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Art and science of conservation

Volume 6 Number 9 September 6 - October 10 2010

Paint samples being prepared in a diamond cell for infrared micro-analysis at the Australian Synchrotron in Clayton. Photograph courtesy Silpakorn University
Paint samples being prepared in a diamond cell for infrared micro-analysis at the Australian Synchrotron in Clayton. Photograph courtesy Silpakorn University

The Asia Pacific Twentieth Century Conservation Art Research Network has triggered a series of important initiatives since its establishment in 2008. Gabrielle Murphy reports on the most recent projects of this highly successful international collaboration.

Artists are by nature experimentalists. So it’s hardly surprising that researchers and conservators of Asian Pacific art have discovered an enthusiastic adoption of new materials by artists in the region, and that such experimentation has radically changed the art process, leading to the creation of revolutionary works of art.

According to the Director of the Centre for Cultural Material Conservation at The University of Melbourne, Associate Professor Robyn Sloggett, “It’s vitally important to discover how the use of new media, pigments, dyes and additives impact on modern art’s paint handling, performance and permanence.

“Such an investigation is crucial if art conservators are to get a firm grasp on how to preserve modern art, particularly for works originating from tropical climates like South-East Asia and northern areas of Australia where some of our most important, culturally significant, and valuable art is produced. But it’s also relevant for the care and conservation of works from more temperate and colder climates which are transported into tropical environments, for example, for exhibition.”

A case in point is the influential Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT), established in 1993 and described by the Queensland Art Gallery as its ‘flagship international contemporary art event’.

In 2008, an influential group of researchers from the diverse, but analogous disciplines of art history, art curatorial practice and conservation, chemistry, electrical engineering, information systems, microscopy and microanalysis came together under the collective henceforth known as the Asia Pacific Twentieth Century Conservation Art Research Network (APTCCARN).

Since its inception, APTCCARN has provided a forum for its researchers to identify, analyse and discuss paintings produced throughout the 20th century and to collaborate to explore the history and preservation of 20th-century cultural material in the Asia Pacific region.

The importance of the network and its work has been confirmed not only by the energy and commitment of its members’ indefatigable dissemination and sharing of information through international workshops and seminars, but also by its success in attracting world-leading researchers, practitioners and organisations, and the funding needed to carry out and continue to develop its work.

Itself a result of a successful Australian Research Council Linkage grant in 2003 for a project titled ‘The Behaviour of Western Artists’ Materials in Tropical Environments’ APTCCARN’s activities have gone on apace, building information systems, providing and transferring data, building online research archives, providing training, and facilitating interactive collaborations throughout the Asian Pacific region.

Work on the latest ARC Linkage-funded grant, ‘20th Century in Paint’ is now under way and brings together expertise from across The University of Melbourne (Associate Professor Robyn Sloggett and Dr Nicole Tse from the Centre of Cultural Materials Conservation, Professor Carl Schiesser of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Free Radical Chemistry and Biotechnology, and Dr Stephen Best from the School of Chemistry), and a host of national and international academics and specialist organisations including Australian state galleries and museums, the JB Vargas Museum at the University of the Philippines, Silpakorn University and SEAMEO-SPAFA in Thailand, the National Art Gallery of Malaysia, the Tate Gallery in the United Kingdom, and the USA’s Getty Conservation Institute.

Associate Professor Supanee Chayabutra, who is Director of the Material Research Centre for Art and Design at Silpakorn University and a founding member of APTCCARN, accompanied a group of doctoral students on a visit to The University of Melbourne in April. During their stay, the group took part in a symposium on ‘The Twentieth Century in Paint: Production, Deterioration and Works of Art Symposium’ at which Associate Professor Chayabutra presented the keynote lecture.

Later in the week, they spent three days in the Melbourne-based Australian Synchrotron to analyse specially-selected paint samples, comparing the ageing process of a range of new paints with seven-year-old equivalents.

“Under the Synchrotron’s infrared radiation beam, the unique characteristics of the paints will be revealed,” Associate Professor Chayabutra says.

“Consequently, we will be able to extract information about how paints age and from there, extrapolate how paints age differently in tropical compared to temperate climates.

“The findings will then be communicated in a seminar series we are presenting at Silpakorn University this August. To date, conservation research has largely been limited to European, not Asian, paintings.”

The most recent and undoubtedly the most audacious initiative of this collaboration of art conservators is a proposal for the establishment of an international Melbourne-based cultural materials research centre.

“The proposal is being led by the University of Melbourne and involves seven Australian universities and a total of 29 academic and art organisations across North America and Asia, including Silpakorn University,” says Associate Professor Sloggett.

“Although we are only in the initial stages of the process, we are optimistic of a positive outcome.”