A generation of plastic art objects are degrading like overused Tupperware. Can they be saved?

The big picture.
July 1 2009 11:32 AM

Does Plastic Art Last Forever?

Not even close. Can a generation of synthetic objects be saved?

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It's inevitable, however, that even plastic objects kept in dark, sterile drawers will begin to deteriorate chemically. The wholesale dilapidation of something like Gabo's Two Cones usually takes a few decades. More durable plastics can last longer, but even they are slowly crumbling.

Often the only clue a plastic is degrading is its odor. Some begin to smell like ammonia or take on a sickly new-car smell. PVC weeps chlorine, giving it a swimming-pool smell, and any plastics with acetate eventually give off whiffs of acetic acid, which is found in vinegar. Other plastics are redolent of burnt milk, burnt hair, celery, cinnamon, raspberry jam, or camphor "muscle rub."

Worst of all, when plastics weep and bleed they can corrupt everything around them. Chemicals evaporate from their surface and acidify any moisture inside a display case. This causes mini bouts of acid rain that in turn eat away at the plastic in nearby objects—as well as any cloth, metal, or paper in those objects. Curators can lay down special carbon cloths beneath a plastic object to absorb some acid, but some plastics have to be quarantined immediately. Museums have also used plastics to coat nonplastic objects like silver (to prevent tarnishing) and paintings (to prevent flaking). But plastic coatings often "bloom" and turn opaque or "crizzle" (i.e., wrinkle) like dried rubber cement, changes that can damage the very object the coating was meant to preserve.

As of today, most chemical damage to plastics is irreversible, and conservators focus less on rehabilitation than simple maintenance. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum recently asked the Museum Conservation Institute to help preserve a high-altitude flight suit in its collection. The suit had belonged to the one-eyed aviation pioneer Wiley Post. The leather straps and cotton garments in Post's suit look fine, if a little dingy. But his plastic gloves look like the shriveled hand of a mummy. Conservation scientists said even light handling of the gloves would cause them to crack and crumble, and they admitted they can do little but put the suit in deep-freeze storage and take pictures for posterity.

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One branch of the art industry that has taken a particular interest in the question of how to preserve plastics is insurers, since they will have to pick up the tab for damaged goods. Insurance agencies fund much of the research into preserving plastic art, a fledgling science aching for a breakthrough. One company, AXA Art Insurance, publishes a book with the dour title Plastic Art: A Precarious Success Story, and has held numerous training sessions to teach curators the best-known methods of staving off decay (and, it hopes, to generate new ideas on how to reverse it). In a warning to museums snapping up the work of some of today's hottest artists, the AXA book states that plastic-heavy pieces by Damien Hirst, Matthew Barney, and Jeff Koons will be "difficult, costly, and nerve-racking to preserve."

In the future, museums will probably have to be stingier about sharing or even displaying plastic holdings. Conservators at New York's MoMA say it frequently gets requests to loan out Eva Hesse works, such as Viniculum II, which consists of latex pieces affixed to a wire, but they have to refuse because of their fragility. In even worse shape are the plastic sculptures of blue-collar workers, overweight shoppers, and white-trash tourists by Duane Hanson, a name on the lips of most every plastics curator. His grotesque renderings used to startle museum-goers with their uncanny realism, but as the sculptures peel and crack, they're looking creepy for different reasons. When a Hanson statue, Woman With Handbag, began to decay at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany, curators cleverly asked the artist to "age" the woman by playing up her age spots and changing her hair. But since Hanson's death in 1996, the museum has limited the time it shows the piece.

A few conservation scientists worry even more about the next generation of plastics—biodegradable plastics, which are supposed tobreak down. Artists are not always a read-the-instructions bunch, and conservators fear they will ignore manufacturers' directions about the lifetime and durability of "green" plastic and use it anyway. Brenda Keneghan, a conservator of modern materials at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, summed up her fears about the future of plastics in art this way: "Everyone else in the world is trying to get rid of them," she sighed, "and we're trying to preserve them."

Sam Kean is the best-selling author of The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb. His new book, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, comes out May 6.

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