Step inside any major museum or art gallery and you’re likely to see art from hundreds or even thousands of years ago, carefully conserved and held in situ for us to learn from and admire. Standing in front of these exhibits, it’s easy to think of art as a permanent medium and beyond that, to think of good art as art as an object that lasts forever on a gallery wall.
But not all art is permanent.
Some art, such as land art by artists such as Andy Goldsworthy or the projected works by Jenny Holzer, is intended to be temporary. Existing only in the moment, these artworks may be captured in photographs or video, but this documentation is an echo of experiencing the piece in real time. The transitory nature of this art is part of its meaning.
Other forms of ephemeral art exist outside of the realm of the traditional art world. Street art and graffiti are tied to place and are often created illegally. The lifespan of these artworks is subject to weather and bylaw enforcement. Perhaps the best known street artist is Banksy, whose anonymous graffiti paintings first appeared in Bristol, England in 1990. Banksy’s works are notably anti-establishment, which is fitting for the street art medium. Ironically, over time, Banksy’s works have become a mainstream phenomenon, selling for millions of dollars, and bringing his ephemeral art into a more permanent milieu. In 2018, Banksy’s work, Girl with a Balloon, sold for more than a million pounds before self-destructing dramatically in the auction house and making a direct statement of the altered perception of his work.
The art we preserve also preserves the stories we tell about ourselves and our history. Until recently, the art and stories we conserved in museums and galleries were typically those of white, European men. In some cases, art done by women was deliberately misattributed to men while other types of art and fine craft that were created by women were simply not viewed as important as the traditional, male-dominated arts. The stories told by these artworks have been lost to time.
Similarly, while artworks from other cultures were gluttonously collected by Western museums and collectors, they were often severed from the artists and the stories they told, existing in museum display cases as artifacts rather than representations of culture and community.
Art is more than paintings on a wall. Many contemporary artists explore their subjects using mediums and techniques that lack the long-term durability of a Vermeer painting or a Greek sculpture. Whether these are art pieces made from moving parts that slowly grind to a halt or even art that incorporates living creatures, some artworks may be accidentally ephemeral. As these artworks change and erode over time, museums and galleries are left with the question of how—or if—to conserve them.
Perhaps we would be well-served to consider alternatives to our need to preserve art in a fixed state. The art of kintsugi, a Japanese technique that uses gold lacquer to repair and highlight broken pottery, takes a piece of art and transforms it into something different, yet equally beautiful, while incorporating the damage into the story of the piece.
Our desire to preserve and protect is not always aligned with the cultural context or intent of the artist. The colonization of the west coast of North America saw the seizure of numerous Indigenous totem poles, which were subsequently installed and protected in museums around the world, contrary to the cultural tradition of allowing them to decay over time and return to the earth.
Art is just one way we have to share the stories of our culture and history. Ephemeral art reminds us that sharing the story can be as important as preserving artwork and gives us an opportunity to embrace the joy of seeing and understanding art in the moment.