Every Saturday, the curatorial team at Elsewhere, a living museum in downtown Greensboro, NC, reviews the project proposals of its artists-in-residence. Proposals involve sculpture, performance, participatory-projects, videos, and installation that use and respond to the museum’s collection. This past July, artist Guillermo Gómez proposed to restore a piece of art.
Restoration is a formal gesture for most museums. In this post, I hope to bring out some of the complexities of the idea of restoration as it occurs within an experimental museum supporting both a collection and the practices of emerging artists.
Elsewhere is a living museum, set in a former thrift store once run by my grandmother, Sylvia Gray, from 1939-1997. During this period, she amassed a vast collection of inventories, filling the three-floor store, including a former 14 room boarding house, and third floor workshop. In 2003, collaborator Stephanie Sherman and I “re-discovered,” the former store, declared nothing for sale, and began inviting artists to create works using the set, or collection of objects. From the outset, we imagined an infinitely re-arrangeable puzzle, a three floor installation composed and recomposed from only what was at hand. Both objects and art-objects would be part of this continuing transformation and evolution. The objects, artworks, and the traces of past experience are all part of an unfolding continuum of the living museum.
The artwork to be restored is a piece called the Glass Forest, (2009) created by Agustina Woodgate, composed of glass and brass cabinets and mirror-etched bark patterns. The Glass Forest was itself an act of restoration. It re-set the room’s contents of glass mirrors and significantly restored the tired tongue-and-groove floor. Curiously, Guillermo is the current studio assistant of Ms. Woodgate, and is intimately familiar with Woodgate’s work, process, and thinking.
The proposal was as much to restore an artwork as it was to “take back” the artwork, because after 4 years of slight interventions, film shoots, and an “unsuccessful” effort to create a new work that changed the tone, composition, and material content of the piece, it was determined a restoration-reset of the Glass Forest was in order. During the proposal it was discussed that certain elements of previous works and interventions should remain in the restored Glass Forest and it was further noted that Ms. Woodgate’s work undid a previous work, Mr. Stag’s Hosiery Museum, by Lucy Steggals, a period piece of an imagined hosiery salesman. At every moment the question of restoration was countered with the preservation of traces.
The restoration, which was championed by the curatorial team, has sparked an interesting debate about the intersecting challenges of making work in and from a museum collection, and the occasional incongruity with artists’ creative needs and formal structures of residency program itself.
Elsewhere’s residency invites artists to use the museum as site, resource, and concept to create new artworks. Artists are explicitly asked not to have proposals before they arrive, but rather immerse themselves in the museum, its community, and collection. The artists’ challenge after a short three days on the ground is to design a response to the museum, press their experimentation with materials, and transform both object and artwork. To this effect the curatorial team works closely with each artist to support the process, guide the careful use of collection, push a continual reflection on site specificity, identify past histories, and ensure a relation to the various publics that the museum serves.
Sometimes a work just doesn’t work, or the challenges of the residency don’t connect with the artist’s practice, or the timeframe for response is too short to fully engage the complexity of the museum’s context. While there is a strong resistance toward “fixing” a work, Elsewhere’s curators are all artists and view their role as collaborators in the overall creative development of the museum-as-artwork. They maintain a creative autonomy and intimate relation with the museum and its collection that empowers them to play with and transform the visual environment. Most importantly, the conversation about restoration brought to light the contingent values that support a site-specific, museum-based, experimental practice with a collection.
As a guardian of a collection, Elsewhere breaks a marker of tradition by allowing art and object to be transformed. However, extreme purposefulness and resourcefulness are applied to the tiniest plastic bead, antique cloth, and wood scrap left from a cut made to century old lathe. “Successful” artworks draw out qualities in the collection, reflect material histories, and show the artists’ process and conceptualization. Each moment of material use is collection use, and represents an ethical and aesthetic decision for resource potential and the way we advance and perpetuate Elsewhere’s meaning to its artists and publics.
Like other museums, Elsewhere is an interpretive space, constructed to secure and invest in cultural meaning, cultural objects, and creative expression. We willingly transfer this interpretive responsibility from the institution and its curators to the artist at the artist’s most precious, fragile, and critical moment of creative process. This demands that awareness and responsiveness be deeply embedded in the artist’s practice and thought. For curators, it means they must act as guides for the artists, supportive and challenging, but willing to continually reflect on the museum’s own institutional reflexes, aesthetic tendencies, and precious instincts.
As I write this post Guillermo’s restoration remains in mid-process. Strangely, I am the only one on the team who saw the Glass Forest in its original inception, and I’ve remained quiet about small details that are different between Guillermo’s actions and what I remember to be Agustina’s original intent. Nevertheless, in those gaps of document, memory and intervention, Elsewhere evolves. Each artist brings a restorative and disruptive process. We welcome that. They often place pieces into the puzzle that unhinge whole sections of the picture, but they also restore and evolve the visual environment and the museum’s meaning. It is a living process, a deeply artistic process, and an exciting part of the museums’ imaginary--that a restoration is always already a new work of art.