BEYOND THE MATERIAL: IDEA, CONCEPT, PROCESS, AND THEIR FUNCTION IN THE CONSERVATION OF THE CONCEPTUAL ART OF MIKE PARR
4 ARTIST'S INTENTION/CONSERVATOR'S RESPONSIBILITY
Conservators make assessments of “artist's intention” and take action on the basis of judgments they have made about it. However, the question “What did the artist intend to mean?” cannot safely be taken to mean “How did the artist intend the work to look?” Although appearance is important to Parr, it would be wrong to assume that appearance defines the meaning of the work. Rather, appearance and condition (good and bad) are signposts to those broader issues that form the core of the artist's intent. Dykstra (1996, 200) acknowledges the complexities of such issues: “Because physical artworks are the primary grounds for representing artist's intentions, a paradox occurs: physical materials decay, but artists' purposes, aims, goals, and objectives exist in a psychological arena where they do not decompose or deteriorate. Eventually and inevitably artists' materials lose fidelity in their allegiance and attachment to artist's intentions.”
In fact, artwork is rarely bound by intention. Many works posit critical meanings the artist did not intend but are nevertheless important and relevant. In additioin while “purposes, aims, goals, and objectives … in a psychological arena … do not decompose or deteriorate,” they are subject to shifts and a certain fluidity. Using them as a base on which to posit authority can be no less problematic than positing authority on the physical manifestation of “purposes, aims, goals and objectives.”
Where shifts in meaning are part of the work, the conservator engaged in treating the work should ensure these shifts in reading and meaning are available to the audience. As Parr notes:
Really your best way of preserving the work is (a) to be able to understand my intention or generally the intention of the conceptual artist, and that (b) if you can give a clear account of that intention and underscore its trajectory in relation to the problems of conserving an object then you best preserve the work, since the work is about ideas rather than about objects. So that in a sense as the image becomes more and more ambiguous and obscure, if you are able as a conservator by understanding the intentions of the artist, to come up with a note that makes perfectly clear the significance of the process and a note that links the results of the process to the intention of the artists, then you would more truly be conserving the work than if you were to put your efforts into arresting at some arbitrary point the process of the decay of the image. (Parr and Sloggett 1991)
The responsibility of the conservator is clear.
If these problems [of the extraordinary tension of antithetical forces that become visible in terms of materials which posit the work as a dynamic form of meaning] aren't properly appreciated and understood, you actually destroy that work rather than conserve it…. That's the whole point, that within a severely delimited image, it becomes the basis for tensioning a kind of disaster, which is the material interface with the world, and somehow or other for that work to survive in time the tension of that disaster has to remain visible…. If the work is stabilized too much then in fact it loses its meaning. (Parr and Sloggett 1991)
So the role of the conservator is twofold: to seek a proper and full account of the artist's intention and the process that makes clear this intention, and to provide a full and proper account of the artist's intention and the role of process in fulfilling this intention. This provision of a full and proper account may involve treatment to enable the work to be read properly, or it may involve explanations of why the work is deteriorating; both are valid conservation strategies.
“If I'm not there then the institution has to do the research. It's possible to establish my intention,” Parr says (Parr and Sloggett 1991).
You see the other thing I do is keep extended diaries, which talk about these intentions, to embody in their construction many of the systems that lie behind the works. For example just writing things down and crossing them when I've done them and the crossing out still being legible. In fact I've been arguing this recently that a lot of conceptual art can be only understood in relation to the processing of archiving its intention. I think it's important in a sense that there be this dialogue that accompanies the work. (Parr and Sloggett 1991)
The responsibility of the conservator is thus well defined, perhaps best described as establishing an effective “dialogue,” both between the artist and conservator, and between conservator and public.
Because Parr's work is about process, his position on his role as conservator or restorer is very clear: he cannot not fix anything that is damaged because this would interfere with The Self-Portrait Project as a process of accumulating meaning.
[W]ithin The Self-Portrait Project I have this enormous array of material. Some I just sit down and draw from photographs and they're very stiff and grided up and I do them like doodles, and sometimes I copy earlier images and I'm interested in the slight shift and I'm interested in the days I can't draw very well—I mean I used to get very disturbed when I would sit down and I'd start to draw and suddenly the proportions wouldn't be right…. But it's psychological—this is content—so in order for all of this to be legible I can't interfere with the evidence. It means in effect that a bad drawing has got this absolutely specific aspect in relation to time and in relation to the impulse. In a sense it can't be duplicated. And if I copy as I often do then what I'm interested in is the shift and it's the shift in a way that will precipitate the work. So I would be really worried about a situation in which I tried to fix up a damaged image … because that would become another work. You would have to accept that it would be another work, because I'm interested in these kinds of shifts and diffraction patterns…. If I fix it, … something would get psychologically concealed. Whereas if you were to fix it I would accept that as simply a state of the original. So that would be an important point for me. (Parr and Sloggett 1991)
The complex issues raised by Parr's work are somewhat simplified once a work has been purchased by an institution or collector because the agreement on the purchase represents for Parr an agreement on the necessity of preservation, “with mitigating aspects,” and responsibility for the work then rests with the institution.