Brian Jungen - Strange Comfort

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.

Comments (28)

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November 13, 2009

Lipstick Traces

  Master of the Fade. Kid of Kid 'n Play. (Image retrieved here.)

Christopher "Kid" Reid of Kid 'n Play, a hip-hop duo which had its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was perhaps best distinguished by his towering high-top fade, a hair-do defined by its short hair on the sides and long hair on the top, usually cut with great geometric precision. When Brian Jungen's Crux (as seen from those who sleep on the surface of the earth under the night sky) was hung in the main rotunda of NMAI, in front of the large bank of windows, we were worried about another kind of fade, that of the discoloration of the plastics by exposure to UV (ultraviolet) and visible light. As a precaution, a film that blocked UV and some visible light was placed on the windows. While these measures were taken, we still wanted to understand what kind of fading to expect from these plastics under exposure to visible light.

This can be done! With a technology called the microfader tester (MFT). It’s science in action.

If you walk across the National Mall from NMAI, you may stumble upon the National Gallery of Art (which will be hosting a workshop for teachers about Mr. Jungen’s work in February 2010). Down in the Scientific Research Department, you’ll find conservation scientist Dr. Christopher Maines. He is in possession of a microfader tester. And he’s really good at using it, which is no easy feat.

Master of Fade.
Dr. Christopher Maines with the MFT and a sample of plastic from Crux luggage.

The MFT is used to detect light-sensitivity and lightfastness of the materials, which comprise your museum object. It does this without leaving visible evidence of the test on the object. The MFT has a light source, only tenths of a millimeter in diameter, filtered of UV and infrared light, which is directed at an area on the surface of the object. The reflected light from the surface of the object transfers through a spectrophotometer, which measures the color change and fading over a period of several minutes. This is compared with fading and lightfastness standards. Thus the MFT can determine a rate of fading over a short period, leaving virtually no trace on the actual object, and giving us a better sense of how light stable the object is, and if, for how long, and under what conditions it should be on display. Pretty neat.

The MFT can be used on all sorts of materials. Take, for example, lipstick. Namely artist Frida Kahlo’s lipstick. She liked her S.W.A.K.s and had a tendency to sign off her letters with lipsticked kisses. Germaine Greer did not call her “Patron Saint of Lipstick and Lavender Feminism” for nothing. In the collection of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, there is a letter from Frida to Emmy Lou Packard regarding Frida’s husband Diego Rivera’s health and other business. Frida signs the letter with multiple lipsticked kisses, along the bottom edge, one in each box for each of her objects of affection.

Most companies say their lipsticks are made to last. (“Stay supple, stay true… Of course they last.”) But could Frida’s lipstick stand being on museum display? Using the MFT, Dr. Maines working with Nora Lockshin, the paper conservator from Archives of American Art, determined that the lipstick was actually incredibly light sensitive and if overexposed by visible light, the lipstick’s vibrancy would quickly diminish. Display would have to be for very short duration, in a highly controlled setting, or not displayed at all. Luckily for us, digital images are readily accessible.

The letter. (Image retrieved here.)

(Frida Kahlo was prolific with her kisses. Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library has a lipstick-laden note as well. Here you can read more lipstick preservation, as related to that note and artist Rachel Lachowicz, known for her use of cosmetics in her work.)

But back to luggage, briefly. We took five samples of luggage plastic from Crux over to Dr. Maines, who generously ran the MFT on the samples.  It turns out, the plastics are rather resilient to fading, perhaps even more so than expected, but will fade if continually exposed to visible light for long periods. So good we put up the window film. We wouldn’t want to see the crocodile or its compatriots go pale.


Comments (11)

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Hey I like the lipstick effect it looks pretty cool.

You learn something new every day! I've never heard of the MFT... but the Kid from Kid 'n Play reference was a nice touch, hahaha. =)

Hi! I like your article , I would like very much to read some more information on MFT


really enjoyed the post and the information good job thanks.

I found your post while searching Google. it offers a lot of really great content so thank you for sharing. I will have to check it out more often.

Kid surely did get busted that time :) found this on google and its a great read

Hmmm interesting MFT. Nice! I'm going to dig more about it because I have a great sample in mind. :) Thanks!

Michelle Porter

Very nice blog. You've done a great job for this one.
Thank you for this information.

It article information is good information job.i like this your article.

Didn't know until now about the existance of such a sophisticated instrument as the MFT. The "rate of fading" is an interesting concept. Too bad the video is not available anymore.


Thanks for sharing this information, love this subject! :)

October 09, 2009

What to expect when you’re expecting (an exhibition).

