From dung to bulbs, fine-art fixers can restore any work

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 3:57pm

If Christian Scheidemann had been a conservator in, say, Michelangelo's day, his job would have been much simpler. Fading fresco? Grab some paint and get to it.

But most artists don't make frescoes anymore. They make works such as Blossom, Nigerian-British painter Chris Ofili's sensuous 1997 portrait of a bare-breasted black woman, composed, in part, of elephant dung on canvas. That's why Scheidemann, proprietor of Contemporary Conservation in Manhattan, found himself in Copenhagen a few years ago, bent over Blossom with crap in his hand.

Scheidemann had been summoned to Denmark by the owner of the piece, a modern furniture magnate. (Ofili had recommended the conservator; typically, an artist's gallery makes the referral.) A lump of faeces had fallen from Ofili's painting - compromising its integrity and potentially depressing its value.

The conservator, who had previously restored Matthew Barney's pound cakes that had become infested by rats, ordered a new dollop of dung, trimmed it to the right size and plugged the gap. And where did he acquire the excrement? "The London Zoo. Ofili always used dung from a particular group of elephants there, like he was collaborating with them," he says.

Scheidemann and other like-minded specialists basically do the same work as traditional conservators: performing what amounts to cosmetic surgery to extend the lifespan of a piece. The difference is the unorthodoxy of the materials they're preserving. To conserve Barney's pound cakes, for example, Scheidemann baked new ones and then replaced the fats with resin through a process called plastination.

Not every piece of contemporary art requires such profound rehabilitation, although even the most basic maintenance is seldom straightforward. Take Dan Flavin's minimalist fluorescent-light sculptures.

"No one who buys a Flavin ever thinks about the lights going out," says Steve Morse, conservator at the Dan Flavin Studio in Manhattan. "And then, inevitably, it happens."

When it does, collectors are often tempted to replace the bulbs themselves. "If a collector wants to go down to Just Bulbs, they can," Morse says. "But they've been known to put the wrong ones in."

The wiser course is to consult with Morse, who has "a huge stockpile of the proper bulbs", including Flavin's signature coloured fluorescents, which are no longer in production. "We custom order them from a manufacturer in Connecticut who uses a proprietary phosphor - the coloured coating on the inside of the bulb," Morse says. "There's really nowhere else to get them."

Collectors pay for the privilege - US$65 per bulb in some cases, compared with a 1970s sticker price of US$2 or US$3 - but no one has baulked. "We're talking about a group of people with a strong interest in maintaining the integrity of the art they own," Morse says.

Today's [artwork] caretakers more closely resemble ranchers, gardeners and electricians
Yasmil Raymond, Dia Art Foundation

Sometimes it's the simplest, most monumental works - such as Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970), a 460-metre coil of black basalt jutting into Utah's Great Salt Lake - that demand the most devotion, usually in the form of stewards who spend their days on duty, making sure the artist's vision isn't tampered with.

"It's not just a guard - someone who stands there and ensures no one touches the art or takes it," says Yasmil Raymond, curator of the Dia Art Foundation, the non-profit that maintains Smithson's earthwork. "Today's caretakers more closely resemble ranchers, gardeners and electricians. It's a way of life."

Bill Dilworth takes care of Walter De Maria's Earth Room (1977) - a 334-square-metre space filled with 190 cubic metres of dirt piled 56cm high - in New York. Once a week he hoses down the installation and then rakes the dirt to get the right texture: a little fluffy, "like a rug". He's been at it for 24 years.

"Our work is very discreet," says Scheidemann. "People want us to remain in the background: collectors, insurance companies, galleries - whoever might want to resell a piece that could lose value if people knew we had to intervene."