancient cultural properties and information from other fields. For example, in the case of conservation work on so-called time-based media, there are quite likely workarounds that make use of various up-to-date technologies. However, there is always the risk of subtle deviations from the “one-time-only nature” or originality, so even if there are seemingly potential workarounds, it is important to have the ability to hold off for the time being and wait for better methods or technologies to emerge, or to take the time to steadily develop them by oneself, in other words to “give up” for the time being.


However, as has been the case in the past – and has often been compared allegorically to the ship of Theseus – there will continue to be a significant number of attempts to reproduce, recreate, re-perform, or even partially replace lost objects in order to preserve their existence, and this number may be growing. However, as stated earlier, works of contemporary art often have the fundamental premise of “one-time-only nature,” which involves a complex web of representations, expressions, assertions, proposals, and issues that cannot be put into words by the creators. At the risk of sounding doctrinaire, I believe that excessive respect for such one-time-only nature may be at odds with reproduction, recreation, re-staging, or maintenance of works through the replacement of some elements. Of course, no two things in the world are ever the same. For example, even if there are multiple industrial products with the same part number or model number, or identical digital data, each is “one-time-only nature” in the strict sense of the word, and they can never be exactly the same. However, things can be substituted if we recognize the replacements as essentially the same. Our perception of one-time-only nature or irreplaceability, for example, may be derived from the fact that something is “art,” or more broadly, “expression” or “representation” rooted in human individuality. If so, this may be linked to the difficulty of, and the specific nature of (or limitations on) the conservation of works of art.


Even when we face some issue or problem and there are some limitations that force us to give up (and there may be nothing that completely lacks limitations), something being limited is not synonymous with it being impossible, and in our day-to-day work we are testing those limitations and seeing what is possible. As one of the premises for this approach, and as one of the basic activities required to grasp limitations, detailed and multifaceted consideration is essential for the practice of each individual and for the formation of preliminary plans. In the practice of conserving contemporary art – which can be said to have unlimited diversity – in light of the paucity of precedents and the extremely short global history of conservation in this field, the uniqueness or one-time-only nature of each work comes to the fore, and it is not always easy to classify works of contemporary art by technique, material, form, field (or region), or era. Therefore, even if there are examples that are useful as references, they will not necessarily be fully functional in other cases. For this reason it is extremely important to examine and consider the works (or issues) facing us on a case-by-case basis while referring to various examples. Furthermore, it is probably not sufficient to simply weigh “contemporary art,” “conservation,” and “art museums” in the context of current “conservation of works of contemporary art,” and it is essential to consider the issue from multiple perspectives in a comprehensive and interdisciplinary manner. This could lead to linkage and synergy between the “specific theories” of individual studies and the “general theories” of comprehensive studies.


This is only my personal opinion, but when considering contemporary art, conservation, and art museums, it is vital to keep the concept of “publicness” or “involvement in the public sphere” in mind at all times as a crux that supports and reinforces our thinking about these issues. This is because works of contemporary art, as public assets, are of paramount importance, at least in terms of their one-time-only nature (diversity or uniqueness) and “publicness,” and for art museums to exhibit, acquire, document, research, or conserve these works, and to make the selections necessary to do so, undeniably means being involved in the public domain (society or the world) on a continuous or long-term basis, while at the same time respecting the irreplaceable originality, one-time-only nature, and specific nature of these public assets.7


English translation: Christopher Stephens





1. The author has discussed the conservation of contemporary art in several previous texts, including “Gendai bijutsu to hozon shufuku,” Bunkazai no hozon to shufuku 15 Nihon ni okeru seiyoga no hozon shufuku, Japan Society for the Conservation of Cultural Property, eds., Kubapro, 2013; “Gendai bijutsu sakuhin no hozon shufuku ni okeru kadai to genkai: Yoshimura Masunobu ButaPig Lib; no shufuku jirei yori,” Hyogo kenritsu bijutsukan kiyo no. 13, 2019; “Gendai bijutsu sakuhin mata wa bunkazai no kokyosei to museum no hozon no kino,” Kacchu no kaibojutsu: Isho to engineering no bigaku, 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, eds., Bijutsu Shuppan-sha, 2022. This paper is an extension of those previous texts.

2. Sato Doshin, Nihon Bijutsu Tanjo, Chikuma Gakugei Bunko, 2021, pp. 31-33.

3. Bourdieu, P., A. Darbel et D. Scnapper, L’amour de l’art: Les musées d’art européens et leur public, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1969; Duncan, C., Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, Routledge, 1995; Clifford, J., The Predicament of Culture Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, Harvard University Press, 1988, pp. 187-252.

4. Heidegger, M., Gesamtausgabe I. Abteilung: Veröffentlichte Schriften 1910-1976 Band 7 Vortage und aufsatze, Vittorio Klosterman, 2000, p. 60.

5. Said, E. W., Beginnings: Intention and Method, Granta Books, 2012, pp. 197, 310.

6. Friedländer, M. J., Von Kunst Und Kennerschaft, Ullstein Bücher, 1955, pp. 164-165

7. With regard to “publicness,” "one-time-only nature", and “specific nature,” here reference was primarily made to Arendt, H., Vita activa oder vom tätingen leben, Piper, 2002; Arendt, H., The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, 1998; Saito Junichi, Kokyosei, Iwanami Shoten, 2000; Saito Junichi, Jiyu, Iwanami Shoten, 2005; Sennett, R., The Fall of Public Man, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017; Sen, A., Inequality Reexamined, Harvard University Press, 1995; and Said, E. W., Representations of the Intellectual, Vintage Books, 1996, pp. 11-13.

Periódico Permanente é a revista digital trimestral do Fórum Permanente. Seus seis primeiros números serão realizados com recursos do Prêmio Procultura de Estímulo às Artes Visuais 2010, gerido pela Funarte.


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