“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again.”
-WILLIAM FAULKNER, The Paris Review, spring 1956
There is no guarantee that ‘when a stranger looks at an artwork a hundred years later that it will in fact “move again”’. Conservation plays a vital role in ensuring the longevity of artworks, so that they continue to “move” generations. Last week, the Honours in Curatorship class were privileged to attend a week long workshop on conservation hosted by painting conservator Angela Zehander and curator Hayden Proud from the Iziko National Gallery. By the end of the week we were equipped with an abundance of knowledge from a host of professionals who divulged their secrets and tricks of the trade. Such generous information enabled us to end off the week with an exhibition curated by our very own class at the National Gallery. The exhibition was entitled Under the Light which explored the technical studies of selected South African paintings, shedding light on materials and techniques used by artists, revealed through specific lighting and technical equipment.
We began the week on a practical note, learning about loans, crates and the packing of artworks. All the above are interlinked and entail a somewhat interminable and highly specialized process, such as booking three seats on an airplane to safely strap in the artwork and its curator headed across the globe. We also learned about the world of crates and witnessed a phenomenal crate at the gallery big enough to fit the whole class and (the painting) to where it was heading to the South of France. It only seemed fit to end off the topic with guest speaker Alan from Hollards Art Insure.
The second day commenced with a presentation from curator, Hayden Proud where he shared his prospective vision, ‘Operation Atrium’ which entails the transformation of the National Gallery’s’ atrium, with the aim of drawing greater attention to the permanent fixtures of the Gallery, reflecting the social history of South Africa and the Cape. True to the title of the project, we moved stealthily through the National Gallery where Hayden, our operative leader, highlighted the Gallery’s somewhat concealed permanent fixtures. Hiding above doorways and adorning the doors themselves were the most exquisitely carved scenes by Herbert Vladimir Meyerowitz. Paper conservators, Keith and Dieta, concluded the day, where they enabled us to add a few more impressive words to our vocabulary such as methyl cellulose. We were also introduced to the invaluable process of hinging with Japanese tissue paper, and making photo- flap folders with acid free paper.
The next day we were treated to a talk by paper conservator Sigourney Smuts who followed suit and spoke about the importance of materials, considering how they age and degrade. We learnt that conservators in the near future are going to have their hands full, with Sigourney explaining that contemporary artworks present more conservation issues than older and more ‘stable’ works, due to their experimental and unconventional methods and materials.
Building up to our final exhibition Under the Light, Hoffman shared invaluable tricks about hanging systems, a crucial component to our installation process. It was a rather surreal experience, screwing ‘d-hooks’ into an Irma Stern painting and drilling holes into the pristine walls of the National Gallery! This practical session was followed by a trip to the the Iziko Social History Centre in Church Square. The Social History Centre boasted enviable climate-controlled storage facilities which housed a feast of treasures. These treasures ranged from feathers to weapons of mass destruction and even gold bars (kept in a highly secretive trove with an unbreakable lock). The pirates to these treasures come in the form of bugs. However, in the event that these pesky creatures lay claim to these national treasures, we can vouch for their safety, after being shown the rather intimidating (and deadly) fumigation vaults. Our excursion was concluded by textile conservator Fatima February, where we learnt how to correctly store precious textiles. Upon arrival from our excursion, we were treated to a talk by painter Michel Pettit, where we were able to further contextualize his painting which was part of the collection for our exhibition Under the Light.
On the last day of the workshop, we arrived bursting at the seams with excitement, anticipating our talk with Jane Alexander, who rarely speaks in public. It was an unforgettable moment, huddling around the Butcher Boys with their mother sitting angelically next to them. The Butcher Boys were conceived in 1986, during the State of Emergency in South Africa, when Jane was doing her Masters in Fine Art. During this period in time, it was the brutality, violence and secrecy which enshrouded South African society that inspired the conceptualization of “The Boys”. After the precious time we spent with Jane, we were left breath-taken by her humility and wise words. Jane’s talk was followed by a visit to Nigel who is the photographer for Iziko, where we were all upstaged by a painting that stole the show.
The workshop ended off with the opening of our exhibition Under the Light, where we had a ‘soft- opening’, with a lavish spread in the Gallery’s atrium with staff members from both The Iziko National Gallery, Museum and the CCA. At the beginning of the preventative conservation workshop, we arrived as strangers looking into a field which we had little knowledge about. The amount of knowledge that we gained both practically and theoretically in one week is astonishing. It has truly opened our eyes as curators to the possibilities which reside in existing collections and the importance in safe-keeping artworks and objects, in order to ensure that they have a future where they “move once again”.