LOS ANGELES — Some get moldy, others decay, while yet a few just melt away. Kids' candy, you say?
No, works of contemporary art, made of such evanescent materials as banana peels, ice, and excrement. Many of the avant-garde works of our time, made of materials with the half-life of a flea, present a particular challenge to those who are concerned about the future of today's art.
"Has the artist's use of materials changed so much that we will no longer have anything to pass down to our children?" wonders Miguel Angel Corzo, director of the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in Brentwood, Calif., at a recent Getty-sponsored seminar on the topic.
Materials are not the only issue. Size and concept present problems nearly unheard of by earlier generations.
When artist Charles Ray created a life-size version of a child's Tonka firetruck and parked it outside the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, he faced several challenges. For one, the Whitney security guards were unionized and thus would not step outside the museum to protect his huge work.
And beyond the security of the immediate installation, where would the fire engine go next?
Ray's own explanation of how his art comes into being echoes the frustrations felt by art professionals who are concerned about what will be around for the next generation to see. "These are not images," he explains. "They're hallucinations."
GCI director Corzo underlines the point with another question. "Has our perception of what art is changed?"
While the question suggests that the temporary or immediate nature of an art experience is the point the artist is trying to make, many whose works face the challenge of time actually say otherwise. "I think about materials. I think about how they'll hold up all the time," insists Ray. But, he adds, "I have to make what I see."
Experimentation with materials and pushing the conceptual envelope is not new, insists James Coddington, chief conservator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In fact, he points out that it is the desire for permanence that motivates much of the artist's experimentation with materials. He adds that oil paint was invented centuries ago as a result of artists' explorations.
What is new, he explains, and has become our obligation, is the ability to document a work at its peak and preserve the original intentions of the artist for posterity.
Indeed, documentation has become an art form in museums around the world. Many museums today videotape artists, detailing everything from their vision for the work's installation to what paintbrush manufacturer they used.
Daniele Giraudy, chief conservator at the Laboratoire de Recherche des Muses de France, points out that part of her job involves detailed analyses of the different rates of degradation in materials from cow dung to resin on chicken wire.
But if documentation is the cornerstone to the future of modern art, then the next question is inevitable: Who is chosen and why?
Museums can't wait to see who history anoints as important, muses Robert Storr, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. "They should collect pluralistically, looking for the contenders, not just the evident winners."
Nice in theory, counters feminist artist Judy Chicago, but history shows that many women and minority artists have been left out of the record. She says she's had to shoulder the job of storing, cataloging, and preserving her work for future generations. "Is this the artist's role or the artist's burden?"
Perhaps the choices shouldn't be left only to the professionals, suggests Arthur Danto, professor of philosophy at Columbia University in New York. "I think the only way you can decide is to preserve what's meaningful now," he reflects, since nobody knows on whose work the future will smile. And in many cases, he adds, the preservation work will have to be done by those whom the art touches, not necessarily the "official art world."