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The discipline of art history has, of late, experienced a surge of interest in the adjacent field of conservation studies. Exactly a decade ago, the research and conservation institutes at the Getty cohosted the symposium “The Object in Transition,” convened to bring artists, art historians, curators, and conservators together to discuss case studies that spanned from modernist painting to Postminimalist latex-based sculpture. The symposium—which one can watch in its entirety online—addressed, in the words of its organizers, “the interpretative problems that have arisen in relation to durability and ephemerality in modern and contemporary art,” which “have been exacerbated by an art historical methodology that has tended to privilege theoretical interpretation and not concrete object study” (The Object in Transition Conference).
The Samuel H. Kress and Andrew W. Mellon foundations, together with Yale, Harvard, and the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, have since answered the Getty’s call to action, sponsoring annual summer institutes in technical art history for faculty and doctoral students from across the country. (I participated in one such workshop in 2013 and can attest to its transformative impact.) These endeavors to educate budding and established art historians in the technical language, practical workings, and philosophical underpinnings of conservation practice were inspired, in part, by developments in the field, including the rise of thing theory and actor-network theory. Altogether, such stirrings have begun to constitute what we might call a “material turn”: a desire to understand works of art as things and to consider not only how they are presently constituted, but also how they came to be, how they travel through the world, and how they have changed, and will continue to change, over time.
Though it makes scarce mention of this renewed materialism in art historical scholarship in the United States, Hanna Hölling’s 2017 book Paik’s Virtual Archive: Time, Change, and Materiality in Media Art fits squarely within its purview and, importantly, expands its horizons. Hölling first trained and worked as a conservator and later pursued a PhD in art history, giving her firsthand insight into conservation and curatorial practice.
Hölling’s book begins with a horrifying anecdote about an installation by the late Korean-American artist Nam June Paik, the Fluxus provocateur widely recognized as the father of video art. The installation, titled Canopus, from 1989, fell off of the wall in the middle of the night and was discovered, in shambles, by a guard the next morning. The incident occurred at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, where Hölling was employed as the chief conservator. Canopus consisted of six small-format monitors arranged around an Oldsmobile hubcap, inscribed with Korean calligraphy and marked with Paik’s signature. Hölling details the deliberative process that led the ZKM staff to conclude that the installation’s video monitors could be replaced, but the hubcap at its center should only be repaired to the extent possible. Replacing the hubcap would mean losing the primary trace of the artist’s hand, and the staff roundly rejected Hölling’s own proposal that they simply re-create the calligraphy and signature. This uneven application of traditional notions of authorship and originality to an object that would seem to defy such concepts indeed forms the kernel of Hölling’s investigation. Conservators, curators, and art historians who cling to old models of uniqueness and material integrity have not yet fully come to terms with the radicality of Paik’s art, nor the art of many of his neo-avant-garde compatriots.
It is no mistake that Hölling’s study begins with a scenario involving damage. In Bill Brown’s seminal essay “Thing Theory,” he writes, “We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the window gets filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily. The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relationship to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation” (Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2001, 4). Therein lies the argument, echoed throughout Hölling’s book, for seeking the insights of conservation science not just when an object goes kaput, but from the beginning. The drama of accidental destruction or even preordained degradation is that the mere thingness of the object is revealed and is immediately thrown into tension with all of the symbolic weight that attends to its status as an artwork. (This is especially obvious when video stops running properly, turning its supporting equipment into a deadened pile of tech junk, as Hölling observes.)
The moment of crisis forces us to see the work differently, but as Hölling convincingly argues, what the work is revealed to be in those moments is what it has always been—the breakdown of the object in fact shows us what is intrinsic and inevitably prompts the practical and philosophical question, “How much modification can an artwork tolerate?” (4). Or, put differently, “How much can an artwork change while maintaining its identity?” (29). These questions, which cohere around the planned obsolescence and material openness of Paik’s work, encapsulate problems that have chiefly concerned conservators and curators, but which can also be fruitful areas of investigation for academic art historians.
