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February 03, 2010

Yogurt Cultures


Now showing at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) up in New York is a retrospective of the work of the Mexican conceptual artist Gabriel Orozco. Previously, there have been some comparisons made between Mr. Orozco and Mr. Jungen (here and here). Currently, in both shows, the retrospective and Strange Comfort, there are some iconographic similarities, approached in different ways: there are whale skeletons (Mr. Orozco uses a real skeleton and draws on it; Mr. Jungen creates his own); human skulls (Mr. Orozco uses a real skull and draws on it; Mr. Jungen makes his own); sports references (Mr. Orozco photographs soccer balls; Mr. Jungen channels baseball and basketball); and the manipulation of manufactured consumer materials (Mr. Orozco uses a shoe box, yogurt container tops, a car, and bicycles; Mr. Jungen uses shoes, garbage cans, luggage, among others).

And the overlapping conservation issues? There are many similarities, the most obvious being the common use of plastics, non-traditional, and modern art materials, which may result in conservation and preservation issues in the future. Both of these shows also focus on another issue: the use of ready-made consumer materials for the creation of art pieces. This practice may in the long term constitute some conservation conundrums, not just in the stability of materials, but also in finding replacement parts should anything happen to the original.

Let’s think about Mr. Orozco’s use of yogurt lids, for example. Back in 1994, Orozco nailed four Dannon yogurt lids to the four walls of the Marian Goodman Gallery, called it “Yogurt Caps” and that was his show. Of this, art critic Peter Schjeldahl from The New Yorker in a review of the current retrospective writes:

“I vividly remember being outraged in the proverbial manner of a philistine exposed to modern art when, for his first solo gallery show in New York, in 1994, Orozco displayed, on the walls of the main room at Marian Goodman, nothing but four Dannon yogurt lids. I recovered, by and by, to take the artist’s point, which amounted to disappointment as aesthetic therapy. The transparent, blue-rimmed, date-stamped, price-labelled(sic) little items were—and are, at MoMA—rather lovely, when contemplated without prejudice. Are they art? No. They are Dannon yogurt lids. The art part is a triggered awareness that the world teems with vernacular loveliness.” (The rest of the review can be read here.)

As reported in the New York Observer in this article, the inclusion of these yogurt lids in this current MoMA retrospective was essential for Ann Temkin, the chief curator at the MoMA’s department of painting and sculpture. (She talks about the lids here.) The original lids from the 1994 show, however, had been sold to a collector, but the gallery had four replacement lids, which “Mr. Orozco had purchased and put into storage just in case a need for them ever arose.” So the replacements now hang on the wall at MoMA, eliciting some questions in the New York Observer article about originality, value, etc.

However, back in 2005, for environmental, and undoubtedly financial reasons, Dannon stopped using plastic lids.These types of lids could now be called rare commodities. If something should happen to the extra set, how will they be replaced? Can the same concepts be portrayed with a different kind of lid? Would, as the New York Observer article suggests, replicas be made? Would the same price tags and expiry dates need to be on the replica lids? Or as Ms. Temkin’s curatorial assistant Paulina Pobocha said, “The importance of the work, I think, lies in the gesture more than it does in the actual artifact.”

The same sort of issues can arise with Mr. Jungen’s work and for NMAI, most specifically his mobile Crux (as seen from those who sleep on the surface of the earth under the night sky). The museum was able to procure some pieces of the exact types of luggage used in Crux to be kept in NMAI collections storage, if the need should arise for them to be used as replacement material.

The good thing is that Mr. Jungen and Mr. Orozco, for that matter, can be asked about what they want in these particular circumstances. It has become a more standard practice, by museums, curators, and conservators, to interview contemporary artists when their art is being considered for acquisition or has already been acquired into a collection. Artists can be asked these exact types of questions, so that their intents and wishes of how they want their art displayed, maintained, conserved or not conserved, can be recorded and consulted, even after the time the artist is still around to give his or her opinion. These interviews can guide future display, conservation, use of replacements or replicas, and storage.

Here at NMAI, the conservation lab has a long history of consultations with Native and First Nations constituent community groups and individuals about the conservation and care of objects in the collection. These are conversations that can have significant and profound effects on conservation treatments. Interviewing contemporary artists, however, a process that may require slightly different approaches and directives, is becoming a bigger focus for the lab. There were conversations with Mr. Jungen about his ideas for the preservation of and his preferences for Crux. We are looking forward to continuing these conversations and following a more consistent and established program of interviewing Native contemporary artists.


The International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary (INCCA)  and their guides to good interviewing practice.

Yogurt image from here.


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