Creative freedom and conservation needs

Restoring contemporary art poses specific problems, as the frequent use of non traditional materials demands a cautious approach to operational methods and technical requirements related to the choice of the most suitable materials and application methods.
In the last decade, the discussion on contemporary art restoration has progressively intensified, also thanks to the contributions offered by the leading Italian restoration research centres, which have felt the need to approach systematically the study and research about restoration of contemporary works of art. This need arises from accelerated ageing processes, on one hand, and from the frequent travelling of the works of art to temporary exhibition sites, on the other hand. Another reason lies in the progressive deterioration of non traditional materials, which are chosen upon the execution of the works because of their sensational novel character, cosmetic quality and conceptual strength rather than because of their prospective longevity.
Piacenti spa has become aware of these peculiar aspects of contemporary works as early as in the 1990s, when the company started to work in this sector on several occasions. In 1990, for instance, Piacenti spa restored three contemporary works of art exhibited at the Pecci Museum in Prato: “The Bookshelf” by Svetlana Kopystiansky, “Cubes”, “Stone with blue pigment” by Nunzio.

Vulnerability owed to fruition

During these works, executed at a time when contemporary art restoration was somehow underestimated and still poorly studied, Piacenti spa had the chance to deal with some issues related to the theoretical and practical approach to different types of materials subject to decay.
In fact, the first work (a wooden frame with books pasted together, installation in Lazzerini Library in Prato, Collection of Luigi Pecci Contemporary Art Centre, a donation by the artist on the occasion of the exhibition Contemporary Russian artists curated by Amnon Barzel and Claudia Jolles, Centro Pecci, Prato 1990) is a large bookshelf with fan-open books, which had been heavily damaged by incorrect packaging.
The second work – a tufa stone with a cut filled with blue colour, featured damage owed to the leakage of powder pigment, which had stained another work made of chipboard cubes during shipping.
It should be noted that the main cause of damage in all three cases was induced by man and directly attributable to the frequent displacements of the works and inefficient protective measures, certainly less careful than the ones that would be reserved to ancient or modern artworks. This observation highlights that, beside the intrinsic vulnerability of “non durable” materials, “less care” is (or at least it was until recently) generally devoted to the conservation of contemporary art. As a matter of fact, greater importance is given to the fruition and enhancement of these works, while the protection and conservation of the materials are frequently underestimated or totally neglected.

The application of methodological criteria to contemporary art restoration

This lack of awareness is likely to cause the misapplication of the fundamentals of restoration theory, and to give way to arbitrary remaking and replacements. The current discussion is aimed at filling this gap and at insisting that it is necessary to do, for contemporary art too, what is normally done for other types of cultural heritage, that is, a restoration project based on the philological principle of ultimate respect for the work and aimed at studying the techniques in detail or identifying targeted conservative solutions.
In 1990, Piacenti spa was confronted with the choice of replacing or rehabilitating the damaged books of “The bookshelf” and opted for rehabilitation. The best technical solutions available were used to guarantee the conservation of the material, in compliance with Brandi’s approach to restoration. The other two works mentioned above were restored by fastening, removing the colour stains and consolidating the surface with compatible and reversible materials, by meeting the highest quality standards and the correct methodology requirements.
Since then, Piacenti’s workshop dedicated to the restoration of contemporary art has taken the greatest care to studying the new industrial materials, the execution techniques and the interferences caused by the environmental conditions the works are subject to, so as to understand degradation phenomena and plan restoration interventions.

[by Giammarco Piacenti]