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MTI Workshop: The Art of Decay

Monday, May 2, 2016
9:00am to 5:00pm
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Materialities, Texts and Images Workshop 2016: The Art of Decay

Unlike architectural ruins, the decayed work of art is not readily fetishized. Its deterioration is not necessarily the result of direct exposure to the elements, the ravages of war or the elapse of many centuries, but rather forces more mysterious. It is as if an airborne virus seeped into the interior, leaving a gradual mark in the form of chilled varnish, faded color or a rash-like craquelure. Visually and methodologically disturbing, the decayed artwork represents the thwarting of human purpose, or culture marred by nature.

Yet while western civilization is built on the denial of this process—on myths of progress, purity and eternal beauty—one can trace a compulsion toward decay that subsists beneath the surface of history. Technical risk, experiment and desire to simulate certain effects reveal a disregard for monumental permanence. These impulses can be seen to prefigure the emergence, in the twentieth century, of such politically-charged movements as Gustav Metzger's "Auto-Destructive Art" and the Cretti of Alberto Burri. Overturning traditional notions of aesthetic contemplation and sensuous materiality, the decayed artwork is, to borrow Giorgio Agamben's phrase, a "true emblem of modernity."

Bringing together conservators, artists and scholars across disciplines this workshop stages an intervention. It seeks to remove the decayed artwork from the obscurity of the museum store, so to speak, and build a framework for the visual and methodological perception of condition. The decayed artwork takes center stage in order to grasp its significance and untapped potentiality both within and beyond the history of art. How does the material mediate the relationship between the visual and the temporal? What are the creative uses of volatile substances? How have encounters with decayed objects conditioned artistic practices? Can the damaged materiality of art objects be considered in the context of other types of decay—moral, urban, spiritual, for example? The very essence of art, even  of life itself, is implicated in these questions. Indeed the human form is also subject to decay, and in nineteenth century texts works of art are frequently invoked as living beings. The object itself becomes a vanitas symbol, forcing an awareness of our own mortality. In an culture marked by an aversion to the ageing process, the decayed artwork demands an unusual degree of empathy.

Speakers Include:

Petra Lange-Berndt (University of Hamburg)
Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby (University of California Berkeley)
Leslie Dick (California Institute of the Arts)
Joris van Gastel (Biblioteca Herziana)
Devi Ormond (Getty Conservation Institute)
John Griswold (Norton Simon Museum)


Cora Gilroy-Ware
2015-16 Materialities, Texts and Images Fellow at the Huntington/Caltech

To RSVP please register here.

For more information, please contact Sini Elvington by phone at 626-395-1724 or by email at [email protected].