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Conserving the Ideas of a Conceptual Volunteer in Tara Donovan’s Fields

Here’s a post from Ben Valentine, who’s volunteered with me for the past year. He’s not interested in a career in conservation, but rather an artist who shows frequently and has designs on a MFA. He also runs the blog Contemporary Art Truck.

For the past 16 weeks I’ve been volunteering my Monday mornings in the Variable Art Conservation Lab to clean and maintain the 6 room-size installations in the Tara Donovan exhibition, Untitled, which closes in less than 2 weeks on August 1st. Back in March I volunteered to help construct these complex installations under the guidance of Tara, her assistants, and alongside 15 other volunteers. The initial installation took this team more than 60 hours over the course of 8 intense days.

On the night of the opening party I remember walking through the exhibition with a friend and proudly pointing to certain areas of installations in which I worked the most. I talked about the specific areas in Untitled (Plastic Cups) where I sat and stacked cups in order to execute Tara’s plan. And then, after Tara and her assistants returned to New York, I became Richard’s go-to guy for cleaning and maintaining the installations.

Untitled (Plastic Cups) 2006, Courtesy of Artie and Millie Glimcher

Looking back I think I had a false sense of agency on opening night, a false sense that my aesthetic had entered the installations in some way. Now, after spending all this time with Tara’s artworks, I’ve thought a lot about her process, and along the way regained perspective on the minor role I played in Tara’s work. Tara’s art is the unique process she discovered for each instance. Tara’s ideas have the artistic merit; I was simply a means to help realize them here in Indianapolis.

I no longer care about my specific contributions. When I’m working in the exhibition I focus on each installation’s overall aesthetic and its complete impression—and I can’t deny the intense feeling that builds when I’m realizing that each installation is more than the sum of its parts. The totality of her exhibition shows us a transformative beauty inherently present within the millions of everyday objects that surround, occupy, and consume us. Focusing directly on a certain section of one of Tara’s installations reduces the objects to everyday things. In the same way when I gaze on a field in nature I do not consider each blade of grass individually with equal importance—it is the whole field that engages me.

There are no hidden tricks in these artworks. For example, look at this image of the 2008 installation of Untitled (Plastic Cups) at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Like at the IMA, San Diego, or Cincinnati, the installation is simply millions of plastic cups, stacked. At each instance the installation crew consisted of people who generally had little experience with the materials, much less the installation, yet the show looks aesthetically similar to Tara’s prior installations. Tara’s idea dominates, not the installer’s.

From a museological perspective, I feel well-qualified to work on this show and advocate for the correct representation of each installation on Monday mornings.

Volunteering in the conservation department for almost a year now has led me to understand that while I may be comfortable maintaining Tara’s work and other contemporary ideas, I know that I would not be comfortable physically intervening with ancient Roman artifacts like this or on precise still life paintings like this. The importance of these artworks resides in their physicality and finality, not necessarily their concepts or process. Understanding these works from a technological perspective requires an expertise I do not have.

Tara’s works change slightly from site to site and they weather the audience organically. Dust may accumulate or visitors may accidently move a section of pencils or shift a glob of glue, but I know these fields can be repaired with the kind of understanding and appreciation for process that I developed after working closely with Tara and her crew during installation back in March.

To hear from Tara directly, check out this interview that Richard completed on Art 21’s blog.

Filed under: Art, Conservation, Exhibitions, Guest Bloggers

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