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Museums wrestle with preserving art that's not made to last

Organic materials and outmoded technology throw curveballs at curators.

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LACMA routinely has an artist fill out a detailed questionnaire. An increase in photo and video record keeping has turned such evidence into a kind of companion art form, says art historian Jennifer Way, who teaches at the College of Visual Arts and Design at the University of North Texas, Denton.

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But the challenge to conservators is only going to grow, says Ms. Way, as the digital age leads to artworks with more sophisticated technological components. Beyond that, she says, as artists parallel the rest of human culture in exploring the building blocks of life and creativity, the increased presence of living components in art will present its own new set of problems.

Way points to such controversial artists as Chicagoan Eduardo Kac, creator of what he calls "biotelematic" and "transgenic" art. He helped scientists inject jellyfish genes into the fertilized egg of an albino rabbit. The resulting bunny, named "Alba," had a permanent fluorescent-green effect when viewed under certain light.

"The idea of art as a living process," says Way, "dovetails with ethical questions rampant across bio-science. What is life? When is life? What are the responsibilities when you bring the living into a gallery?" While some critics suggest that works such as Kac's cross a moral line, others say the artists are only holding up a mirror to current philosophical divides over issues such as cloning and DNA manipulation.

"What is appropriate for us to mess with?" asks Mark Terry, art professor at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. "Fluorescent bunnies are made possible by the kind of information and technologies that came from DNA code decryption. If it's appropriate in the science lab, why not in the art lab?"

Other questions arise from the business side of the art world.

Not unreasonably, collectors have an interest in preserving value as well as artwork, says Heather Darcy Bhandari, director of Mixed Greens Gallery in New York. "Once you enter the world of commerce, you have to be willing to be concerned with the issue of maintenance," she says.

A liquid sculpture made with Gatorade, as her gallery once exhibited, requires a willingness to buy the gallons of the bottled sports drink needed to keep the fountain fresh. And what happens, she asks, if Gatorade is no longer available? Do product substitutions change the nature of the work?

High-tech components present a similar problem, says LACMA's Zelevansky. Video-art pioneer Nam June Paik left instructions to help answer those questions for future generations, says Zelevansky, but as the old Quasar TV sets in his 1968 "Video Flag Z" installation recently have begun to blow out, curators have been dismayed to discover that not only can't they find such sets, but new screens are no longer square.

The museum found a workaround, she says, by keeping the old frames and adapting other parts of the sets. Still, she says, "it's an issue on an ongoing basis."

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