Unruly Objects and Biological Conservation

Anna Dumitriu is collaborating with the Department of Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art at The University of Western Attica in Athens (Greece) to explore the biology and chemistry of conservation through an active collaboration with the department’s leader Professor Georgios Panagiaris. In his lab Professor Panagiaris’ team explore the biochemistry of bacteria and yeasts to produce microbes that are able to aid in the preservation of artworks and antiquities rather than destroy them and are attempting to work with the microbiomes of artworks to help stabilise their decay.

Work in progress – carving the marble

Dumitriu is collaborating with the research team to explore the ethics and risks of such a strategy and discuss how these ideas will impact the preservation of contemporary “unruly objects” (Rubio, 2014) such as her BioArt works (made with bacteria and yeasts), including her own artistic experiments inspired by the lab’s research, thus kick-starting discussions around the preservation of contemporary BioArt in the context of a major institution. Due to the nature of materials used in BioArt works, museums are often very cautious about collecting them. This project aims to explore the field of biological conservation and question what materials are acceptable in a museum environment.

Work in progress – painting the sculpture

The project explores and challenges notions and methodologies of conservation, including the use of blockchain technologies as a means of storage for the provenance of the artwork, of the artist’s authentic documentation, and the artist’s intentions.

Work in progress – adding SARS-CoV-2 RNA

A series of ‘sketches’ or tools for thinking about this process are being developed, in the form of three carved pieces of reclaimed marble. Dumitriu has power-carved the marble based on scanning electron microscope images of the micro-organisms that eat away at antiquities and images of the damaged stone (the SEM images were created by Athanasios Karabotsos). The holes are carved because conservator Zoe Sakki said that these, bacteria and plant roots are the greatest challenges to her work in preserving ancient Greek antiquities.

Work in progress – the painted sculptures with a Winogradsky Column

The painting references how ancient Greek statues were originally brightly painted and looked nothing like our modern notion of classical art. When the colour (or some other aspect) disappears from a modern artwork that work is usually hidden from view (retired to the archive).

Work in progress – adding the mud from the Winogradsky Column

The work also includes biological material including mud from a bacterial ecosystem known as a Winogradsky Column, Common Cress seeds, and SARS-CoV-2 RNA (coronavirus) from a plasmid construct. This last element is a safe, non-infectious reagent for SARS-CoV-2 research (NIBSC 19/304), obtained from the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, UK. SARS-CoV-2 RNA was supplied by researchers Dr Ines Moura and Dr Jane Freeman at the University of Leeds who are working with the SARS-CoV-2 primers and the RNA construct in the development and use of a RT-PCR assay for SARS-CoV-2 detection in faeces.

Work in progress – adding the seeds

The works also contain RFID tags sealed in resin – these also point to the location of the project documentation, so that the works also physically include their own instructions for the conservator. This can often be very difficult to track down.

Work in progress – three marble sculptures with paint, RNA, Winogradsky column mud, seeds, and RFID tag
The three sketches complete with plant and bacteria growth

Through discussions in this project Dumitriu learned that a key element in conservation is to preserve to story of the object and it seems that Dumitriu’s alterations of historical artefacts in works such as Pneumothorax Machine, or Blue Henry are in line with this, they help the objects better communicate their relevance and meaning. So in a way Dumitriu’s work can be seen as a form of conceptual conservation. In fact the three sketches for this project themselves reveal the processes and challenges of conservation and can perhaps be seen as conserving conservation.

This sketch is retained by the artist who will observe and intervene in the decay process

The three sketches will be split up and experience different fates: the first will remain with the artist who will observe its changes and try to capture and preserve its decay at the most beautiful point. This is inspired by a visit to a former prison in the United States where the curators are attempting to suspend it in a state of partial (but beautiful decay) which Dumitriu visited in Philadelphia.

This sketch is embedded in a Winogradsky Column (bacterial ecosystem)

A second sketch will be buried in a Winogradsky Column where the bacteria there will interact with it (the result cannot be anticipated). Every few years the decay will be observed and documented.

The third sketch will be sent to the University of Western Attica where Athanasios Karabotsos will look at it under his scanning electron microscope and conservator Zoe Sakki will undertake conservation work. Also working with Zoe Sakki, Athanasios Velios and Alex May, the documentation and provenance of the works will be stored on the blockchain and more details about this process will be shared publicly when it has been achieved. Part of this involves collating and storing every bit of artist’s documentation possible, and subsequent conservation reports.

The project is undertaken in collaboration with Georgios Panagiaris (University of Western Attica (Department of Antiquities and Works of Art) and his colleagues (internal and external) including Athanasios Karabotsos, Zoe Sakki, Veroniki Korakidou, Helia Marçal (UCL), Athanasios Velios (UAL), Alex May, Ekaterini Malea, Maria Chatzidaki, Andreas Sabatakos, Alexis Stefanis, Anastasios Koutsouris, and Leonidas Karampinis.

The project received funding from an A-N Artists Bursary 2020 (extended to 2021 due to the COVID-19 Pandemic).