Category → plastic
You don’t really expect a seemingly dry painting to suddenly start oozing streaks of wet paint, seven years after its completion.
So when Otto Piene’s Harvest, which was finished in 1993, began to weep white paint in 2000, owners, conservators and the artist were all rather surprised.
Although Harvest is Piene’s only work to start weeping, the strange liquefying process has happened to dozens of other artworks from contemporary artists as varied as Jonathan Meese and Frank von Hemert, explains Jenny Schulz, a conservator in Cologne, Germany, who’s made it her business to figure out why. “It’s quite a common thing,” she says.
Taking a closer look at several of these paintings, Schulz figured out something that all the weeping paintings had in common: The tears occurred in places on the canvas where the artist has laid down a thick layer of oil paint.
Although the thickly-laid paint seems to dry, it turns out to be unstable and capable of liquefying. But why? It’s not as if applying thick layers of oil paint is a new thing among artists… Yet the weeping painting issue is relatively new, having emerged in the last two decades or so.
What’s changed, Schulz says, is formulation of oil paints. Until recently oil paint was made using linseed oil. But the problem with linseed, she says, is that it has a tendency to yellow over time.
So paint formulators began exchanging linseed oil for sunflower oil, because sunflower oil doesn’t yellow.
The problem is that sunflower oil doesn’t dry as well. That’s because the oil contains fewer reactive double bonds, which are required to form a permanently dried paint complex, Schulz says.
Thick layers of the sunflower oil paint may seem to dry, but they are unstable. Subjected to changes in temperature and humidity or even the jostling that occurs during transport, these layers can collapse, releasing component parts as a gooey tear running as fast as 2 centimeters per month. Continue reading →
I love you.
I’ve been conducting a rather unconventional poll.
It consists of a single question posed to unsuspecting conservation scientists, typically during conference coffee breaks or at the hotel bar thereafter:
“Um. So have you ever bought anything on eBay… I mean, for your scientific work?”
What’s amazing is that researchers working with cultural heritage objects as diverse as Picasso paintings, plastic sculpture & toys, and digital art have all answered “yes.” Continue reading →
Come To Culture Lab: Science On Art And Artifacts, A Conference Session This Saturday In Dublin At ESOF
I’m looking forward to moderating a session on art and artifact science at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) conference this Saturday morning from 10:45 am – 12:15 pm in the Liffey B room.
If you’re in Dublin at ESOF, do stop by! Here’s what you’ll be in for… (the shortened version of my pitch to ESOF):
When you mention art or cultural heritage science, most people think about authentication of a priceless masterpiece or identification of a pigment on a Rembrandt or a da Vinci.
They’re developing tools to study artworks and artifacts without actually touching them, so that you can tell if Picasso produced a particular masterpiece with hoity toity expensive artist paint or industrial wall paint.
They’re getting into the minds of ancient cultures by recreating their recipes for everything from hair dye to incense.
And they’re dealing with what some call the digital art crisis: how do you preserve or conserve art that employs obsolete hardware or software, or art that is stored online in fleeting formats or impermanent platforms.
Here’s who’s speaking at the Culture Lab session: Continue reading →
Like humans, fungi have a taste for old movies. The problem is that they like to eat the film rather than watch it.
Adding insult to injury, fungi produce copious amounts of stinky odors from their consumption of classic flicks.
In fact, this fungi flatulence can cause headaches, nausea and irritated eyes in humans. (In particular, one airborne fungal molecule called 1-octen-3-ol.)
For this reason film archive staff fear any sort of mold on film reels: It means their precious collections are being destroyed by fungi.
Furthermore the fungal digestion produces smells that can make conservators sick.
With such a machine, conservators can test film reels donated from attics and basements. Sometimes these donations are so thick with dust it is hard to distinguish from mold—unless conservators take a sample and try growing it in a lab, Banks says. (Which then means the conservators may be exposed to the stinky molecules they’d much rather avoid.)
Another benefit of the device: If invasive fungi manage to sneak into storage areas, the detector can forewarn conservators about the moldy intruders before the growth gets out of hand—or is visible to the naked eye.
Consider this cultural cocktail: the 1960s and 70s surfing scene in Los Angeles, that era’s emerging aeronautical and chemical industries, plus a splash of flavor from Hollywood and the Beatniks.
The result is a group of artists called the Finish Fetish who produced minimalist sculptures often made from materials newly available in those decades, such as polyester.
Finish Fetish is “extra spit and polish in pop and minimal art plus space age materials.” This description (from Peter Plagens via artdesigncafe) explains the obsession with “finish”…which should not be confused with the Northern European Finnish.
One of the Finish Fetish is an artist called De Wain Valentine. Commercial resin available at the time “wouldn’t allow him to do what he wanted to do–which was to pour really big objects,” says Tom Learner, head of Modern and Contemporary Art Research at the Getty Conservation Institute.
Valentine wanted to create his extremely large sculptures in a single pour of polyester resin because creating the artwork in two steps interfered with the seamless look he was after. Continue reading →
When acrylic paint was introduced in the late 1940s it was a boon for artists with a penchant for instant gratification: Acrylics dry within hours, compared to the weeks and sometimes months it takes for oil paint to completely harden.
But few things in life are perfect, and acrylic paint is no exception. In order to keep pigments stable in the acrylic polymer base, paint makers had to include additives called surfactants. Unfortunately, after a few years or decades, the surfactants get itchy feet and rise out of the paint to the surface of the artwork.
Once there, these surfactants can leave a white film on priceless paintings and they can also be sticky, attracting dirt and grime to the artwork.
In this week’s C&EN, my colleague Celia Arnaud digs deep in to acrylic paint chemistry and talks with conservation scientists about what they do to remedy the problem of wandering surfactant.