Two weeks ago, Crux (as seen from those who sleep on the surface of the earth under the night sky) was installed in the Potomac, the main rotunda at NMAI. It now hangs and rotates, as a result of a multitude of hours and of hands planning and weighing and balancing and adjusting. Five large plastic animals nearly perfectly balanced and counter-balanced from an inverted rowboat suspended from the ceiling. Engineering! 

The morning of the installation: the emu, the possum, the sea eagle, and the shark, loaded onto carts, took the freight elevator up from the basement collections area where they had been corralled for the past several months. Then the elevator broke. The crocodile took the more scenic route: up from the loading dock to the mean streets of DC, through the staff entrance (allowed access despite lack of appropriate identification), and to the Potomac.

Three scissor lifts were employed simultaneously to lift the pieces in appropriate sequence. When the lifts descended, Crux was left to turn at will.

Hanging crux
Jay and Pat of the exhibits shop staff, in hard hats. Crux in the process of being hung.

Curator delights
A curator delights.

It looks pretty amazing.

And elsewhere? Garbage cans.

Image retrieved from here. (Photo: Mathieu Génon, courtesy of the artist, Casey Kaplan, NY, and Frac des Pays de la Loire, France.)

The piece above, Carapace, was originally made by Mr. Jungen at Frac des Pays de la Loire, in France, out of French plastic garbage bins. Les poubelles. When the piece was dismantled, the bins were systematically stacked, and shipped over the Atlantic by sea freight.  Land ho, the port of Baltimore and thence to Smithsonian storage and finally NMAI. So many bins, so many bins.

Cleaning bins
Thorough inspection. Photo by Gail Joice.

And here is one of the small paradoxes of conservation and collections care: cleaning garbage cans. These, as garbage cans are wont to do, sat outside, in French dirt, prior to their use in this piece. Alas, with dirt can come pests, which can make the trans-Atlantic crossing, bunked under handles, hidden in the depths of the bins. Some of these pests, at times, can have an innate hunger for some museum objects as a food source; following their natural search and destroy policy, they can infest and damage museum collections.

Gail and bin
Gail Joice, Collections Manager, inspects a bin.

And so, with this in mind, upon their arrival at NMAI, the garbage cans were unpacked and inspected. (Customs apparently does not offer this type of conservation service.) We looked for pests. We found a few. Mostly spiders, who had known better days. And we cleaned off the conspicuous dust and dirt with water and rags. (It was likely the closest I’ll get to a holiday on French soil this year.)

And now, with the cleaner garbage bins, Mr. Jungen works on the reconstruction of the piece. Expect some changes. Jigsaws are currently being employed. There are plastic crumbs everywhere.

And elsewhere:

A skeleton.

A flag.

Many hands to raise them both. Luckily the artist is here to give his input.

Be ready. The 16th is right around the corner.



A very different installation. Leave the pins at home.

Comments (6)

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This is an very interesting article, I have to say "Thorough inspection" is my favorite. I will be sure to check back regularly.


The turtle shell of garbage cans is priceless! Really wish I could have been there to see all this, your photos are a beautiful consolation though. Thanks!

- Joseph

I find the carapace piece amazing. It took a lot of work and a lot of cleaning phases but the results speaks for itself.

I like Crux. I've always liked any work of art that fills empty spaces above our heads with such a brilliant, artistic and beautiful piece of artwork. Great input!

Michelle Porter

I've always found hanging installations like this fascinating. I've never had a installation of my own, but thanks to this article I feel like I'd know what to expect.


enjoyed the post and the information good job thanks.

September 12, 2009

First in anticipation and then in reality

"The coming... was so very near at hand that first in anticipation and then in reality it became henceforth [the] prime object of interest." J. Austen, Emma

(Five weeks out. It’s a hive of activity.)

It must be italian
Fragile. It must be Italian. Objects of interest: the first crates of Brian Jungen’s pieces, on loan from museums, galleries, and privates lenders, have arrived.

Scissor lift
Scissor lift
at rest. The hook from which Crux will be hung is being installed.

Demolition. Dry wall and spackle. The changing exhibitions gallery regenerating for Strange Comforts.


Michael Jordan was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame yesterday.

Video of the installation of an amazing piece, Waste Not, by Beijing-based artist Song Dong, at our museum neighbors to the north. (And more images from that exhibition.)