The first section of Hölling’s book, “Concept and Materiality,” focuses on Paik’s background in music, closely associating his instruction-based work with the musical score and its ability to unveil itself anew with each subsequent performance. She draws a useful distinction between autographic and allographic artworks, terms she borrows from analytic philosopher Nelson Goodman, who used them to describe works that are fundamentally singular (painting and sculpture, which are autographic) versus those that are meant to be instantiated repeatedly—works of music, dance, and theater, for example, which are allographic. Where allographic and autographic elements intermingle (as in Paik’s installation Canopus), the task of the conservator is especially complicated, with aspects of the same work demanding different conservation strategies in response to divergent emphases on singularity. Instructional works establish the potential for change (a notion explored elsewhere by Liz Kotz and Natilee Harren, among others), but trouble arises when we are forced to define how much change is too much, or how much alteration causes the work to lose its integrity entirely and become something else.
The second section of Hölling’s study, “Time and Changeability,” explores the role of time in Paik’s work, as illustrative of the radical approach to time in the art of the 1960s and 1970s. Adopting Henri Bergson’s notion of durée or “succession without distinction,” Hölling proposes—counter to current conservation methodologies and art historical attitudes—that all instances of a work are valid irrespective of chronology, and that a work’s first realization should not be considered de facto its ideal manifestation (101). Conservators typically attempt to “freeze” an object at a particular moment in its history, but Hölling argues that “rather than return an object to an earlier state, restoration/conservation applies contemporary values to it, in the process manufacturing historicity and actually producing something new” (99).
Paik himself, anticipating these issues in his work, created a certificate for collectors that specified that necessary upgrades and replacements, within certain limits, would be acceptable and would not “change the authenticity of this work as an original work by me.” (Many artists working with time-based media today similarly instruct collectors of their work that required upgrades and format migrations are acceptable, and some even perform such upgrades themselves.) For conservation practice to catch up conceptually to the innovation of the changeable work, however, it would have to let go of a search for the authentic past of an object, acknowledging instead that conservation itself constitutes “a temporal intervention that changes and interprets objects by introducing ruptures, intervals, and intermissions into what is otherwise in continuum” (105). Where conservation typically endeavors to conceal such interventions into the life of an object, Hölling calls instead for transparency.
The final section of the book, “Archive and Identity,” argues that the artwork’s “endurance” through changes over time resides in the archive. These chapters offer the most practical information to art historians studying time-based media and instructional works, noting, rightfully, that “the archive” is not a monolithic body of information. It is, rather, a highly dispersed, unevenly accessible conglomeration of documents, photographs, and often tacit knowledge that might never find itself explicitly and permanently recorded. Importantly, the archive not only compiles information about the past iterations of a work but also creates possibilities (and no doubt forecloses others) for instantiations of the work yet to come, a reality faced by all works that embrace changeability, even to a small degree.
The strength of Paik’s Virtual Archive is its ability to narrate and theorize the complexities of time-based media—complexities we are forced to confront most fully, Hölling argues, when such media inevitably pose conservation conundrums that become ethical and philosophical minefields. These discussions benefit from the concrete examples that Hölling draws from Paik’s oeuvre, but the book seems to straddle the fence between Paik monograph and conservation treatise, to the detriment of both. Those looking for a compelling study of Paik’s work will find rich material here, but will be left wanting for a more robust monograph. Those readers in search of a primer on the conservation of time-based media will have plenty of material to parse, but will largely have to look elsewhere for more comparative examples.
Hölling’s most overarching and thought-provoking argument is that conservation practice is not—nor has it ever been—a straightforward scientific endeavor, but is in fact a creative one, carried out alongside curatorial work. “The archive relativizes the weight of the artist’s intentionality,” Hölling argues, “making space for the involvement of others—conservators, curators, and technicians—in the creative actualization of the artwork, thus making it a realm of social investment” (164). At the height of his career, Paik himself had understood this situation and constructed his artistic practice around it. In avowing that components of his work should be improved over time, Paik quipped, “curators make good work now” (quoted on 123). This is a condition that some in the art world have wholeheartedly embraced and that others have resisted, enforcing a strict, if disingenuous, division of roles. Contending with works that muddle these distinctions—and developing new attitudes, methodologies, and languages to address them—will take much more discussion and debate among curators, conservators, and academic art historians over years to come. This book is an essential prompt in that direction.
Ellen Johnson ’33 Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College