Issues of reproduction and copyright surfaced recently at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The inception of a new show dealing with significant past exhibitions brought up the question of whether or not the museum should engage in significant restoration of Claes Oldenburg’s “Ice Bag-Scale C.” Because the work has fallen into disrepair, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, the Whitney’s associate director for conservation and research, suggested it should be restored to resemble what it looked like in its heyday. According to the Observer,
The bag was meant to subtly inflate and deflate, evoking something like a sleeping creature. It needed extensive restoration before it could be exhibitable.
Although Mancusi-Ungaro saw nothing wrong with this restoration, others on the Whitney’s board thought it sacrilege. Most of the project’s critics believed the process to be equivalent to forgery or creating a replica. If the piece is to resemble what it used to look like 30 years ago, it would need significant restoration. That is, there has been so much decay that restoring this piece might conflict with its integrity. The Observer recounts:
The skin had decayed and the motors never worked properly—it was not in good condition,” said Carol Mancusi- Ungaro . . . . “We had to replace a fair amount of it.
So what counts as a replica, and who dictates legitimate practices? Furthermore, we can ask ourselves how conceptual art enters this debate, “where the idea or gesture is more important than the particular object used to express it,” as with MOMA’s exhibition of Gabriel Orozco’s “Yogurt Caps.” In this particular situation, the original pieces, four yogurt lids attached to a bare wall, were sold to a private collector, but the gallery had an extra set of lids in case a need for them ever arose. Questions regarding whether it would be ethical and legal to use the surrogate and derivative yogurt caps started plaguing the curators.
Thankfully, the Whitney Replication Committee, which consists of Mancusi-Ungaro, the Whitney’s registrar, the collections manager, the in-house legal counsel, and various curators, is ready to address these thorny issues. The committee meets once a month and has been doing so for the past year and a half. In essence, the team works collectively to draft new curatorial, restoration and exhibitional systems to answer the questions contemporary art poses—and, in particular, whether to restore the “Ice Bag.” These questions will arise more and more as the bounds of contemporary art expand into abstract territory. Not only must we ask ourselves how to restore organic matter, but also how we can restore/revive movements, digital image and sound? Must we consider art-historical tenets on issues of originality for our contemporary context? Paulina Pobocha, curatorial assistant to Ann Tempkin, the chief curator at MoMA, offers a different approach to thinking about the matter of the duplicating the yogurt caps and altering or replacing an original piece. “The importance of the work, I think, lies in the gesture more than it does in the actual artifact,” she says. Goodman Gallery director Andrew Richards, who has worked with Orozco, agreed: “It’s not so much the object that matters in this instance—it’s the idea.”
Video of ice bag scale c, you tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSBiALLMW7Y