Restoration Drama

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A construction site seems as good a place as any to begin a website. Particularly when the scene is one as beautiful as the one currently offered by the Cast Courts gallery within the Victoria and Albert Museum.

As part of the museum’s Future Plan, it is currently carrying out conservation and restoration work in the gallery, yet due to the immense physicality and fragility of the pieces it contains, it has been decided that this work will take place within the very gallery itself. Whilst the room itself remains closed off from visitors, the suspended walk ways above remain open, offering the keenest tourists or art geeks the opportunity to peer down at the restoration work taking place which is normally closed off in labs or workshops.

The faux ‘marble’ works were first installed in the museum in 1873 as a tribute to ‘High Victorian’ taste; whilst deceptively grand on the surface, they are in the fact mere hollow plaster casts. That is not to say, however, that they are not beautifully wrought in their own right, something evident perhaps more than ever in their current state of bare exposure and fracture as the restoration work is undertaken.

The overall scene is somewhat eerily apocalyptic. It could pass as a cheeky hoax from a post modern artist taking his desire to deconstruct the art establishment to its most extreme and unsubtle conclusion. Limbs and heads lie wrapped in plastic dust-flecked robes, awaiting attention.

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A tribute to Michaelangelo’s David, in the form of a six metre tall plaster cast copy, is the visual centre of the room, loftily surveying the scene. His perplexed and bemused attitude is seemingly conveyed in his unconscious and unconfident hand being drawn to his pouting lip. Under his stern glare, two nymphs or angles are restrained in splits and bandages. The sense of movement initially instilled by the sculptor successfully survives the transfer from its initial glorious setting, yet here this vigour makes the pair seem to attempt to struggle within straight jackets; as though conscious inmates of the mad house around them.

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This fusion of  beautifully useless artwork versus practical equipment of the art restorers is evident elsewhere as two Harvey Hoovers at the foot of one great column seem to mirror the graceful intertwining of its two staircases in their casually strewn trunks.

On the reverse, the ornate pillars are afforded no more dignity in their garb than thousands of construction sites over the world. A sheet of plywood cordens it off, whilst a dust cover lies strewn on its lower parts. As the noises of tourists’ gabble and security guards’ walky-talkies echo from the gallery above, the scene seems undeniably ghost-like in atmosphere, like an abandoned fairground, where only very solemn Victorian fun ever took place.

This scene, although accidental and temporary, successfully invokes and engages with many ideas currently preoccupying the art world. Defamiliarisation, the past, artistic ancestors, neo classicism, collaboration, rewordings, technology; call out from these images. Indeed, due to its accidental and temporary nature, the restoration project seems to address these issues with greater sincerity and therefore success than many carefully contrived contemporary artists. The restorers upon whom we look, from raised platforms like theatre stalls, seem to embark unconsciously on new performance art.

You can find out more about the V&A’s plans for the restoration of the cast courts by clicking here http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/f/futureplan-renovation-cast-courts/ 

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