A container of crab and/or lobster claws, seashells, seaweed, etc.

The Theater of Disappearance, Adrián Villar Rojas, 2017. Installation view, the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles. Courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris / London; kurimanzutto, Mexico City/ New York and The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Photo: Studio Michel Zabé

When works of art are made using biological materials like raw meat, bird nests or plants, they are not built to last. In a number of instances, the process of decay seems to be the artistic medium itself. Not only are many of these works intended to deteriorate, but they also introduce dangerous elements like insects and mold to other objects in museum collections, as well as unsuspecting visitors.

While contending with the physical material of these works is obviously a challenge, the principal obstacle facing conservators and institutions is far more conceptual. Such artworks unhinge conventional notions of what art can be and how art can or should be experienced, which, in turn, challenges us to reconsider if and how it can be preserved.

In June 2019, I attended Living Matter/Materia Viva, a symposium co-organized by the Getty Conservation Institute with colleagues in Mexico City. As an art historian interested in the conservation of contemporary artworks, I was curious to hear how conservators might approach works that pose extreme challenges to collections.

Imagine trying to display and preserve works of art that use onion peels, ash, human fat in cans, living plants, meat, soap made from breast milk, bird nests, textiles made from bacteria, feathers, egg shells, desiccated human skin, butterflies, bread, or live bacterial cultures. This list only scratches the surface of the many case studies discussed at Living Matter/Materia Viva.

Closeup of a display filled with dirt and rocks, containing things growing out of jars, with a sprouting watermelon in the back.

Los teatros de Saturno, Adrián Villar Rojas, 2014. Installation detail, kurimanzutto, Mexico City. Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City, Photo: Michel Zabé

Take, for example, the work of Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas, the opening keynote speaker for the Living Matter symposium. For his 2014 site-specific installation Los teatros de saturno at kurimanzutto in Mexico City, Villar Rojas filled the gallery floor with soil, punctuated by a variety of organic and inorganic materials, including watermelons, sweet potatoes, gym shoes, living plants, and pumpkins. Throughout the exhibition, these objects were left to naturally evolve. Mold grew, fruits shriveled, plants sprouted, and leafy vines spread.

Villar Rojas also continually recycles and reuses specific objects—like the shriveled fruits and vegetables from this installation—in seemingly unrelated series. His practice perfectly illustrates the conundrum facing conservators and institutions: How might, and better yet, should we preserve something that is intended to decay? How do we conserve change? How do we define and maintain the integrity of an artwork when its disparate parts are reused in multiple different works?

A fish and tackle box filled with fishing supplies

Hooked, Benjamin Patterson, 1980. Photo courtesy of Getty Research Institute.

In nearly all of the case studies presented at the symposium, artworks were intended to change over time, degrade, and even, in some cases, die. These works are not only made using living matter, but also are living matter themselves.

Presenting examples from the Getty Research Institute’s collection, chief curator Marcia Reed noted that early works on paper rarely ever cause trouble. However, works by such artists as Dieter Roth and George Maciunas, which contain decidedly unconventional artistic materials—urine, animal scat, and mutton slice, among others—resist the imprisonment of the sterile institutional environment by continuing to “live.” Such works “warp, leak, or even explode as they age,” Reed said, referencing the explosion of a decades-old can of sardines in Benjamin Patterson’s Hooked (1980). “And when something bad happens, I imagine the artist would be happy to know that even if they aren’t around, the work is still acting out.”

In the case of the exploding sardine can, conservators clearly needed to come up with a hasty solution. The can of sardines could not be left to seep, stain, smell, and soil the rest of the materials in the archive. Instead of tossing in a new can of sardines that would inevitably explode in another 30 years, the exploded can was replaced with a new, cement-filled replica of similar weight to the original. If I held it in my hand, I would never know that the can contained no sardines, but does the presence of real fish matter to the meaning of the work? Is the idea of sardines enough? If I know the can is actually full of concrete, does my experience of the work change?

A conservator can try to preserve an old cake or a room made with chocolate walls. However, as one changes the chemical makeup or appearance of objects through traditional conservation methods like consolidants, stabilizing agents, drying processes, or protective coverings, the experience of the artwork might also change. One can imagine that the smell, shine, and taste of chocolate would dull or the cake’s texture would be obscured by protective glass—these are the unintended and unavoidable side effects of preservation. The conservator is responsible not only for protecting the physical material of the work, but also, with the help of artists and curators, the experience and conceptual integrity of the work. This is particularly complicated in cases involving biological material.

A display case of 40 potatoes with circuits stuck in them, with an electric meter in the middle.

Analogía I, Victor Grippo, 1970–1971. Electric circuits, electric meter and switch, potatoes, ink, paper, paint and wood. 47 x 156.2 x 10.3 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Richard Norton Memorial Fund and gift of Leslie Cheek, Jr. Photo: President and Fellows of Harvard College. © Victor Grippo, courtesy Alexander and Bonin.

Replacement, mimicking, or recreation, as seen in the Hooked treatment, are viable conservation options for such works, provided the concept of the work is maintained. Another example of this is Victor Grippo’s Analogía I, in which 40 potatoes are situated in a grid and connected to electrodes, which measure and display their energy on an electric meter. These potatoes eventually degrade, leaking, smelling, and harboring fungus and bacteria. The potatoes must, therefore, be continually replaced as necessary to maintain the aesthetic and functional aspects of the work. However, such a conservation plan could only be adopted by an institution with the resources—time, money, staff—to do so, not to mention reconditioning the museum to accept the disposal of art objects as part of a conservation plan.

In other cases, one might choose to let the work change gradually, preserving an ever-changing object in stages—i.e. allowing continually accrued layers of dust, fingerprints, dead insects, or degrading material to become part of the work—or to retire the work completely without recreation.

In cases like these, or in any case, for that matter, documentation becomes a key component to understanding the conceptual identity of the work.  Artist interviews, correspondence, photographs, and process notes allow curators, conservators, and collectors to collaborate in understanding how objects are made, how they should be experienced, and any specifications that are crucial to creating a conservation plan. This is particularly relevant to contemporary works, which require collaboration with a living artist for display and preservation.

Ultimately, there is no clear-cut approach to conserving biological material in contemporary art. However, one of the most interesting developments at the symposium was the overwhelming support for more process-based approaches to conservation, inspired by score-based practices like music, dance, theatre, and performance art. By shifting our perspective of these works from object-centered to time and process-based, we open our minds to new possibilities for their preservation.

Rachel Rivenc, a co-organizer for the symposium, contemplated the questions posed at the conference: “How can institutions safely preserve works of art that are meant to challenge them? Can we create a palette of conceptual and technical tools to address them?” she asked. “Of course, we were left with more questions than answers, but it felt like an important discussion to have.”