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Letter from Michael Hampton, March 2008
Re: Should We Reproduce the Beauty of Decay? A Museumsleben in the work of Dieter Roth
Heide Skowranek, Tate Papers, Autumn 2007
I should like to pick up on the phrase ‘the ephemeral nature of which throws into question the importance of the material’ in Heide Skowranek’s paper ‘Should We Reproduce the Beauty of Decay? A Museumsleben in the Work of Dieter Roth’ (Tate Papers Autumn 2007), by challenging her premise of a binary classification of works and performance.
For me Roth’s work, and Gustav Metzger’s also, are actually performances, even if their author is either dead or just absent, and their subsequent institutionalisation or embalmed ‘museum life’ as objects has been rubber-stamped through acquisition. They go on performing in the artist’s stead. Thus, decay or Auto-Destruction is performance, and as such the material, to quote Moholy-Nagy (a figure who has influenced Metzger), is ‘a carrier of forces’.
The paradox of seeing a Roth in a museum is certainly a significant aspect of its reception, and clearly the artist was savvy to the problem his output would bring to museums, as it challenges their fundamental mindset and reason for being by its sheer processuality. So, museums and private collectors are faced with a tricky choice between fetishising objects till they literally stink the place out (biography as ‘l’informe’, in other words) or realising that the asymptotic line from their creator has actually reached an end, and that there is most definitely a point at which entropic intervention turns them into sad piles of waste. Now that is a tough call to make, a critical aesthetic judgement, but a radical call that might be made somewhat easier by the following three factors:
- an acknowledgement that the performative lifetime of the work is over, and that the buyer has ‘had their money’s worth’.
- that sufficient high-quality photographic documentation, or archival blueprints etc. exist, in case there is a demand to re-make the ‘original’.
- that destruction opens up museal space for new cultural statements/artefacts.
My own book work Suspect Package was acquired by the National Art Library in 2001, and created its own set of problems. The piece, consisting of a paperback book tightly bound by yellow and black adhesive warning tape, and tied up with baler twine is described as ‘pressure-sensitive’ in the V&A catalogue record. At the time the work was finally handed over, the curator Andrew Russell pressed me to name the title of the concealed book, something I refused to do. Eventually the tape will slacken, tear and disclose the contents of this package, and the title will be known. This is a surprise element, not unlike the steel balls fitted with detonators and primed to explode after 100 years, devised by the Belgian artist Kris Martin, and I think this sort of tease, or very slow anticipation, is one way for artists to subvert the tendency of the museum to act as a ‘mortician’s beauty parlour’, to borrow Ezra Pound’s notorious description of Edwardian England.
Finally, I largely agree with the common-sense drift of Ulrich Lang’s paper ‘The Passing Away of Art’ (Tate Papers Autumn 2007), especially the opinion that ‘re-building’ is likely to ‘deny’ ‘historical components’, for it seems certain for example that the heyday of the single-use throwaway supermarket bag is over, and so Andreas Slominski’s poignant bicycle, Untitled 1991, does indeed reference a particular era, and in that regard is no different from a trompe l’oeil painting by Cornelius Gijsbrecht, or John Haberle.
Letter from John A. Waltho, December 2006
Re: Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media Installations
Pip Laurenson, Tate Papers, Autumn 2006
I enjoyed reading Pip Laurenson’s ‘Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media Installations’ in Autumn 2006 Tate Papers and wish to draw attention to one interesting aspect of the debate, and to one factual error.
The error: In the section ‘Contingency and decision-making’ Pip ends the 2nd paragraph: ‘In his book Musical Works and Performances, Stephen Davies cites the example of Beethoven’s Apassionata:’ Stephen Davies may refer to the work as Beethoven’s Apassionata, but Pip should not as this is incorrect. It is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23, Op.57, which was not known as the Appassionata (note correct spelling) in Beethoven’s lifetime; it was labelled this in 1838. We can call it this, but only if we do so with the correct spelling and after noting what it should more properly be called as well. [This error has now been corrected in the article. Editor]
After the nit-picking… as Pip draws parallels with music and the score, it would be interesting to consider the theory of ‘reception history’ - whilst we may create, as close as possible, what an artist (whether visual, sonic, literary or some other medium) originally intended - through appropriate conservation of source materials, study of instructions, etc. - we cannot re-create the intended audience. What we see and hear is based on our personal universe of experience, on our knowledge and understanding of Art (short-hand for whatever we consider this to be), and on our shared experience of the event in question. All Art conservation / exhibition can do is to give context - whether this be historical, cultural, social, sexual - and leave the audience to re-create the art-work anew each and every time.
John A. Waltho