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The Art of the Stamp:
A Victoria,BC Love Story

Kimerly Rorschach: Seattle Art Museum Director

Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker: Frye Art Museum Director

A thousand cuts won't kill the arts, but small cuts, are extremely irritating

Organized or Disorganized Crime: Either way, steal art and you're likely to get caught.

Art for Drugs: The connections between art theft and drug addiction.

Inherent Vice: Why some artworks contain the seed of their own demise.

Maurice Spira, untitled

New phytosanitary regulations an added wrinkle to shipping art.

  Behind the Scenes


Inherent Vice

This “Behind the Scenes” topic is not about the illicit proclivities of gallery personnel that are hidden from public view. No such luck.

Bagged Landscape

Ingrid and Iain Baxter, Bagged Landscape (1966), vinyl, 73 x 58 x 8 cm

“Inherent vice” is somewhat akin to the innate (bad and potentially self-destructive) behaviour triggered by the bit of DNA that impels a person to over-indulgence and, through excess, die prematurely. A similar flaw exists in certain artworks. Because of their inherent natures, such pieces will degrade over time or suffer from conditions (or other factors) in their surroundings that will diminish their effectiveness. Art depends on professionals: to detect their problems; to slow or stop the progress of their ‘maladies’ and where possible, to endow them with eternal life.

Conservator Monica Smith of the Vancouver Art Gallery is responsible for inspecting art objects. On Condition Report Forms there is a box beside the words “inherent vice.” If it is ticked, measures might be taken to stabilize (or ‘cure’) the piece before it is put on display or accepted into the collection.

According to Rebecca Pavitt, another local expert in the field, inherent vice is a problem because, “Artists make art out of the darnest things.” Every gallery worker has one or more ‘inherent vice’ stories that they enjoy telling.

My eyes popped out when I saw ants marching towards an animal fat sculpture at the Surrey Art Gallery to claim it as their prize. The insects were doing what nature compelled them to do in response to the ‘scent’ of the lard—an ingredient more fitting for a pie. A more horrifying invasion of picnic pests took place in Toronto’s Power Plant Gallery when two Mexican artists painted a mural using human fat as ‘paint’. According to Vancouver curator Keith Wallace, by the third day, the ‘goop’ was alive with ants and the smell was unbearable.

Artists sometimes encourage, accept and even accelerate the deterioration of a piece by shining hot lights on the vegetation or bottom-of-the-food-chain creatures it includes. More typically, however, artists don’t want anything too detrimental to occur. This was undoubtedly the case with Liz Magor’s 1977 Time and Mrs. Tibor installation that the VAG exhibited just as the artist was gaining prominence.

Time and Mrs. Tibor was an installation of Magor’s deceased neighbour’s wooden pantry that had been part of her tumbled-down farm house. On its shelves were Mrs. Tibor’s own preserves along with Magor’s newly canned jars of wild flowers. The sculpture was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada and shortly thereafter some substances in the jars began to ferment. Extraordinary measures were taken to eliminate the inherent vice so that Time and Mrs. Tibor could have an eternal, problem free-life.

Many of the N.E.Thing Company’s ‘bagged’ vinyl landscapes, plastic inflatable abstract shapes, low-relief vacuum-formed or crushed container sculptures that were produced in the mid to late ‘60’s are not ageing well. This is due to the tendency of some plastics to bio-degrade, especially when exposed to heat and light. Some, but not these works, have become brittle and discoloured. Neither flaw can be reversed, but some pieces can be stabilized under certain conditions. In this case, it is up to fate and conservators to determine how long the works survive.

Ann Rosenberg is a freelance curator, critic and author.


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