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Edition #9
Transitions and Resolutions

Sabrina Harverson
Edited by Lizzie Rose

Art Objects on the Move

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Monet, Claude, Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat, oil on canvas, 1874, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.


Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers, ‘Change: Beyond Our Time: Entropy and Icebergs’, in Time, Duration and Change in Contemporary Art Beyond the Clock, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2019)


Miriam Clavir, ‘The Social and Historic Construction of Professional Values in Conservation’, Studies in Conservation, 1, (1998), 1-8.


Monet, Claude, Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat, oil on canvas, 1874, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. 


Jérôme Denis and David Pontille, ‘Material Ordering and the Care of Things’, Science, Technology & Human Values, 3, (2015), 338-367


Fernando Domínguez Rubio, Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum, (Chicago; London: Chicago Press, 2020)


Prigogine, Ilya and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature, (London: Heinemann, 1984)

What can we learn from Claude Monet’s Argenteuil basin with a Single Sailboat? A work extensively conserved in 2014 for 18 months by Ireland’s National Gallery. What do we see when we look at it? I am talking about the medium, the oil paint which creates the whole nautical scene. A single sailboat on the Seine at Argenteuil on a bright day and crimson-coloured trees bordering the banks. The canvas on which the paint sits. What are we doing when we conserve an object?


Art objects, especially Impressionist oil paintings, portray scenes of a particular time, conveying or evoking particular emotions and triggering an array of interpretations and responses. But that is not our focus. These art objects are on the move, ever transitioning. An interesting juxtaposition when we consider the fixed scene which Monet rendered and the medium which is the enabler of the tale in Argenteuil basin. 


Art conservation (generally speaking) attempts to fix an object. Repair the cracks, noticeable and microscopic, the flaking paint, the dull pigmentation from years of dirt and the canvas, its backing, its construction and even the frame (if it has one). There is an expectation that art objects should not change or shift, paint should not flake, objects in a scene should not become unrecognisable from years of pollution (Clavir, 1998, p.1) When an artwork is damaged or worse vandalised, we want it as exactly as before. But have you ever considered that this way of thinking, this discourse, is going against the rules of the universe?


Of course, we want to keep artworks in the best condition possible for future generations among other things, but  this notion is interesting when we consider everything will come undone. What is not apparent when we enter a museum is the relentless work of conservators that goes into trying to hide these transitory states of the artwork, this change and constant shift (Domínguez Rubio, 2020, p. 15). For example, could we ever tell from looking at Argenteuil basin that it was vandalised and then subsequently painstakingly conserved over 18 months? 


We often talk about an object's degradation or change as a ‘vulnerability’ (Denis & Pontille, 2015, p. 139). But should this be the case if it's expected? For one we can never return to the “original'' state of an art object, and it creates a tension between art objects and the discourse out there that demands sameness (Domínguez Rubio, p. 88). But why, you may ask? What theories out there that govern the universe may help us come to terms with these transitory states of art objects?


The chemist Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, a philosopher of science, were proponents and researchers in chaos theory. Chaos theory generally states that most phenomena or objects are open systems that interact with our environment. Interestingly, these open systems interacting with the environment are chaotic in the sense that we do not know which direction they will take. It is in this sense they are unpredictable (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984, p. 87).   Prigogine and Stengers introduced the idea of entropy in their book Order out of Chaos which was published in 1984 (Prigogine & Stengers). 


You may wonder, what is entropy and why is it relevant here? Entropy is the measure of order or disorder within a system and linked specifically to the 2nd law of thermodynamics (Brettkelly-Chalmers, 2019, p. 160). The 2nd law of thermodynamics states that there is an inevitable loss of energy in the universe (Prigogine & Stengers, p.89). By Prigogine and Stengers linking these ideas to entropy, it contextualised reversible and irreversible processes. On earth, reversible processes are a rare occurrence except in a vacuum. An example of entropy in relation to irreversible processes is melting ice, it will never refreeze on its own. This means objects that undergo irreversible processes can never go back to how they were arranged before. Since most processes on Earth are irreversible, it is exactly why Prigogine and Stengers argued that disorder is the rule of the universe. This is why we cannot dictate how objects should or will behave. They are always on the move. 


What do we do with this information? How do scientific conundrums help us? Stengers and Prigogine argued being opposed to change is a bad thing. This is because innovation and discoveries are not a static thing. Therefore, we should not be driving towards an absolute original with an art object but rather bear in mind and embrace certain changes. Moreover, Prigogine and Stengers argued that “order” arises out of disorder, new emergent structures arise from disorder (Prigogine and Stengers, p. 2). Thus we could say that collective changes should be embraced to a certain extent rather than trying to force a work like Argenteuil basin back to a state it was in before. Simply because we cannot. It is the only way in which there would be a resolution and the only way we can and must work with art objects and any objects for that matter.  Therefore, our resolution with art objects on the move, is that their transitory states have potential, a potential to learn new things from which innovation may arise. If we consider this with all objects more generally in the world, transitions don’t seem to be such a bad thing after all.

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