It’s relatively easy to archive a painting, a drawing, a photograph, or even a sculpture—you can just take a picture (or several pictures) and add it to your files. Maybe they’re old-fashioned paper records or maybe it’s a digital archive, but the image is the central component. When we’re talking about conceptual art, however, it gets slightly more complicated. The physical piece is no longer central. Instead, the art is in the concept itself. So, how do you archive conceptual art?
What Classifies as Conceptual Art?
Some types of art are relatively easy to pin down. Did you put paint on a canvas? That’s a painting. Did you cast a figure in bronze? That’s a sculpture. Conceptual art, on the other hand, is a little trickier. It separates the idea from the object(s) used to represent it. For example, take Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, originally performed in 1964. In it, she invited audience members onstage to cut off her clothing, one piece at a time—they got to keep the pieces they cut off.
When you’re dealing with conceptual art, it’s often difficult to determine what constitutes the work itself. In Cut Piece, the work is her performance as well as the concept behind it. But does that mean Ono herself is the artwork? Is it the cut-up pieces of her clothing? What about the audience that did the actual cutting? This question is easiest to see in terms of purchasing and owning art. Can you own an idea? Could you purchase Cut Piece and put it in your home? Consider Dan Flavin, who works with fluorescent lights. With each piece, he provides a certificate of authenticity. This, to him, is practically the work itself. He won’t replace a certificate that has been destroyed or lost—even if it’s clear that the piece is original.
In some instances, the artists purposefully seek to avoid traditional definitions of art, sometimes going so far as to leave their own names off of their work. Take, for example, the Fluxus movement started by George Maciunas in the late 1950s. The members of this movement celebrated the use of everyday objects and the element of chance in their works, sometimes creating one-off pieces that could never be replicated.
So How on Earth do We Archive Conceptual Art?
It’s not as straightforward as archiving other types of art, but archiving conceptual art is just as important. As an artist, curator, collector or gallerist, you want to be able to organize your collection along with all the important information about each piece. The specifics are going to vary based on the work itself. For an artwork like Cut Piece, you might want to take a video along with information about the date, location, photographs, artist notes, and drawings of the set. You might take a photograph of a Lawrence Weiner piece from various angles, and then keep a detailed record of how it’s set up. If it’s a Fluxus-style one-time event, consider taking videos and photographs and assembling them along with the artist’s notes, props, and accompanying drawings as an “archive” in itself.
Ultimately, whatever other information you collect about the piece of conceptual art, be sure to keep that certificate of authenticity. You may want to make a copy of it for your digital records and you’ll definitely need to keep the original somewhere safe. It’s not a bad idea to use a safe or a bank deposit box, since the entire monetary value of conceptual art frequently rests on that certificate.
If anything, the ephemeral nature of conceptual art makes archiving even more important. You’re recording an idea and a memory that you can revisit—they might simply be lost to time otherwise. If you’re a student or an artist, you’re also building a portfolio of your work. If you’re a collector, you’re ensuring that the pieces you love live on. The artists put a huge amount of work and love into each piece of art they create, conceptual or otherwise, and often the only thing that’s left is an archival record. We don’t want these beautiful and challenging works to slip away.
Taking The Art Off The Wall
Conceptual art occupies a unique space in the art world, divorced as it is from the aesthetic and visual objects themselves. That also makes it uniquely vulnerable—it’s often difficult to store or reproduce, limiting its potential exposure and lifespan. Preservation and exposure are crucial for art in general, but particularly so for conceptual art where only a select few will have the opportunity to experience it in person. Conceptual art may be off the wall, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be in your archive along with all the physical artworks you love.