“GARGANTUA E PANTAGRUEL” BY STEFANO ARIENTI.
THE DEGRADATION AND SUBSEQUENT RESTORATION OF A POLYSTYRENE WORK OF ART
BY CAROLINE DUPRÉ, FRANCESCA SECCHI
Polystyrene panels were often used by Stefano Arienti (Asola, Mantova, Italy, 1961) during the 90’s as he was interested in studying the connection between Arte Povera and Conceptual Art.
The artist collects serial images like prints or photographs to employ them by enlarging and reproducing them on the panels. He draws over the polystyrene surface by engraving it with solvents or heat. The composition is to be seen in transmitted light using neon tubes behind the panels which reveals the different polystyrene’s thickness. This specific installation titled Gargantua e Pantagruel (1991) is made up of thirty polystyrene panels (100 x 100 x 1 cm) backlighted with red neon tubes and it’s preserved at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome (MACRO).
The panels presented a poor state of conservation and the display’s modality was the first cause of the panels’ degradation. All the panels showed loss of material along the edges, some presented cracks, localized deformations and missing corners. The photo-oxidation of the polystyrene was catalyzed by the red neon lights, weakening the already fragile material. As a consequence of the latter, handling proved to be difficult and many anthropic damages were caused.
The restoration treatments have been focused on conferring a new structural integrity to the panels by integrating the loss of material with polystyrene fillings. Samples were realized to test various adhesives and fillers.
Traditional gesso fillers have been excluded because of their high density compared to the polystyrene’s density. Due to the transmitted light utilized for the display of the panels, it was necessary to reach the same density and texture of the original material. It seems a good option to use new spheres of polystyrene of a similar density as fillers. At the same time, different adhesives were tested following the principles of reversibility, compatibility and stability such as acrylic emulsions and cellulosic adhesives in water or ethanol. In order to avoid any future cleavage to the panels, the restoration treatment included the application of strips of Japanese paper along the edges with the same adhesive used for the integration.
In order to improve the display’s modality by reducing the photo-oxidative degradation it was proposed to replace the red neon tubes with LED lighting because of its lack of UV and IR radiation, the minimal heat emission and for its economy. This substitution wouldn’t modify the aesthetic characteristics of the installation.
The artist’s interview allowed Stefano Arienti to further the knowledge of his works of art, his techniques and his thoughts on the conservation of contemporary art.