Friday 24 August 2012

Journal | conservation

With coffee in our system, we headed off to the Conservation Studio to speak to one of its inhabitants, Lawrence Chin. Amidst all the organised clutter of ziplocked strands of cloth and fiber, a reused jam jar of cotton swabs, an experimental set-up, a tyrannosaurus rex affectionately named buddy, and of course, paintings, Lawrence gave us a very brief but candid introduction to the conservation of objects and how he works. Conservation is both art and science, as conservators must have a detailed understanding of the materials they are working with, but also make aesthetic judgements on their restoration work guided as they are by the ethical principles of minimal intervention, reversibility and the full documentation of their work on a particular piece.

But even with such ethical guidelines, there is still much unstable ground to negotiate through. Materials used by conservators are hardly manufactured for the sole purpose of conservation but rather, are appropriated from other industrial purposes. As such, in the principle of reversibility where the conservator should be able to undo his or her intervention, the conservator finds himself or herself often balancing the considerations of easy reversibility and strong durability. Similarly, the restoration of an ethnographic object is a matter of balancing aesthetics and minimal intervention. In restoring an ethnographic object, where does the conservator stop so that it still looks worn and aged yet is visually attractive? In restoring an artwork, most often, the conservator does the minimum so that it blends in from a metre away. But what if a large area needs restoration? What more if it is the focal point of the artwork? These are certainly considerations that curators should have a deep understanding of working as they are with the conservators, the artists and the institution in which the artwork is displayed in, all of whom have views on the presentation of the art.

Especially now with the contemporary art world making use of materials that have not been fully understood, such as acrylic paint, and branching off into various mediums, using ephemeral materials and creating installations that are complicated to take apart and even more complicated to put back together, what is the conservator and the curator to do?

Some weeks from now, when we're off tramping through the flea market at Chinatown and on Sungei Road, checking out shops run by karang guni men, and exploring the collection of systematic comic collectors, understanding how they go about conserving their collections is something we could explore too.

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