The Decay of Nature, Suspended


Great artworks have staying power — intellectually, if not always physically. Many contemporary artists use fragile or ephemeral materials that pose a challenge to collections care in museums. When it happens that a remarkable yet vulnerable work is offered to us for the New Mexico Museum of Art’s collection, we turn to the museum system’s conservators to advise us about the challenges that will face us if we acquire it. They analyze the materials and their longevity, consult with the artist when possible, and let us know how to best care for the work in order to prolong its life, or to suspend its inevitable decay. Sometimes this plan of care includes the conservators’ intervention to stabilize or restore a piece.Tasha Ostrander’s Seventy-three in a Moment, consisting of 26,645 paper butterflies, is a recent acquisition that posed such a conservation challenge for the museum.

Ostrander’s 10-foot-diameter butterfly mandala has been called “magnificent and telling,” “delicate,” “resilient,” and “a visual wonder.” She created the piece in 1996, xeroxing, cutting, staining, numbering, and interleaving the thousands of butterflies in a series of concentric circles. The number 26,645 represented the number of days in the average life span of an American in 1996 — seventy-three years. This work is, in essence, a meditation on life and death in which the art asks the question: if you knew how long you had to live, how would you live your days? The use of the butterflies is a metaphor for the brevity of life (butterflies have a short life span) and the idea of metamorphosis.

When she created the piece, Ostrander did all of the work herself, eight hours a day, seven days a week, for an entire year. The labor-intensiveness of the project was an important aspect of creating the meaning of the work. Because the work takes the form of a mandala, it reinforces its own symbolism as a meditative work or spiritual endeavor. To have the 26,645 butterflies seen in one glance is to demonstrate the intensity of a lifetime in a single moment.

When the artwork was offered in 2012 to the New Mexico Museum of Art as a donation by William Siegal, who purchased the piece in 1996, it was clear that to accept it into the collection meant there would be a significant restoration project ahead. Conservator Mina Thompson came with me to Siegal’s home to assess the piece before the collections committee meeting. The mandala had been in a sheltered but open-air space for a number of years, and it became a favorite for all variety of creatures: spiders spun their webs across it, birds absconded with bits and pieces of paper for their nests, a cat once took a swipe at it and removed a chunk of butterflies, and during the conservation process intern Crista Pack even found shed lizard skin. Moreover, some of the materials the artist had originally used were contributing to the piece’s own deterioration over time: the butterflies are xeroxed on regular copy paper, which is acidic; they are mounted to Masonite, also highly acidic; and in order to give the piece some “sparkle,” Ostrander had splattered gum arabic over the surface, and it had become dry and crusty over time. Nonetheless, Thompson felt that the piece could be repaired and brought back to life, so to speak.

For six months, the Conservation Department worked to bring Seventy-three in a Moment back to its former glory. In the accompanying sidebar, Crista Pack describes the treatments she used to restore the piece. Significantly, the artist enthusiastically and very generously participated, sharing her materials and process with Pack and Thompson, creating new butterflies, and helping to interleave and adhere them. Her labor of love involved, once again, the daily repetitive practice of photocopying, cutting, and staining. It was, in essence, a full-time job. Ostrander worked at home but was also a frequent visitor to the downtown Conservation Lab, working side by side with Pack and Thompson. Along the way, the artist and conservators always discussed the hows and whys of the project. Though it was tempting to make changes, they were always guided by the original piece and Ostrander’s intent in 1996.

My role was as an observer and occasional decision maker. They consulted me periodically, and it was always thrilling to walk across the street to the lab to see the progress. I was amazed at the mundane nature of many of the tools of the trade: hair clips from the pharmacy to hold together the paper butterflies, dark roast coffee from Ohori’s coffee shop in Santa Fe for staining, a makeshift gauze cover wrapped around the end of a mini vacuum hose, and tiny Ziplocs filled with sand to weigh down wings that wanted to curl. What was not mundane at all was the level of knowledge and care that Pack and Thompson brought to the project.

As the deadline approached for the exhibition opening at the museum for Collecting Is Inquiry / Collecting Is Curiosity, Ostrander and the conservation team humidified the last butterflies, carefully touched up the edge wings with pastel pencils, and added the last new interlocking butterflies. Although they were mindful of remaining true to the original intent and appearance of the piece, the exact count of butterflies is unknown at this point. With the added butterflies, they likely number more than the original 26,645. “It’s now more like eighty-three in a moment,” Ostrander remarked. And with the care the conservators gave to Seventy-three in a Moment, it’s likely that the life expectancy of the mandala has increased for posterity as well.

Laura Addison is curator of contemporary art at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Tasha Ostrander’s piece Seventy-three in a Moment is on view in the exhibition Collecting Is Inquiry / Collecting Is Curiosity through January 19, 2014.