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August 30, 2009

One Word

  Plastic People of the Universe. (Retrieved from

1967. A big year for plastics: The Graduate and Frank Zappa’s “Plastic People” on Absolutely Free were released. The song inspired the naming of The Plastic People of the Universe (PPU), a Czech band formed in Prague in 1968, two months after Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia. (The Plastic Ono Band, featuring Yoko, John, and others debuted in 1969.) Arrest of The Plastic People of the Universe band members in 1976, in turn, partially influenced the drafting of Charter 77, a petition written by Czechoslovakian writers and intellectuals, including future Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel, demanding the Communist Czechoslovakian government to recognize basic human rights.

Plastics, they make things happen.

Plastics are organic polymers of high molecular weight and go back further than 1967. Natural plastics, such as horn, beeswax, and bitumen, can be found throughout the collections of NMAI. However, the more modern synthetic materials, like polyurethanes, polyethylenes, polystyrenes, that we so often think of--or don’t think of, as they have become so acculturated to our present lives --are not often found in the NMAI collection.  That is until the acquisition of Brian Jungen’s Crux (as seen from those who sleep on the surface of the earth under the night sky). This piece, which comprises five-larger-than-life animals made of plastic suitcases, has made up for the dearth ten-fold.

Wrestling an eighty-pound plastic alligator from Crux.

For conservators, plastics in museum collections can be a challenge. Despite the apparent resilience of plastics, they are susceptible to degradation by the forces to which they may be exposed every day: light, heat, moisture, and, yes, even oxygen. For example, UV (ultraviolet) light and moisture can cause cellulose nitrate, a plastic first made in the 1860s and used to imitate tortoise shell and ivory, to convert its nitrogen oxides to nitric and nitrous acids. This acidic reaction can cause severe degradation of the object.  A classic example of this can be found in the exhibit Rotten Luck: The Decaying Dice of Ricky Jay at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. Check out slight-of-hand master Ricky Jay’s explanation and beautiful images of a slightly tragic process.

(The Museum of Jurassic Technology was co-founded by David Hildebrand Wilson, a MacArthur Fellow, who gave a great talk at the Hirshhorn Museum, just down the street from NMAI, last November. It just so happens that Mr. Jungen will be discussing his own art there as well on October 16, 2009. Mark your calendars.)

Degraded cellulose nitrate. (Retrieved from:

While Crux is made from new plastics (suitcases even, which are supposed to withstand the utmost rigors), it is part of our job as conservators to mitigate future degradation so that the pieces may survive even longer and, we hope, retain their current aesthetics, as wished by Mr. Jungen. To do this, we will identify the actual type of plastics found in Crux and make projections about how they may age. We will test samples of the plastics of Crux by exposing them to high doses of visual and UV light to determine what we might expect to happen to the actual object under certain conditions. We will strongly recommend that Crux be exhibited in an area in which UV and visible light have been suppressed, in order to slow fading, darkening, or yellowing of the different types of plastic. It is also recommended that the length of time the pieces are on display be curtailed, so that they may be exhibited again at another point in the same condition. 

This is part of what we are doing. More to come.

For those of you who can’t wait, check these out:

Thom Yorke mournfully sings about degraded polystyrene.

(Spoiler alert?) Cellulose nitrate helps win the war in recent movie box-office hit.

More about the challenges of preserving plastics.

Also more plastics research by Jia-sun Tsang, a conservator at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute.

Comments (18)

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Awesome post, Anne! I've never been so excited about plastics. And thanks for the Museum of Jurassic Technology exhibit link.

Andy Warhol: “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to *be* plastic.”

And now I want to be plastic, too; degradation be darned!

(Merci pour le blog!)

You still got it!!!

wow Crux is amazing!

now this is what i called real museum.. cool and have high creativity..

agen bola

I do not like plastics for some reason... Global Warming may be? Well I know few people do not believe the Global Warming thing but I do and I just do not like plastics. Yet, I so love that museum. It is highly innovative :-) Good Job, Anne!

My Website -

Noo! Im using my iphone and I cant seem to be able to access the page right. I will be back to read this tonight when I get home from school. The title looks like something I need to read.


I hate plastics(material things and people). They are toxic to our environment.

My blog

The world now is almost covered with plastics. We should make an alternative way to minimize the multiplication of plastics in every places. This site is a good example of recycling plastics. This encourage a lot of people to recycle plastics. A big help to fight Global warming. Cheers for this post!

Plastic is a big problem for environment, say Global warming. When we traveled in China, there are full of white plastic bags along the railway. We must do something about it.

Thanks for writing such a great post!

Cool and awesome!

wooww veryy nicee. I would like to go there

This is so cool.

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This is so cool.

I like this web page.

awesome post, re-use of recycled objects is likely to reduce the pollution of natural

I love the way their hair goes. It is challenging to have those plastic have in real good shape.