During the installation of the floor-work “Autumn Turf Circle” by Richard Long in 2003 at the State Museum for Prehistory (Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte) in Halle, we made an astonishing discovery. We realized that we were not able to comply with the dimensions of the turf circle as defined by the artist.
“Autumn Turf Circle” is a circular floor installation of rectangular pieces of turf, laid out next to each other. The exact positioning of each of the components on the ground had not been defined by the artist. But all in all, the work consists of approximately 160 singular elements with an average size of 27 x 11 x 12 cm each. The individual parts vary strongly in their exterior shape and form. Some have a compact, smooth surface and homogenous structure, while others are more irregular and have organic fibres, twigs and stems of plants sticking out. Each one of the turf blocks is shaped in the way they are traditionally cut: square and long. Turf is an organic sediment that originates in marches and moors over centuries from the accumulation of partially decomposed plant remains. Turf also marks the first step of carbonization and is flammable when dried, which was its main purpose for a long time. The turf of this work by Richard Long comes form Somerset in England.
The work also comes with a certificate by the artist, which describes the way of installing the piece and defines the exact diameter it should have: 3 metres. But when we attempted to install the work at the museum in Halle, the material for this floor installation appeared to have shrunk in size. Nonetheless, we set out to install the piece exactly like the artist had explained it: you define the centre of a circle and fix this point with a nail in the floor. Attach a string to this point and mark a circle in the appropriate measure with the help of the string and some chalk. Now start laying out the turf blocks along the marking of the circle on the floor. This is, according to Richard Long, the only way to get the outer shape of the circle right. Subsequently, you fill the rest of the circular shape with the remaining turf blocks until you reach the middle. We followed the instructions of the certificate but were not able to fill the circle as intended. Not only had the turf shrunk and shrivelled due to a process of dehydration, but most of the material had also lost its stability. It was porous and dry with visible cracks in some parts, to a point where there were parts broken, fragmented, with little pieces of turf crumbling away, covered in dust.
After laying out all the material, there remained a blank spot in the centre of the circle – a large hole in the middle of the work.
When Richard Long came to Berlin for the preparations for his solo exhibition “Berlin Circle” at the Hamburger Bahnhof in 2011, I told him about our discovery and asked him about his opinion in this conservatory question. To my surprise, he suggested to have to turf cut fresh in Somerset in England. In the exchange with him following this conversation, he then suggested another alternative:
– As it cannot actually ‘disappear’, the choices would be: Assemble the work in its current, natural, disintegrating state, i.e. more, but smaller pieces, fragments. Or order a similar quantity of new turf, same size e shape, etc. It is a standard material, still obtainable from the same area of Somerset in England. I presume the collector could decide this.
Q. for you: How could the material be consolidated?”
These final lines by Richard Long confirmed the conservatory approach to keep the material, to consolidate it and to strengthen it. Together with my colleagues, the conservators Ina Hausmann and Eva Riess, we began to research into possibilities of strengthening turf and interviewed colleagues from the Ethnological Collection in Dahlem, Berlin about their experience in dealing with decaying organic materials.
The final way of solving the problem was this: first the pieces of turf were moistened in a climatic tent to provide a flexibility of the porous material. In this multi-stage conservatory process the turf pieces were treated with an ultrasonic nebulizer. As a consolidant we used a mixture of funori und isinglass, cracks in the turf pieces were glued together with tylose und Japan paper. The aerosol process was very complicated and time-consuming because every side of the 160 pieces of turf had to be treated about 10 to 15 times to achieve the desired material stability.
In May 2014, we presented to documentation of the restoration of the turf circle within the framework of the collection display “Marzona A-Z” at the Hamburger Bahnhof under the letter E like “Erhalten” (to preserve). Twelve years ago, the collector Egidio Marzona donated 700 works of his collection of US-American and European Concept Art, Minimal Art and Arte Povera as well as an archive of 50.000 documents to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. One part of the collection was acquired by the National Gallery, another part was gifted to the museum directly. Over almost 3 years, the exhibition cycle “Marzon A-Z”, curated by Lisa Marei Schmidt, presented the collection under changing topics and points of focus in an alphabetical order. The exhibition series focused on individual artist (B like Daniel Buren), on certain styles (A like Arte Povera) but also on specific artistic practices (G like Gehen (walking)). The letter E was dedicated for the generally overlooked questions of preservation (Erhalt) and conservation (Restaurierung).
