Capturing the Ephemeral

Arnold Arboretum during Fog x FLO’s Fog x Fall

Melissa Ostrow
Arnold Arboretum during Fog x FLO’s Fog x Fall
How artists, collectors, curators and museums value memory

How artists, collectors, curators and museums value memory.

Melissa Ostrow

Fujiko Nakaya and Jen Mergel with the Fens Fog Sculpture, Fog x FLO’s Fog x Canopy.

“I believe there is a significant difference between temporary and truly ‘ephemeral’ art: one can be recreated and the other can never be repeated, never the same twice.”

Jen Mergel

The way we consume and think about art and culture in recent years has moved toward the participatory. Perhaps this is in response to the isolating aspects of our digitized lives, ruled increasingly by devices and Artificial Intelligence, with emphasis on the “artificial.” In our search for what is real, we gravitate to artists whose work can literally, physically touch us and move us emotionally through a time-based experience.

Much of the early work in this direction, like British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy’s earthworks, was created in response to a specific site with the understanding that the art would eventually melt away, worn down by the elements. Environmental concerns play an important role to many artists who create work today that may disappear tomorrow. Jen Mergel, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts from 2010-2017, was responsible for acquiring their first piece of performance art. She has spent much of her curatorial career on expanding understanding of contemporary practices of sculpture. In a recent interview, she discussed her engagement with Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya who utilizes fog as her sculptural medium. Mergel defined the parameters of ephemeral art this way: “I believe there is a significant difference between temporary and truly ‘ephemeral’ art: one can be recreated and the other can never be repeated, never the same twice. Truly ephemeral art—like the short-lived mayfly the Greeks termed 'ephemeron'—is born to expire, enacting the cycle of composing and decomposing all at once. This is a natural cycle that few artists have effectively generated to meaningfully present.” Mergel indicated Nakaya was an authentic example and Fog x FLO, a public art piece shepherded through the curatorial process by Mergel, epitomizes all that is implied by the label ephemeral. The exhibition Fog x FLO consisted of five sites in Boston’s historic urban park system to mark the 20th Anniversary of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy’s stewardship of the landmarked chain of public spaces designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead (FLO), the founder of American landscape architecture. The fact that the Conservancy opted for a slice of disappearing atmosphere as a historical marker, rather than a bronze statue of, let’s say, Olmstead riding a horse, speaks volumes about how ephemeral art is valued, and how far we collectively as a society have come in our understanding of what we say is art. Other major institutions, like the Tate Modern in London, the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain and the National Museum of Australia have sponsored Nakaya’s fog sculpture.

Performance art is closely related to a piece like Fog x FLO, which comes with its own concerns when an institution decides to acquire such works, as the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) recently did when it added the movement-based art of Simone Forti to its collection. The museum acquired documentation of the development of Forti’s choreography, the instructions for the movements, instruction videos, and extensive writing by Forti when it purchased her Dance Constructions, but MOMA’s collections specialist Athena Christa Holbrook realized that was not enough. “There are a number of intuitive qualities that you don’t observe from the outside,” says Holbrook, who became involved only after the acquisition was finalized. The documentation process would involve feeling how the actual work is performed so that body-to-body knowledge would be part of the archiving process. Holbrook wrote an essay on the experience. “In stepping into the role of performer,” she explained in writing, “these performances have become part of my physical memory. I am both archivist and archive, documentarian and documented.” Forti, still active at 84, reflected that MOMA’s responsibility in acquiring the rights to the dances extended beyond her death so “that these pieces continue their life past when I do mine.”

The Fens signage of "Fog x FLO's Fog x Canopy."
Melissa Ostrow

Fog x FLO's Fog x Canopy at the Fens

Jamaica Pond of "Fog x FLO's Fog x Pond."
Melissa Ostrow

Jamaica Pond during Fog x FLO's Fog x Pond

Leverett Pond of "Fog x FLO's Fog x Island."
Melissa Ostrow

Leverett Pond during Fog x FLO's Fog x Island

The Fens Fog Sculpture, "Fog x FLO's Fog x Canopy" (kids).
Melissa Ostrow

The Fens Fog Sculpture, Fog x FLO's Fog x Canopy

The Fens Fog Sculpture, "Fog x FLO's Fog x Canopy."
Melissa Ostrow

The Fens Fog Sculpture, Fog x FLO's Fog x Canopy

Jamaica Pond of "Fog x FLO's Fog x Pond."
Melissa Ostrow

Jamaica Pond during Fog x FLO's Fog x Pond

Franklin Park - "Fog x FLO's Fog x Ruins."
Melissa Ostrow

Franklin Park during Fog x FLO's Fog x Ruins

New York-based conservator Christian Scheidemann, known as “The Art Doctor” has been deeply concerned with the role of the conservator in contemporary art since he first opened his practice in Hamburg, Germany in 1983. Conservation and restoration have always been important issues in the art world, and contemporary works have brought significant challenges to collectors and museums regarding preservation and maintenance. Many works produced today are created from non-traditional materials such as plant pollen, petroleum jelly, elephant dung, chewing gum, soap, and chocolate, all intrinsically tied to the intended meaning of the work. This requires a much closer relationship between the artist, the exhibiting institution, and collectors all of whom must agree to a certain amount of caretaker responsibility if a work is to survive. Mr. Scheidemann acts as a translator, someone who speaks the artist’s language of intent and can communicate the importance of maintaining a particular state of the material to the potential collector. "We create manuals for complicated artworks," Scheidemann said. "How to store it, handle it, display it, and the amount of light and moisture it needs. It's like a zoo," he added. "You're dealing with very different animals, and they all need their own care."

The Ephemera Society of America, a nonprofit organization formed in 1980 to cultivate an interest in ephemera and the history identified with it, is an organization that serves as a link between collectors, dealers, institutions and scholars. Diane DeBlois, a member, along with her partner Robert Dalton Harris, are appraisers and consultants in the buying, selling, researching, interpreting and writing about original source materials of an ephemeral nature. DeBlois observed, “All collecting has to do with memory. …Every collector is an artist and a curator. In the act of choosing–the number of works, the style and subject matter that form the collection–you inject your own meaning into the objects.” Like museums, DeBlois said, “serious collectors build a collection for a purpose.” And they know that the meaning and monetary value of art are closely related. That is particularly true of the ephemeral works.

The dialogue among artists, collectors, viewer/participants, critics and museums is a major way that ephemeral art stays relevant and connected to its culture. The residue of that dialogue lies in our memory and can be recalled when we encounter the work again in other contexts. DeBlois muses, “In this age of digitization what of our reality will survive? It is through art and the collection of objects that connects best to my way of being in the world.”

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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