The responsibility for Contemporary and Variable Media Art is shared across the Conservation department due to the diverse media types involved and associated specialist skills required to support them. This area is a dynamic and rapidly growing segment within the NGV Collection and encompasses the conservation and preservation of both material form and artist intent, of Australian and International artworks produced from the 1980s onwards.
These works are not easily categorised and can be experienced through a constantly expanding range of materials and forms, from complex room sized installations, immersive and interactive digital media works, to experimental 3D printed objects and animated kinetic and light sculptures. Collection highlights include: Untitled (Muyan) by Jonathan Jones, Letgo by Ai Weiwei, the Golden mirror carousel, by Carsten Höller, Clinamen by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot and Teamlab’s Moving creates vortices and vortices create movement.
In the conservation of contemporary art, the preservation of artist intent and concept is at the forefront, distinguishing it from traditional conservation where the focus is typically on preserving original fabric. Conservators, where possible, work closely with the artist, their fabricators and technicians, to ensure the artworks are documented, installed and preserved appropriately. We endeavor to document the artistic concept and the significant characteristics of the work, expected longevity and risks, acceptable future display iterations and maintenance scenarios to avoid operational or experiential obsolescence. On occasion and in close liaison with the artist to ensure their vision is met, the department has also participated in the fabrication of works for the Collection.
Conservators also work in consultation with local technical experts in electronics, programming, audio visual installation, lighting, and mechanical engineering to preserve and support these challenging works.
When specific technology-based components or media formats are used, it is imperative that both their functional and aesthetic significance is understood, and potential backup or substitution options are identified. Distinctive light globes, video monitors or audio equipment could be non-negotiable visible features of the work or may simply have been opportunistic choices by the artist, yet regardless can be rapidly obsolete and often unrepairable. Media files may become unplayable or corrupt, and experimental or cutting-edge materials may unexpectedly degrade and fail. The long term support of these works can involve the purchase of spares, materials research, investigation and trialing of alternatives from existing technology, and the ongoing review and planning for migration of media formats, upgrading of software, and emulation of legacy operating systems and user interfaces.
From the staggeringly monumental works of Xu Zhen’s Eternity-Buddha in Nirvana, the Dying Gaul, Farnese Hercules, Night, Day, Sartyr and Bacchante, Funerary Genius, Achilles, Persian Soldier Fighting, Dancing Faun, Crouching Aphrodite, Narcissus Lying, Othryades the Spartan Dying, the Fall of Icarus, A River, Milo of Croton and AI Weiwei’s Forever bicycles, to the more micro explorations of Sean O’Connell’s Material studies: Spark rings, Contemporary art has no demarcation or moderation. Mirrored labyrinths, fantasy creatures, drawing machines, impossible 3D printed objects and ephemeral performances, conservators are constantly challenged and excited by these new media and forms, and privileged to have the opportunity to research and develop new methodologies as we determine how to preserve them for future generations.