Decomposing art: How museum professionals treat living matter

Note from the Editor: For this bite, we break from our usual content—synopses of previously published research—to bring you an introduction to an interesting topic in conservation. We have invited Megan DiNoia, a graduate intern at the Getty Conservation Institute, to write a bite introducing us to the fascinating world of living matter. If this bite inspires any interesting thoughts, please comment below—we would love if Megan’s bite were to foster stimulating discussions!   

How might an art conservator approach a mosaic made from thousands of butterflies, large-scale tapestries woven out of poppy stems, a refrigerated replica of a human face made from pints of human blood, or figures intricately sculpted out of chocolate? Countless contemporary artworks, like these examples by Damien Hirst, Anya Gallaccio, Marc Quinn, and Mathieu Kilapi Kasiama, contain biological materials—food, bodily fluids and tissues, plants, animals, and animal parts—that pose specific and extreme challenges for museums, conservators, and collectors. Prone to rapid decay, putrefaction, and eventual disappearance, these artworks are not built to last, making them risky objects to exhibit and preserve for future generations of museum-goers.

Not only do these artworks have limited lifespans, but they are often created with the intention for them to disappear. Thus, the very act of conservation becomes an ethical issue. A poignant example of this is Adrián Villar Rojas’s site-specific installation Theater of Disappearance (2017), in which organic material like fruit peels and raw clay are left to grow mold and decompose on the gallery floor, while giant slabs of raw meat, apples, potatoes, and even a human skeleton slowly rot away in glass vitrines. The subject of this work is decay, which intrinsically conflicts with museum policies and collectors’ investments, as well as the conservator’s mission to protect and preserve cultural objects. How might, and better yet, should, one preserve a work of art that is designed specifically not to be preserved?

Installation view of Adrián Villar Rojas: The Theater of Disappearance, October 22, 2017–May 13, 2018 at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, image courtesy of the artist, kurimanzutto, Mexico City and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris / London, photo by Studio Michel Zabé.

The ethics surrounding these artworks extend beyond the artist’s intent, however, as exhibitions featuring live animals and even microscopic living bacteria garner backlash from activist groups and less-than-positive attention in the media (an interesting discussion of which you can read here). Institutions, artists, and art historians—charged with protecting cultural heritage and the freedom of artistic expression—have become entangled in tricky discussions about the rights and ethical treatment of living animals. Similarly, artworks made from other controversial materials—human bones, hair, feces, blood, skin, urine—require even more careful care and handling due to concerns about safety and contamination, in addition to the inevitable controversy over morals and even appropriateness of such works.

Biological material as artistic media poses complex issues that require unorthodox methods and far more case-specific and collaborative approaches to collection, display, and conservation than more traditional artistic materials. A compelling example of this collaborative effort is the installation Lo que mata es la humedad (What Kills is Humidity) by Uruguayan artist Federico Arnaud at the Juan Manuel Blanes Museum in Prado, Montevideo. Though the work contains objects that one would not be surprised to encounter in a work of contemporary art—video, desk, chair, lamp, photo album—it also contains living insects and fungus, two of a museum’s most vilified pests. An interdisciplinary team of museum staff, curators, exhibition designers, architects, chemists, conservators, and the artist himself developed a method of freezing the live materials to reduce the risk of contaminating the remainder of the museum’s collection (not to mention its unsuspecting human visitors), while maintaining the pests’ ecosystems within the work.

In a similarly collaborative case, Cuban performance artist Carlos Martiel consulted pathologists, hospital labs, tattoo specialists, leather manufacturers, and taxidermists, as well as medical collections and natural history texts on the preservation of human remains in preparation for his 2014 work Award Martiel, Carlos, which consists of a piece of the artist’s surgically removed skin that was desiccated and sealed in a gold medal. Martiel’s multifaceted and interdisciplinary research resulted in two solutions for the necessarily unconventional treatment of the artist’s skin and the artwork’s continued care.

Finally, the work of contemporary textile bioartist WhiteFeather Hunter demonstrates a seamlessly symbiotic relationship between scientific technology and artistic creativity, relying on her background in the speculative biology lab to inform her artistic practice. Hunter teamed up with designer and biofabricator Théo Chauvirey to create Bucci (2017), a garment made from a specially designed bacterial cellulose film, developed using SCOBY, the bacteria present in the fermentation of kombucha. The design subsequently deteriorated, which inspired yet another collaboration with conservator Courtney Books. Books and Hunter tested various materials—collagen, sugars, preservatives—as well as osmotic treatments like dehydration and capillary transfer of fluids. Using these methods, they were able to develop a stable, functional biological textile that the artist now incorporates into new designs.

In Mexico City in June 2019, the symposium Living Matter/Materia Viva: The Preservation of Biological Materials Used in Contemporary Art will present these and a number of other case studies. The symposium will offer an overview of current thinking and practices on the topic of living matter in contemporary art and will discuss the challenges associated with collecting, displaying, and preserving these works. Co-organized by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in Los Angeles and Mexico City-based institutions, Museo Universitario Arte Contemporaneo (MUAC) and Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografía (ENCRyM), the three-day symposium invites conservators, conservation scientists, museum curators, collectors, art historians, and artists to present papers, to participate in panel discussions, and to visit museums and galleries with examples of art containing living matter.

For more information about Living Matter/Materia Viva, please see the preliminary program here:

The symposium will be in English and Spanish with simultaneous translation provided, and proceedings from the symposium will be published by the GCI.

If you are interested in attending the symposium, please register here:

(Note: Details of this post were corrected on April 17, 2019 to give appropriate credit to those involved in the Hunter/Books collaboration, previously misidentified as a Hunter/Chauvirey collaboration.)

One thought on “Decomposing art: How museum professionals treat living matter

  1. Thanks Megan for this write up. It is very insightful and thought provoking. It is in line with my presentation and write up for this Getty symposium on the preservation of biological materials in contemporary art.


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