Unfortunately, many existing solvents that might be used to clean off the surface of acrylic artworks tend to make the paint swell… This makes museum staff nervous because it’s not clear what long term consequence come from this swelling. Another problem is that solvents that don’t cause acrylic paints to swell aren’t typically good cleaners.
That’s why researchers at the Tate Galleries in London, the Getty Conservation Institute in LA and the DOW chemical company have teamed up to try and find a solvent that cleans but does not swell acrylic paint. At the same time researchers at the University of Delaware are working with Golden Artist Colors, a paint company, to work out good cleaning conditions for acrylic paintings.
If these researchers hit paydirt, acrylic paintings around the world will finally get that facial treatment they’ve all been needing.
I spent most of today learning about what museum scientists and conservators are doing to keep contemporary art in tip-top shape. (This whole week I’m at ICOM-CC, the huge art conservation science conference currently taking place in Lisbon.)
These folks who are developing life-extension treatments for some pretty quirky art and artifacts. I’m talking about gigantic chandeliers made from hundreds of illuminated plastic bags suspended from the ceiling, each bag containing a little electronic toy dog that barks and moves its legs. Gotta love it.
Or they’re working on sculptures made from random objects covered in aluminum paint that are now degrading beneath the metal veneer. Or Nazi typewriters found at bombed Gestapo headquarters. Continue reading →
If I had to marry an inanimate object, I would not choose the Berlin Wall as Eija-Riitta has, but I might be tempted by a bunker, possibly the Boros bunker, whose dark history has been reclaimed by great art.
The BFI is facing what’s already a become a major problem for many who possess collections of early cinema: How do you keep 450,000 cans of film from breaking down, particularly when the film is made of cellulose nitrate, a plastic not known for its longevity?
When cellulose nitrate breaks down, it causes the release of nitric acid, which can accelerate degradation in nearby film. Eventually all the degradation results in a gooey or powdery mess where there was once a fantastic film.
The BFI’s spokesperson Brian Robinson told me that in the new archive, fragile film will be kept at -5 C, which is “down a notch” from the previous temperature (3-4 C) that the film was stored at. According to studies done at the BFI, Robinson says that the cellulose nitrate degradation will “be arrested.”
I can’t imagine that it’s ever possible to completely arrest degradation, but I’m guessing the drop in temperature seriously decreases the rate of chemical breakdown.
Finally, Robinson says the new £12 million facility will be well-ventilated, which I presume will suck away any amount of nitric acid that has managed to percolate off the valuable film.
The vessel took four years to build and was armed with the highest tech weaponry available in 17th-century Sweden, but the four-story, top-heavy Vasa warship sunk before it managed to sail a nautical mile out of Stockholm’s harbor. That was 1628.
When the ship was pulled out of the water 333 years later in 1961, archeologists found all sorts of well-preserved goodies on board, as well as a hull in excellent shape. The wood had mostly managed to avoid two major evils: Degradation via wood worms (probably because the ship had sunk when it was still brand new) and degradation via microbes (the quirky bacteria that could survive in Stockholm’s particularly polluted harbor weren’t much interested in snacking on wood).
Letting the boat dry out would have been a death sentence for the gigantic artifact, since water-logged wood tends to shrink and warp as the water evaporates away, explains Martin Nordvig Mortensen, a researcher at the National Museum of Denmark, who is studying the degradation of the Vasa’s wood. (The vessel is located in Stockholm at the Vasa Museum).
Instead of letting the boat dry out, conservators sprayed the Vasa with a polymer called polyethylene glycol (PEG) until the ship was entirely saturated. (This took 17 years of spraying!) Since PEG doesn’t evaporate away upon drying, the wood is thus stabilized against warping. (Incidentally PEG has a curious spectrum of other applications, such as in theater smoke, toothpaste, antifreeze and personal lubricant.)
Continue reading →
Sometime during the 1960s, artists en masse began using plastics to make art–a trend that continues today.
The problem is that many plastic polymers have a shelf life of just a decade or so, after which they begin to crumble or crack. Consider an old rubber band or a plastic bottle left out in the sun.
And just as bisphenol A leaches out of baby bottles and into the surrounding liquid, many of the components of plastic-based art seep out of the work, causing all sorts of unpleasant consequences (details below).
Furthermore, the short lifespan of plastic art is at odds with the fact that most museums want to buy art that lasts centuries or at least decades… not years.
Yet in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, just as plastic sculptures and designer furniture were pouring in to museum and gallery collections, staff conservators were collectively sticking their heads in the sand about the inherent vulnerability of these objects… I mean, even though plastics have short lifespans, there are ways to extend them. But conservators weren’t acknowledging that plastics were problematic.
It’s come to be known as “the plastics denial syndrome” and thankfully it’s now over, says Yvonne Shashoua, a conservation scientist at the National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen. Shashoua features heavily in an article I just wrote about how plastics are a serious problem child for museum staff and what can be done to improve some pretty impressive bad behavior.
Case in point: the phthalate plasticizer added to make PVC (polyvinyl chloride) maleable has a tendency to leach out, so much so that small pools of the plasticizer collect in and around the art. These plasticizer puddles are not precisely aesthetically pleasing, they attract dust and actually the loss of the plasticizer destabilizes the plastic making it vulnerable to cracking.
Then there’s this more nepharious example: Acidic gases percolate away from plastic objects made of cellulose acetate and then corrode nearby metals and textiles. For this reason conservators call cellulose acetate “the malignant plastic.”
Cases like these forced conservators to take the degradation of plastics seriously. Check out the longer article to find out what museum staff are now doing to keep plastic art and artifacts alive and as well-behaved as possible.