Imagine yourself standing in a dark, cavernous space: a perfectly square room with a high ceiling and black walls so dark that the clean, glossy white floor seems suspended in space. In the center of the room a tall metal tower beams light and emits the robotic sounds of computer-controlled motors. Two thin, white vertical lines continuously sweep the perimeter of the room, scanning slowly across the space. Subtle pinging tones emit from around the space, and occasionally you hear echoes of fragmented whispers. Projected from the tower onto the walls of the room are videos of five nude human figures. Luminous and ghostly in appearance, they walk the perimeter in slow motion, pausing periodically to stand in one place, and embrace the empty space in front of them. Sometimes these figures overlap, such that they embrace each other, before one of them slowly fades away. One of the figures never rests or pauses to embrace; he simply paces the room, back and forth, until you, the viewer, cross his path. The figure slowly stops, turns to you, and, while gazing at you, holds his arms out at his sides, parallel to the ground. At this same moment, the vertical lines that had been sweeping the room swing around to bisect him, forming a large crosshair. Eventually, the figure slowly falls backwards, as if from a precipice, and disappears.
This scene I have described is the artwork Lovers (1994) by Teiji Furuhashi (1960–95). The interactive figure is, in fact, an image of the artist himself, who at the time of the work’s creation was fighting a battle against AIDS. One year after the work’s completion—and shortly after its inaugural exhibition at MoMA—Furuhashi sadly lost this fight. Last week, July 13, would have been his 56th birthday. For the past few months my colleagues and I have been deeply engaged in an ambitious restoration of this artwork in preparation for its first exhibition at MoMA in over two decades.
Two of MoMA’s most important mandates are related to its collection: exhibition and preservation. It may then come as a surprise to some that these two aspects of the Museum’s mission are often in opposition to one another, and must be kept in a careful balance. Physical objects are all, to varying degrees, subject to change. Be it through exposure to light, environmental factors such as temperature and humidity, or movement during shipping and handling, the hazards introduced through exhibiting artworks are many. Time-based media artworks also face this fundamental balancing act of exhibition and presentation. For example, the longer a video projector runs, the shorter its life will be. Every second a cathode ray tube television displays an image, its screen dims just so slightly, eventually rendering it dead forever. Managing these risks and keeping the imperatives of exhibition and preservation in balance is a daily occupation of museum conservators and their colleagues.
With time-based media artworks, however, the display vs. longevity paradox is counterbalanced in a way that is unique to the medium: if we don’t periodically exhibit time-based media installation works, they will inevitably fall victim to obsolescence, or silently die in storage. Furthermore, during the long periods of time that pass between these works’ appearances in the galleries, institutional knowledge may be lost. It is for these reasons that exhibition holds a new kind of significance to the mission of the museum. Taking time-based media works out of storage, and preparing them for exhibition, is in many ways a fundamental enabler of preservation. It is the process by which these complex artworks with many moving parts become reanimated. Through this ritual of exhibition the institution reaffirms its ability to properly care for the work and ensure its longevity.
As I type these words I am sitting inside the gallery where Lovers will make its next public appearance. Although the exhibition does not open until July 30, we have spent the past month with the artwork fully installed in the gallery as we complete its full restoration. This serves as a great example of MoMA’s enduring commitment to the stewardship of important and complex time-based media installations, which challenge us to expand our established models of collection, exhibition, and preservation. Until the work opens, you can come to MoMA and see behind the scenes as we complete our restoration of Furuhashi’s work. In my next post, I will explore the process of this restoration, which has taken us from such obsolete and aging materials as MS-DOS and LaserDiscs to Mac OS X and Arduino.