Visit the Conservator

Loneliness transformed

As part of our preparations for the exhibition Rising From Darkness (17 September 2015 – 17 January 2016), our conservation workshop was visited by this poor thing. Not only was she lonely, she was also covered by a thick layer of algae, moss and lichen after having been left outside in all kinds of weather for years. It seemed as if she had been forgotten, and that no one had cared about her.

The sad woman who came to our workshop is Svend Wiig Hansen’s sculpture Loneliness from 1953–54. A female figure, seated on the ground, her knees up pulled up against her body and her arms folded across them. Her head is bent downwards.

Cast from concrete, the sculpture is presumably reinforced with iron or steel inside. Many years of exposure to wind, weather and air pollution had lefts its mark on the sculpture’s surface. In particular four degradation phenomena had caused visible changes with a greatly disfiguring effect on the work’s appearance – which in some way enhanced the sense of loneliness that Svend Wiig Hansen wished to portray. At this point the sculpture seemed to express a kind of tristesse.

Extensive damage

As was stated in the above, large areas of the sculpture were covered in biological growth. Greenish-yellow and reddish algae and lichen formed a thick layer on the surface and reached into all crevices. It was quite obvious that the left-hand side of the figure had been turned towards the sun: The sun-kissed side of the sculpture was far more intact, having suffered less from moisture because the sunlight had regularly heated the concrete.

The surface on the top half of the sculpture had become crumbly and most of the original casting skin of the concrete had been lost. The ‘casting skin’ is the outermost layer of the concrete: during casting this layer is pressed up against the inside of the mould, thereby forming a different crystalline structure compared to the rest of the concrete. The loss of casting skin means that the surface is exposed and raw.

A whitish material on the surface was visible in several areas along the edge of the right-hand side of the sculpture. This white layer was a salt bloom: natural salts inside the concrete that have gradually crystallised on the surface. Wetting the salt bloom made it transparent, revealing that the original surface of the concrete remained intact underneath.

The toes on the right-hand foot were also covered in a black layer of dirt from air pollution that has become bound to the surface.

In addition to the many degradation phenomena it was also clear that someone had at one point sought to recreate the lost skin of concrete in places. Unfortunately, those repairs had proven more resistant to the elements than the original concrete. This means that the original concrete around the repairs has been lost, causing the later fillings to appear as large, lighter-coloured blotches on the surface.

Conservation

First of all the sculpture was cleaned to remove moss, lichen and algae. Most of the biological growth could be brushed off using a small horsehair brush; this was deemed to be the gentlest method available. In those areas were the biological growth proved most resistant to removal, moss and algae were removed by means of scalpels, dentist’s equipment or steel brushes, followed by the horsehair brush. In the future the work will only be exhibited and stored indoors in climate-controlled conditions, and so it was decided that no subsequent treatment with anti-algae agents was necessary: Firstly, a new algae attack would require quite considerable changes in relative humidity, and secondly such chemical treatment would introduce substances that might cause other long-term damage to the concrete.

Areas affected by salt bloom were cleaned by means of an electric abrasive tool. This greatly reduced the white covering, yielding an acceptable result. Once this sanding process was complete, the sculpture was cleaned using demineralised water to remove any residues of dust.

Attempts were made to remove the black deposits by chemical and mechanical means, but these attempts were unsuccessful. Because the deposits are bound to the concrete, laser cleaning would presumably be the only effective method. However, given that the museum does not own such equipment and since the damage is minor, the black discolorations were not removed.

Similarly, the lighter-coloured later repairs were not removed because of the potential consequences this might have to the porous and decayed concrete underneath and around the repairs. Instead, the surface was sanded using the electric abrasive tool. This effected a change in the light colour of the repairs, causing them to match the overall colour of the sculpture after treatment.

No attempts were made to amend the fretted/crumbling/weatherted appearance of the sculpture, such as its lost skin. In fact, reconstructing the original surface would be virtually impossible. The sculpture was originally cast in a mould that gives the surface of the concrete cast a distinctive appearance which is difficult to mimic, and furthermore we had little access to pictures that show the sculpture in its original state. We simply do not know exactly what the sculpture originally looked like.

Even so, the process of cleaning off moss, lichen, algae and white salt blooms has given the sculpture a more homogenous appearance overall, and the rather melancholy air that surrounded it prior to conservation has disappeared. The Lonely figure has re-emerged into the world of light, where it has received plenty of much-needed tender love and care.


By:
Kathrine Segel
Cand.scient.cons

Updated: 22.mar.2017
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