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Shining a light on environmental directives

European Union “green” guidelines create new conundrums for museums and artists

New York

A European Union directive to reduce carbon emissions could have an unexpected consequence for works by artists such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Dan Flavin. The regulations banning 100 watt incandescent lightbulbs came into force in September last year. All incandescents will be phased out by 2012. The US will follow suit in 2014. Artists who use the incandescents in their work complain that the quality of the replacement fluorescent bulbs is a poor, grayish substitute. Meanwhile, museums are unsure of the best way to conserve works using the traditional bulbs.

Untitled (America), 1994-95, by the late Cuban-American artist Gonzalez-Torres is a work comprised of 12 lightstrings, each strand with 42 sockets and bulbs. In his original installation, the artist used 15 watt incandescent bulbs. The Whitney Museum of American Art’s proposal to loan Untitled to the Wiels Centre for Contemporary Art in Brussels for the travelling retrospective “Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Specific Objects without Specific Form” turned into an inquiry. Which bulbs, legal in the EU, might be a workable compromise? Was there middle ground between the intention of the artist and the EU mandate to protect its environment? The work went on view in Brussels in January, but with a 15 watt frosted halogen Belgian bulb, because the artist had allowed some flexibility in the use of materials. But not all artists are as accommodating as Gonzalez-Torres, warns Whitney curator Dana Miller.

Some panicked institutions are stockpiling light bulbs. But “the fact that the actual nature of the materials is so central to the meaning really does give us a new set, or a broader set, of issues to consider,” said Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, associate director for conservation at the Whitney and director of the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at the Harvard University Museums.

A case in point is the late US artist Dan Flavin. If the fluorescent bulbs central to his sculptures are banned, could his distinctive works dim and disappear? Flavin thought so. The Dan Flavin Studio in New York is already commissioning its own bulbs. Yet Steve Morse, the studio’s conservator, stressed that Flavin was not a rigid purist. “The work of art is the light, and not the light fixture,” he noted, “when asked what he created, Flavin’s response was, ‘I create situations.’ As long as it looks and performs the same way, within the parameters of the artwork as the older lamp,” Morse said, “a new or more efficient lamp is OK.”

The Flavin Studio is launching a research project with the Getty Conservation Institute and the Dia Foundation, Morse said, “to find out the exact chemical composition of the phosphores that produced the colours that Flavin liked. They are also trying to measure the colours, so that they can get some hard facts on fluorescent lighting, and have a benchmark of acceptable parameters that Flavin’s work could exist within—in case fluorescent fixtures or fluorescent lamps, are no longer available.”

Sceptics say that views on light bulbs depend on how you like your mercury—emitted from power plants, which produce extra electricity for incandescent bulbs, or from the energy-efficient bulbs themselves, which, unlike incandescents, release mercury if they break. Experts say the latter is the better choice.

Problem Paints, which contain toxic solvents and heavy metals, are also regulated in the US. After peeling layers off a Donald Judd sculpture eight years ago, Mancusi-Ungaro found that the original coating was an automobile paint, now only available to certain specialist autobody shops. “We ended up working with an antique car restorer in Massachusetts, who repainted these boxes for us, and could get get this Harley Davidson High-Low purple paint.”

“Our curators thought it was fitting. It was probably something Judd would have done anyway, and it was only on the market for a short period of time,” she said. “It sort of went full circle, even though we were forced to get the paint from Canada to be used here.”

Leading museums, from the Tate to the Getty, are looking at the sustainability of their own environmental standards. In May, Max Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, will attend the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works conference in Milwaukee to propose loosening relative humidity standards in galleries, which are now around 50%.

o Going “green” is the theme of the Association of Art Museum Directors conference, Indianapolis, 6-9 June

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 211 March 2010