Conserve and Repair

On art and its keepers

Lots of my favorite artworks have something in common. They tend to make obvious the details of their making, as both a formal and conceptual conceit. I prefer paintings that are thick and gloopy with mark-making, sculptures made with everyday materials that I can imagine having or manipulating, and seeing the messy, aging edges of photographs, where the image meets the paper. It’s satisfying, like showing the seam on a garment. In a similar vein, a couple standout favorite works deal directly with the poetics of stitching and repair. For example, French-Algerian Kader Attia’s Open Your Eyes (2010) and Doris Salcedo’s A Flor de Piel (2014).

In this video work, the French-Algerian Attia uses a comparative slideshow—so familiar to art history courses—to juxtapose photographs of the scarred and stitched faces of maimed soldiers from World War I alongside predominantly African art objects, languishing in storage rooms of European museums, that had previously been repaired by African hands. In drawing the comparison Attia is doing a lot to analyze the dynamics of West and non-West. He reminds that a cause of the ruinous first world war was colonial rivalry, regarding the carving up of the non-Euro world by Germany, France, and Britain. He emphasizes the influence of African masks in contemporaneously unfolding European modernism—think Picasso (a link which for some scholars is still, ridiculously, up for debate?). He points to the widespread and wholesale looting of art objects from non-Western countries that, indeed, populate Western museums. And most poignantly, he explores conservation, restoration, and repair.

Plastic surgery was born in the wake of WWI, owing to a combination of modern weaponry and trench warfare. Soldiers peering up over the dug-out earth would meet with flying shrapnel, causing disfiguring facial wounds a unprecedented scale. This posed newfound challenges to modern science. According to Attia, artists were often involved in this process alongside surgeons, as they often had to reinvent features where portions of the face would have been completely missing. Attia noticed that these rough-hewn facial repairs followed similar logic to the way handmade repairs appeared on non-Western art objects, repairs made before their arrival to Western museums. In his research he has found that repairs such as these were viewed in traditional cultures not just as restoration to a previous wholeness, but an ascendance to a new aesthetic. (Not unlike the idea of wabi-sabi in Japanese culture, or an embrace of imperfection and unreliability. In particular, kintsugi or “golden joinery” is a method of mending broken pottery using conspicuous metal lacquer, which as a binding agent forever shows itself—a beautiful new feature, not an imperfection to be concealed.)

Of course in the Western context, these imperfections were indeed cause for concealment—most of these objects were hidden away in museum storage, not displayed, and long forgotten. (Ironically, better conservation has been used to justify the continued (eternal?) presence of non-Western objects and artifacts in Western museums.) Like the maimed soldiers, they were defective or mistakes; worse, monstrosities. In appropriating non-Western cultures, the West demanded perfection. This tyrannical “myth of the perfect,” which shell-shocked soldiers and non-Western artifacts failed to embody, drives so much of white Eurocentric thought and its desire to create—and control—the Other. The Other could be the African, or else the woman, the homosexual, the mentally ill, etc. This control is a pillar of the organizing principles and insidious enterprises of the West in the modern era.

The rip-roaring archetype of the dangerous myth of the perfect in art is classical Greek and Roman sculpture. These gleaming white statues, paragons of “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”—were not originally so. They were painted. Pretty garishly, to our eyes. These colors conveyed naturalistic skin tone, hair color, dress, and adornment. This allover color is called polychromy, and is considered by scholars “the best kept secret that isn’t a secret.” Keeping the secret meant investing in the lie that whiteness could be equated to beauty and classical ideals, and democracy and the Western cradle, and on and on. It’s pernicious. Look at…all of national architecture. Look at Trump’s terrifying mandate on national architecture. Current-day white supremacists tout classical symbols and imagery—the originators of white culture. Indeed, young Classics scholars of color are sounding the alarm, taking pains to point out that their discipline “forms part of the scaffold of white supremacy.” (If you click anything in here, make it that linked article.) The myth of the perfect is also the myth of whiteness, and art and museums have played a deeply important role in the production and dissemination of these damaging myths.

Believe it or not I wasn’t totally planning on writing about White Euro-centric hegemony…but all roads lead back. More to my point, what prompted this post, is museum conservation. I have been mesmerized and soothed by youtube videos of conservators repairing artworks in just the most delicate and ingenious and loving ways. The videos are often filmed over months or years, even decades. I’ve long known conservators are the real heroes in museums—part artist, part scientist, part tinkerer, they are the ones who spend the most intimate moments with the objects and artists, inhabiting their hands and minds. And the sure-handedness, wow.

What isn’t discussed so much in these videos are theories of conservation, which are always evolving. The latest thinking is to be as conservative as possible—heehee—meaning favoring the least invasive possible treatment that still ensures stability. It means removing clumsy varnishes applied 100 years ago back when that was cutting edge; steaming out a crease in an old drawing, but not in-drawing additionally; it means months of research and testing to source the perfect material that will mimic the warp and weft of a canvas without being obtrusive; it means occasional restraint. The benefits of technology help this a lot. Decades/centuries ago conservators made less informed decisions that could have disastrous effects.

But it’s a slippery slope however you approach it, to mimic the artist’s hand, to take the risk of human error, to interfere in this process of “inherent vice.” I do believe stabilization and cleaning and preservation of one-of-a-kind treasures is important and cool, but it’s complicated, too, because museums are so complicated—so compromised by our histories of colonial extraction and cultural violence. What artwork gets the fancy conservation grant? What materials are well researched, what processes best understood? What is worth preserving? What patinas are good and which aren’t? Should the Met paint some of its gleaming white Greek statues? How do processes of repair fail to fix what’s broken? Or worse, exacerbate the problem?

In a perfect world, everything could get the kintsugi treatment. We’re all a little broken, but what’s holding us together are some of the glowiest parts (if only it was cool to show them off.) But for a repair to work the broken thing has to a) not be past the point of repair and b) the repair has to be potent and careful enough to stick. Because what if your bowl breaks into a mound of fine sand, and not three neatly glue-able pieces? What if you don’t have the best glue? Sometimes, you must replace, not repair. Sometimes, you must mourn, not repair. Sometimes your repair has to be so creative and so imaginative that you call it a new thing. Sometimes a repair is ongoing and the thing is forever a little fragile.

What if a social ill in need of repair, like white supremacy, was examined and treated as meticulously as art objects in a museum? Invested in with money, expertise, urgency, care? Under scrutiny, my guess is that the damage would be deemed so advanced, the internal logic so untenable, and the treatment options so byzantine and expensive, that even stabilization would be neither advisable nor conceivable. Chalk it up to inherent vice.

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