CONSERVING THE IDEA AND ALLOWING FOR CHANGE, who takes the role of the curator

The effect that changes to architecture have on an integrated work of art and the impulse to be creative that people feel when they have ownership, have already been raised in this column. If the desire for creative ownership is as inevitable in human nature, how do you preserve an original idea and still allow for change? And how do you distinguish between participation and interference?

At a crowded Royal Academy private view the artist Georgina Starr arrived anonymously and violently shattered her plaster cast figurines displayed on the landing. Barely hesitating the gallery audience got over their shock and seized ownership. Whilst the casts were standing on plinths they had been untouchable, sanctified as Art, but once smashed they changed category and were up for grabs, pocketed and removed from the building in jumble sale frenzy. Crushed plaster-of-Paris was trodden underfoot and migrated around the building. If people take ownership when they perceive the ‘object’ to have a use such as that of a hat or a building, at Starr’s event the broken casts were seen to be available as free souvenirs.

It is not new for artists to use this creative impulse in collaborative practice, but this raises problems of where the work begins and ends. Miles Davis’s music ‘Kind of Blue’ recorded in a single take, was compared by his piano player Bill Evans in 1959 to the improvisation of a continuous Japanese brush-stroke. On the original sleeve-note Evans goes on to describe Davis’s framework for spontaneity, the value of ‘direct deed’ and the collaboration of the band. Music has, though, a quite different life through recording to other art forms, especially dance and the visual arts, and architecture.

Two artist’s legacies have been set up that begin to address this issue which essentially involves the role of the curator.

The great American dancer Merce Cunningham died on 26th July. His innovative choreography incorporates chance in an open ended procedure. In ‘Split Sides’ for instance the roll of a dice determines all elements at each performance allowing for thirty two possible combinations to be performed by the company. Like Miles Davis he retained control by explicitly setting out an idea which allowed unpredictable things to happen. Each variation of the dance that results can be recorded but should not be seen as a replacement for the live performance. A transition period has begun, in two years his Company will cease to exist and ownership will be passed to the Merce Cunningham Trust. The Trust will own the choreography and the records of each performance, and administer all rights to his choreography for future performance. By doing this Cunningham has created a ‘Living Legacy’ to preserve his oeuvre and make room for individuality within the guidelines of his work ‘because dancing is a process that never stops, and should not stop if it is to stay alive and fresh.’

The minimalist artist Sol LeWitt who died last year has been compared to a composer or an architect. His wall drawings follow a set of instructions to be carried out by an approved draftsman sometimes under the guidance of a ‘conductor’. A substantial number of wall drawings and his entire wall drawing archive have been given to Yale University Art Gallery who will train new assistants to install them in private collections and public institutions worldwide. A wall drawing retrospective designed by the artist opened last year as a 25 year installation occupying a 27,000 square foot former mill at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Although LeWitt valued the idea over the execution he meticulously specified the installation at MASS MoCa but in the future the scale, location and siting of new installations will be decided by the owner or curator.

Could a similar curatorial role apply to permanently sited art where conserving the work is paramount? What replaces the role of the museum? In the absence of the artist or the architect who takes the responsibility of the curator?

Site specific art is inevitably vulnerable to changes in the site, so the site must be considered from the outset as an integral part of ‘the work’ and the artists intention acknowledged. As Sol LeWitt’s legacy so clearly demonstrates, the site for the work can be managed by a curator while the work of art itself remains sacrosanct and cannot be modified. This requires a commitment and understanding from the owner that must be passed on to future owners if the integrity of the art is to be maintained.

Gardens and architecture are subject to change in a way that would be unacceptable for art. When a garden is first planted it can be viewed as a two dimensional plan. Embedded in the plan must be a vision of the future as a seedling tree may not reach maturity in the gardener’s lifetime. As the garden grows to occupy three dimensional space the conditions change, ground that was once sunny becomes shady and new saplings may not thrive. When a mature tree dies do you replace it with the same species or something different? Perhaps it was not interesting or beautiful enough, too big or the wrong shape and should not be replaced at all. Great gardens of the 19th and early 20th Century were planted with a notion of risk and experimentation so there could be a justification for trying something new whilst being mindful of the character of the garden and the original intention.

So how does this relate to architecture? How temporary is it? What does an architect inherit- a site or a building? How faithful must you be to the original idea? How mindful of the context? How individual can you be in adding to an existing building or designing a new one? What can you bring out of what you find? How can you turn a not very interesting building into a better one? How do you preserve great architecture and keep it alive? But the question persists, who takes the role of the curator once the architect has gone?

Published in RIBA Journal October 2009 © Susanna Heron 2 August 2009 rev