The complete documentation of the case study was made available for the visitors of the exhibition. All research results, analysis, contemplation, test results and different stages of the working process were published. Central to the presentation was – besides the restored artwork itself – a large desk with four folders. These folders contain everything that is part of the history of the “Autumn Turf Circle” by Richard Long – beginning with the certificate mentioned above, which is part of the actual artwork, to the letters form the artist with his ideas about the restoration of the work, on to protocols of tests and measurements taken, description of test runs, condition reports and the most relevant conservatory literature about the artist and his work. Our research as conservators was made completely public and offered a rare glimpse into the practice of conservation. But the exhibition offered even more referential material: a TV monitor showed the different steps of the process of conservation in a kind of slide show of individual images. A large “Mind Map” on the wall combined all the different thoughts around the project. All this was an attempt to convey some sense of the complexity of the research and decision-making process, which lead to the final conservatory concept. All research into the relevant literature, expert discussions about the topic, test runs and also ethical questions have to be well-founded to serve as a basis for a long-term concept. Considerations for a preventive way of conservation, questions of storage and future conditions for exhibiting the artwork are also part of this concept.
The work of conservators in a museum – their knowledge, their practice and the actual conservatory work that is being carried out – are still hidden from sight of a wider public, as if this part of the workings of a museum were not an integral part of the universe of this institution with all its different functions, rules, infrastructures, processes and goals.
With the increasing use of fragile, fast disintegrating materials in contemporary art one thing has become inevitable: it is no longer enough to investigate into the concepts and histories of a work of art, but there has to start a trans-disciplinary discussion and networking between all experts and institutions involved in order to reach an obligatory and more timely way of dealing with and thinking about the materiality of a work of art. A way of thinking and working that departs from the notion that we, to speak with Bruno Latour, could simply shift our attention from the materiality of the turf on the floor to the IDEA of the turf, to a discourse that manifests itself in the minds of a general public, curators and academics. The „immense abyss separating things and words can be found everywhere“ (Latour) which should become the centre of our attention. Every test-run, condition report and material research that we carried out can be seen as such an attempt to focus on this abyss and therefore as an attempt to close the “gap between matter and form” (Latour).
The individual stages of the conservatory research displayed in the exhibition, the practices of working as a conservator for a museum and the repair of the work carried out by me and my colleagues would, until now, have stayed hidden from the eye of a wider public. The obligation of dealing with more ephemeral and fragile materials that make it inevitable to question the concept and history of an artwork asks for a discussion between many disciplines. Especially the work on “Autumn Turf Circle” showed that the seeming closedness of an artwork gets shaken up and called into question when the materiality of an object all of sudden demands our attention, because that very material is changing. Corrosion, decay, disintegration and the usual wear and tear of museum storage, display and transportation are normal parts of the development of a material. Material can break, crumble into pieces, degrade, decompose, rot or disintegrate in other ways. Currently, the only place in an official art discourse to think about these processes is the focus on the conscious employment of these processes by artists for their work in the moment of its creation.
„The ‘purely’ or ‘merely’ physical or material is conceived as a domain that is somehow outside of historical interpretation, or even outside of rational and critical attention“ writes James Elkins. This fear of materiality has very deep roots, despite the interest that art historians and other academics seem to have recently developed in this matter.
Cases like “Autumn Turf Circle”, were we have notes and instructions by the artists on how to treat the work with regards to its conservation and restauration seem unproblematic at first. In this instance, it seems the conservator is entitled to leave the responsibility for the treatment of a work to the decisions of the artist, to make his or her instructions the guidelines for any conservatory work carried out on a piece. But this impression is deceiving. The certificate of the work by Richard Long and the inevitable changes of the actual material cannot be reconciled, they leave more questions open than they provide answers.
Matter suspends. The centuries-old sediment of farn and gras calls for attention to its fragility. The anthropologist Tim Ingold suggests to shift the focus of our attention from the materiality of the objects to the actual properties of the materials themselves. This suggested step away from a focus on objects towards a focus on materials implies the transition from a focus on the object to a more process-based approach. That which we call “things” are assemblies of materials in constant motion. Therefore, a work of art can also be understood as an assembly of materials in flux, in transition. To work with these assemblies of materials, to touch them, to handle and investigate them, would mean to synchronize our own movements, our own ways of being or becoming with the movements and transitions of the materials.
In this way, the surface of a material would remain open, it would not be closed or static but stay dynamic and ever-changing, and not per se, but by way of reacting and answering to the life processes which touch upon the surface of existence.