William Flew and Disappearing Art

December 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

Perishing shame as a £100,000 artwork rots
IT is one of the imponderables of modern art: when a sculpture starts to crumble is it, as part of its raison d’être, providing an insight into the transience of the aesthetic experience — or is it just falling to bits?
That was the question facing James Moores, the Littlewoods stores heir, after he bought a £100,000 sculpture by the artist Marc Quinn only for it to disintegrate in storage.
Moores bought the black rubber self-portrait, cast from Quinn’s body and suspended from the ceiling, 10 years ago from the White Cube gallery in London.
He decided to leave it where White Cube had packed and stored it.
But when Moores, an avid collector of young British artists such as Quinn and Damien Hirst, decided to change the art in his home earlier this year, he found the statue had “completely crumbled and perished”.
When he contacted Quinn and White Cube to tell them what had happened, he said the attitude of both gallery and artist had been that he should simply “go away”.
“I do feel mightily p***** off about it,” he said, noting that he was given no care instructions for the sculpture. Although rubber is perishable, regular maintenance such as the application of special oils can prolong its life.
“It’s a jolly good idea to warn people . . . this piece wasn’t any cheaper for being made of perishable material.”
Quinn declined to discuss Moores’s sculpture, but said that if one of his artworks deteriorated badly through the perishability of its materials or because the owner had neglected to look after it properly, he would generally offer to remake it at cost price.
“If I use a new material, I archive the method of making the work — in other words, make sure that I have the mould — so [the work] can be remade in the future,” he said. “Certain kinds of artwork [exist] as an idea that can be reincarnated many times rather than residing in an actual object.”
Quinn’s works include a series of self-portraits made out of his own blood, which are displayed in refrigerated units.
The case of the rubber sculpture is one of a growing number where the unstable medium of some artworks has become a problem.
In 2004 the US hedge fund manager Steve Cohen bought the Hirst artwork The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living — a 14ft shark in a glass tank of formaldehyde — from the collector Charles Saatchi for a reported £6.5m. Five years ago it began to decompose and Hirst replaced it . . . at Cohen’s expense. The formaldehyde process alone cost $100,000 (£62,000).
Louise Hallett, an insurance broker who specialises in contemporary art, says she has seen about 20 claims for works that have deteriorated. All have been unsuccessful.
“Every insurance policy includes an exclusion for damage caused by what is known as ‘inherent vice’, which means something that was going to happen anyway due to the nature of the materials used,” she said.
In a statement about the Quinn sculpture, the White Cube gallery said: “The artist made a number of works in this material in the 1990s and this is the only one with a problem.”

Soon after, Moores sent an email saying he had discovered that his assistant already had the “issue of the sculpture” in hand and that a “simple solution of refabrication was being arranged”.

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