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What's Happening? Preserving relics from the 60s and 70s

In the exhibition What's Happening, now on show at Statens Museum for Kunst, there are quite a few performative works, that have either been recreated specifically for the exhibition, or are the actual physical remains of a performance/happening from the 60’s or 70’s.  From a conservation point of view, remnants from happenings present a real challenge, concerning not only aspects of cleaning, making repairs, replacement of missing parts, display or mounting, but also the way conservation affects their meaning.

Relics, art works or documentation?
What happens to the objects/props/scenography when a happening is over? Sometimes these objects, which are often post-happening referred to as relics, are saved by the members of the public, the artist or a collector/museum. When the objects or relics from a happening are acquired by a museum their status can change - from being an object that only has meaning within a performative setting, to be being an object that may be asked to function on its own with little or very little reference to its original use or origins. The conception or original intention of the work is arguably very important to convey, in that the work is conceived as just one part of a greater whole, but a whole that only exists via documentary films, still photographs or by reenactments – a far cry from the actual physical object. The transition from relic to artwork effects the way we view the work, interpret its meaning and ultimately the choices we make regarding conservation.

You don’t really know whats happening…do you?
A number of works shown in What's Happening have been conserved in preparation for being on display.  Material wise, there is a combined count of nearly 50 different materials, both organic and nonorganic, used to create these works. A far cry from just ‘paint on canvas’, or ‘marble sculpture’, many of these works are using alternative materials, such as; hair, mineral wool, lead, plastics, cardboard, et al. The use of industrial materials, everyday materials, and combining disparate materials with each other, is par for the course for contemporary art today, but for artists from this time period, 1965-1975, it was still rather experimental. Not just the use in general of contemporary materials but also the how’s and why’s of what you are using them for.

Festival 200
There are many examples in this exhibition of works that are considered relics from happenings, and at the same time artworks. Two examples are from Festival 200, held in 1969 at Charlottenborg Kunsthal. The first is a part of Bjørn Nørgaards and Lene Adler Petersens performance work Den kvindelige Kristus, where their Kneppemaskiner or Fucking machines, were used. These wooden sculptures were made and used by the artists during the exhibition. Their actions were recorded, and the resulting film is shown next to two of the actual machines (the third larger one is not in existence anymore, and it was decided not to make a reconstruction).  On display now, a surreal relationship occurs between the documentary style film and the actual physical objects/relics.

© Fucking Machines, side by side. Photo: Louise Cone

© Detail, Fucking Machines with stained and worn fabric. Photo: Louise Cone

Cleaning the Fucking Machines was difficult. Besides the surface dust, the work contains a history from actually being used. The functionality – or potential for functionality – is still present in the works. The machines had been carefully sanded and smoothed down, built after the measurements of two specific bodies.

What is left of these material traces of use after nearly 50 years? And is it important to preserve these remnants of use – viewers will, in any case, create their own stories.

The second example from Festival 200 is by Eks-school artist Peter Louis Jensen. He made a series of Flags, a political statement about freedom and Nationality.  Two of these Flags were 'acquired' by a private collector and subsequently by the museum.

In very poor condition, the question was whether or not these works could be saved, and in fact, should they be saved at all, or just used as documentation about the events, which took place at Festival 200.

The artist used Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) to make these works. In the one, the PVC is transparent, sewn together like a sandwich, with a piece of textile inside. The textile is from an old military cloth tent, and there are channels sewn into the plastic with green thread, which contain sand, traversing across the textile background. The whole work is hung from the top by plastic coated wires attached to a wooden pole.

Installation view of Festival 200. Photo: John Hunov

Installation view of Festival 200. Photo: Unknown

Flags by Peter Louis Jensen seen hanging during installation of Festival 200 at Charlottenborg Kunsthal in 1969. Photo: John Hunov

Upon acquisition by the museum in 2005, the plastic was brittle and cracked. Most of the sand had escaped through large openings in the torn plastic. The hanging system was ripped and not able to support the weight of the work.

Conserving this particular Flag, consisted of finding a way to close the tears in the transparent plastic, which would not be visible. Replacing the sand, which had been lost, and creating a new hanging system for the work, which supported the weight of the work and resembled the original.  The conservation of Flag was complicated by the fact that the only existing documentation is a rather bad quality installation photograph taken at the festival in 1969.

The material, PVC, is very degraded. The plasticizer, in this case a phthalate, had over the years migrated out of the polymer, leaving it brittle, and cracked. Tests were carried out to find out what material could be used to close the tears and reinforce the seams of the work so that it could once again be put on display. In the end a traditional conservation product, which matched the refractive index of the degraded PVC, was chosen to lap the rips and bridge gaps in the plastic, which had contracted in sync with the loss of its plasticizer. The stitching of the work was opened from the sides to allow for new sand to be put into the channels. The work was then re-sewn.

Detail of Flag, showing torn, cracked plastic. Photo: Louise Cone

Detail of Flag 2, showing missing sand in the sewn plastic channels. 2012. Photo: Louise Cone

© Flag after conservation. Photo: Jakob Skou-hansen

These are just two brief examples of some of the conservation work done on works, which can be seen in Whats Happening.  Other works, such as Paul Genres' Tårnet, a 981 cm high painted cardboard tower, and Sussanne Ussings' Untitled, a series of polyurethane and latex sculptures, have also been the subjects of large-scale conservation projects.

The conservation of performance art and its objects, with its ephemeral nature, is a multifaceted subject which is, justifiably so, gaining in importance and urgency.


Louise Cone
Conservator Contemporary art and sculpture
Statens Museum for Kunst

Updated: 22.mar.2017
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