Monday, 25 January 2016

The Peculiar Challenge of Conserving an Artwork Made of Tortillas

Preserving and protecting artworks made with unusual materials is something that comes with the job for Esther Chao in her position as Conservator, Objects, at the Guggenheim Museum. But the MAP exhibition Under the Same Sun: Art for Latin America Today—now on view at Mexico City’s Museo Jumex—has presented her with some particularly off-the-wall media. “A lot of these works are a little challenging, a little different,” she explains in the video above. “It’s because they have a lot of live elements—things that are not traditionally used as art materials.” Indeed, visitors who stroll through the exhibition at Jumex will encounter such nontraditional materials as fruit, in Gabriel Sierra’s work Hang It All (from Stepmothernature) (2006); a live plant, in Wilfredo Prieto’s Walk (2000); and towels, in Adriano Costa’s Straight from the House of Trophies—Ouro Velho (2013).
Among the knottiest conservation problems posed by Under the Same Sun is that of Mexican artist Damián Ortega’s piece Tortillas Construction Module (1998). As the title might suggest, the work is constructed entirely of corn tortillas—made by the artist’s mother. Delicately slotted together in a geometric structure, the sculpture’s edible components have a limited shelf life, of course, and as Chao points out, “All of a sudden we have to think about keeping these preserved for years.”
There’s one way that Chao can ensure that Ortega’s work will live on: keep a stock of tortillas in reserve. “We wanted to make sure we had extra sets so that if anything should happen in the future, that we were able to have extra tortillas to be able to keep creating this artwork as needed,” says the conservator. This is especially important as the parameters of the work allow it to be reconfigured using larger numbers of the cornmeal snacks. So, when the Guggenheim acquired Ortega’s piece, it was accompanied by 157 extra tortillas, ensuring that the work—and the culinary creations of the artist’s mother—will be preserved in the Guggenheim Collection for many years to come.
Under the Same Sun: Art for Latin America Today (Bajo un mismo sol: arte de América Latina hoy) was on view at Museo Jumex until 7 February 2016 and at the South London Gallery from 10 June - 11 September.

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