Art under the microscope: Mondrian's 'Victory Boogie Woogie'

The abstract artist Mondrian's last work – 600 tiny squares of paint and card – is proving a real test for conservators. Rebecca Armstrong discovers why
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The Independent Culture

Chambers filled with lasers and X-rays sound like they belong in a laboratory rather than an art gallery. But behind the scenes at some of the world's most famous galleries, armies of technicians are wielding hi-tech weapons in a bid to understand – and to preserve – priceless works of art.

These expert conservators are not the grey guardians of art that may initially spring to mind. They are at the cutting edge of their field, using the latest technology to solve problems most of us never knew existed. And, while it's easy to imagine that the conservators have their work cut out looking after centuries-old ceramics and paintings, it's modern art that is their biggest headache.

"Modern materials present conservators with a particular challenge," says Sandra Smith, head of conservation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. "Some synthetic materials have short lifetimes – less than 100 years – before they begin to deteriorate."

A recent survey found that 13 per cent of the museum's plastic items were in need of vital repairs. This is difficult because, to repair a work, conservators have to know exactly how it was made and what it was made from. Easy enough when something is made from wood, say, but much more difficult when the material was created in a lab.

Paint is one substance that causes art conservators sleepless nights. While art experts have had centuries to get used to the vagaries of oil paint, the synthetic paint of the 20th century is altogether different. Emulsion, acrylic and enamel may be sloshed around with abandon by modern artists, but without knowing what a paint is made from, it's impossible for conservators to work out how it will age.

Victory Boogie Woogie, Piet Mondrian's last work, left unfinished at his death in 1944, was recently given the once-over by Molab, a crack team of art conservation researchers. To establish how best to preserve the piece, Molab members had to study the picture in exhaustive detail, finding out which parts are painted, which consist of coloured card, and which are most at risk from the ravages of time – no mean feat, as Victory Boogie Woogie is made up of almost 600 different sections.

The researchers started by taking photographs of the work under UV (ultraviolet) light, a procedure that makes certain pigments in the paint glow. That helps Molab's conservators work out what kinds of paint have been used where.

Painters 500 years ago would have relied on pigments formed from natural materials – lapis lazuli for blue, for example – but "many contemporary materials are polymers," explains Bruno Brunetti, the head of Molab. Polymers are substances made up of masses of repeating molecules, and identifying their make-up is a particular challenge.

Next, Victory Boogie Woogie was X-rayed to learn more about the paint's molecules. If the paint is acrylic, it could be at risk from becoming brittle. Given that about one-third of Tate Modern's contemporary works were painted with the stuff, it's a material that conservators are keen to learn more about.

"X-rays are often used to understand what is going on beneath the visible surface of an object," Smith says. "They can also show us how an object is constructed. An X-ray of a metal jug may show the solder lines and evidence of turning, which may not be apparent from the outside." This kind of information is kept on file to serve as a benchmark that conservators can return to in five, 10 or 20 years' time to assess how a work is bearing up.

Smith explains that there are two branches of conservation – one passive, one active. "Preventive conservation involves controlling the environment in the museum in order to minimise deterioration," she says. Everything from lighting to temperature must be monitored.

Interventional treatments are much more hands-on. "These are usually necessary when objects are going on display or on loan to other museums," Smith says. "It might become necessary to strengthen cracks or redo old and failing adhesives on a ceramic reconstructed from several fragments to allow an object to be packed and transported." This is where the lasers come in – Smith and her team use them as minutely accurate cleaning tools.

It's not just galleries and museums that have to contend with the ravages of time on their precious artefacts. Private collectors who have stumped up the cash for million-pound works have to put in the effort – and the money – when it comes to their upkeep. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, by Damien Hirst, is the famous 14ft tiger shark preserved in a 4,360-gallon tank of formaldehyde. It cost its owner, Steven A Cohen, £4m when he bought it in 2005. Every time Cohen moves the work, he has to arrange for the formaldehyde to be professionally "neutralised" (safely disposed of) by a team of experts – at £50,000 a go. The shark is now on show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it will probably be left in peace until Cohen's loan ends in 2010.

Conservators also have to decide how far to go when restoring a work. It's a balancing act that can bring them into conflict with curators keen to show works in the best possible condition, and with those who feel that too much intervention ruins a piece. "Many of the objects in the collections had a 'life' before they entered the museum, during which they will have been used and modified, overpainted and restored," Smith says. "They can tell many different stories, but they bear the scars of their usage. We need the object to tell its particular story." What Smith and her team have to decide is which part of an object's history they can be certain of. "Taking it back to perfect would not be possible."

Sometimes, conservators can actually help artists to create works that will withstand the test of time. The Tate's conservation department had to come up with a smart solution when one of its works started to deteriorate rapidly. A central part of the American artist Matthew Barney's installation Ottoshaft was a huge mattress made of tapioca, but Barney's material of choice began to absorb moisture from the air and started to swell, making the mattress arch up like a humpback bridge. The in-house conservators began testing a variety of tapioca and resin formulae and discovered a more stable mix. The artist then used the new mixture to remake his piece, which has remained in mint condition.

So, while purists might like to think that art and science don't mix, the future of many modern masterpieces is in the hands of scientific saviours.

Their odd materials: blood, eggs, kebabs and bread

'Self' by Marc Quinn

Quinn's sanguine sculpture is a cast of the artist's head filled with nine pints of his own frozen blood. First created in 1991, Self is remade every five years to show the ageing process of the artist. Some reports said Self accidentally defrosted in 2002 after (depending on who you believe) builders unplugged its freezer, or a power cut struck the home of its owner, Charles Saatchi. Quinn said that "the story about the head melting in Charles Saatchi's fridge is totally untrue. The only truth in that story was that the head was in his house at the time."

'Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab' by Sarah Lucas

When Sarah Lucas, one of the original Young British Artists, first showed her 1992 installation consisting of two fried eggs and a kebab on a wooden kitchen table – a metaphor for the female body – she had to buy a kebab and fry new eggs every day. "It seemed part of the installation," she has said since. "It never crossed my mind that anyone would buy it." Five years later, the work appeared as part of the Royal Academy's Sensation exhibition, and this time it was the job of an Academy conservator to keep it fresh with the help of a nearby kebab shop in Piccadilly. Other examples of Lucas's work have caused headaches for conservators, thanks to their use of materials such as fruit, vegetables and cigarettes.

'Bed' by Antony Gormley

Made from 8,640 slices of white bread, Gormley's Bed features a silhouette of the artist bitten out of the carbohydrate "mattress". The 1981 work was showing signs of mould by the mid-1990s. The solution? Gormley agreed to get the piece dipped in paraffin wax and vacuum sealed – even though it was interpreted as a play on "the inevitable destruction (or evaporation) of matter through consumption and digestion (solid to liquid to air)".

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