The conservator’s public image is most likely of someone cleaning an old painting with a cotton wool swab in a studio with classical music playing. However, art conservation — particularly contemporary art conservation — calls for an innovative and creative approach to the unique challenges presented by contemporary art display.
Preparing fragile and complex art works for display such as In Bed 2005 (illustrated) by Australian-born London-based artist Ron Mueck is a monumental undertaking due to the artwork’s size.
Enormous though she is, she withdraws from the audience, maintaining a solitary preoccupation and defining herself through the subtlety of body language. She is aloof, an introspective figure in a contemplative mood. Many have seen her in bed, her sanctuary — a favourite with the visiting public — but few will ever see her at her most vulnerable — uncovered and in hair-rollers.
Here, we take you behind-the-scenes into just one aspect of conservation that many would not realise is necessary when caring for contemporary art such as In Bed.
Ron Mueck ‘In bed’
DELVE DEEPER: Apprehensive & vulnerable: ‘In Bed’ by Ron Mueck
In Bed is huge in scale with a footprint of over 6×4 metres and the super-sized doona alone is made by joining together multiple commercially made quilts into a large square with the cover made to suit measurements taken from the constructed doona.
Over time, some of the seams in the quilt cover that envelop her from the shoulders down split because of the pressure the doona exerts on the covering while the work is being installed and on display. Repairs are done both by hand and using a machine, because of the size of the work, assistance is required in operating the foot pedal (illustrated).
Repairing the doona
Likewise, the enormous scale of In Bed posed considerable conservation challenges in undertaking the cleaning treatment of the individual textile pieces.
To wash the oversized 7×6 metre doona and cover, it was necessary to build a huge 8×5 metre custom-designed washtub and drying rack on the floor of the Gallery of Modern Art Conservation Laboratory. A gantry system was also designed to allow the fabric to be lowered and raised on a large stainless-steel rack. The washtub required 4,200 litres of tap water to fill it sufficiently for the textiles to be submerged. They were soaked overnight, rinsed, before again being lowered into a wash solution and agitated with the aid of large sponges and sponge mops (illustrated).
Washing the doona
In Bed comprises several different components that are installed in sequence to achieve the finished artwork — the large, low form, painted plinth purpose built for each installation; two pillows and cases; head and shoulders; body with raised knees; and the doona and cover.
That just leaves the ironing of the pillowcases and doona, a necessary part of the final installation process to remove the smallest creases ready for display.
The final touch: Repositioning the doona
Removing the smallest creases
Ron Mueck ‘In bed’ installed