Artificial Artifacts: Paul Sietsema and the Work of Conservation

*By David Crane


The whole thing stands unceremoniously on a pair of sawhorses: a scale replica of Clement Greenberg’s apartment circa 1961, replete with miniature versions of mid-century modern furniture surrounded by paintings by Barnett Newman and Morris Louis (among others). The structure has an uneasy presence in the gallery. With an exterior consisting of blank walls of foam core, the piece is too self-enclosed to stake a claim as a freestanding sculpture. For the artist, Paul Sietsema, this room and its pendant, a similarly scaled recreation of the Salon de la Princesse in the Hôtel de Soubise, are merely a byproducts of his 2002 film Empire, in which they function as opposing art-historical nodes. “It’s nothing that’s meant to last and it never was,” Sietsema told Andrew Berardini in 2008, speaking of these structures. “I made them out of such cheap materials that they’re basically eating themselves alive. I don’t want to call them trash, but it’s like the stuff here in the studio.”[1] After completing the film, however, Sietsema hesitated when it came time to destroy them himself, having spent years on their creation. With the structures in limbo, Sietsema accepted an acquisition offer from the Whitney Museum of American Art, despite having “never wanted those to be shown anywhere.”[2] Thus, these self-disintegrating byproducts, artifacts of the studio, were displayed alongside Empire in Sietsema’s first museum exhibition at the Whitney in 2003.


A recent New York Times article details the twelve-year-long journey of Tullio Lombardo’s sculpture of Adam from seemingly-irreparably shattered masterpiece to triumphant restoration. As part of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the sculpture was handed over to an expert team of conservators, whose work, captured on video, has been placed on view alongside the newly restored work. This type of presentation of conservation as part of an exhibition display is a growing trend in museum practice. Conservation was previously considered to be backroom, even clandestine work. Now its various forms of presentation extend to glass-walled conservation laboratories, interactive displays, and time-lapse videos that recall episodes of CSI, sometimes even including a whodunnit[3] angle. Regarding the myriad ways in which museums have recently put conservation-as-such on view, Emilie Gordenker, director of the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, states that, “restoration is the cutting edge of art history.”[4] Recent technological advancements in the field of conservation, and the ways in which these new tools can uncover previously untold material histories of the objects under observation, make this a plausible assertion. But at what point do these advances begin to bleed into the museological field in general, affecting not only the way in which centuries-old sculptures and paintings are studied and presented but the acquisition and display of contemporary art as well? What would it mean for restoration and conservation to be art itself, not just the at the cutting edge of art history?

Sietsema has tied the Whitney’s presentation of the two Empire-derived artifacts alongside the film in which they figure to an “anthropological view of [his] work”[5] Organized by Chrissie Iles, Sietsema’s Empire exhibition coincided with preparations for a Robert Smithson retrospective, on which Iles was simultaneously working.[6] The Smithson exhibition included a variety of preparatory drawings, sketchbooks, documentation, and ephemera alongside Smithson’s “proper” artwork. Describing this curatorial approach, Sietsema states: “It was like everything [Smithson had] done laid open … He’s no longer around, that kind of a view of him makes more sense.”[7] The “anthropological” presentation of an artist’s work can appear fitting when applied to an artist who, like Smithson, belongs to the (albeit recent) past. However, when applied to a young artist’s first museum presentation, the approach can breed a historicizing of the present, a flattening of chronology in which contemporary art is always-already an artifact ready to be entered into the museological complex of conservation. Chafing against this kind of premature ossification, Sietsema counters: “Just let the art be itself.”[8]

Smithson himself was often critical of the art world’s institutional complex, repeatedly characterizing the museum in his writings as a tomb or graveyard. For Smithson, the collection within a single institution of objects from the most various geographic locations and historical time periods leads to a deadening of difference, an endless homogenization in which “things flatten and fade” and the museum itself “becomes an untitled collection of generalizations that immobilize the eye.”[9] From this perspective the museum, in its static practices of classification, cataloguing, and conservation, halts the flow of time through which objects naturally deteriorate and decay. The dynamic disorder of entropy, a concept central to Smithson’s worldview, is thus cancelled by the museum. Smithson’s disdain for museum conservation extended also to his approach to the natural world. His pioneering works of land art in the late 1960s and early 70s did not function as celebrations of the natural world, but more often as explorations of disuse and degradation. “I’m not a salvationist,” Smithson once said, going on to assert that, “It might be quite natural that Lake Erie is filling up with green slime.”[10]


In many ways, the genesis of Sietsema’s 2008 film Figure 3 relates directly to his experience exhibiting Empire alongside its constituent sculptures/artifacts at the Whitney. Sietsema described this in a 2011 interview, writing, “If my work is going to be turned into an artifact I might as well make artifacts and show it in a museum and see what kind of resonance this redundancy can create.”[11] Shifting away from the type of iconicity inherent in the architectural and art-historical subjects he had worked with in Empire, Sietsema centered the new film on artifacts from pre-colonial South Pacific island cultures. The artifacts that appear on screen in Figure 3, however, are not pre-existing “readymades” culled from various historical and anthropological collections and assembled for the film; rather, they are sculptures produced in Sietsema’s studio specifically to be recorded on 16-mm film. These are ideologically-slippery, indeterminate objects — at once both contemporary sculptures channeling canonic post-Minimalist work and ethnographic artifacts that appear to have been pulled directly from archaeological sites. Sietsema’s filmic work mines the fundamental tension between the museological drive toward conservation and the artist’s creative impulse toward dynamism.

Paul Sietsema Figure 3, detail 2008 16mm film, black-and-white and color, no sound Approx. 16 minutes ©Paul Sietsema, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Paul Sietsema, Figure 3, detail, 2008, 16mm film, black-and-white and color, no sound. Approx. 16 minutes. ©Paul Sietsema, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Paul Sietsema, Figure 3, detail, 2008, 16mm film, black-and-white and color, no sound. Approx. 16 minutes ©Paul Sietsema, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Paul Sietsema, Figure 3, detail, 2008, 16mm film, black-and-white and color, no sound. Approx. 16 minutes ©Paul Sietsema, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Shot in black-and-white, the film progresses patiently. Subtle dissolves provide transitions between the static shots. A number of different “artifacts” appear one by one on screen: ceramic vessels, cutlery, straps, nets, coins. Sietsema frames each object simply against a black background. In addition, intense close-ups document the weathered surfaces, cracks, and abrasions of the artifacts. The slow and measured manner of the shots and their attention to the minute details of the objects’ physical states recall the impersonal look of the conservator, whose work demands the study of each square millimeter.[12]

Figure 3 does not only recreate the act of close looking fundamental to the work of cataloguing and preserving physical objects. Ever-present and yet unspoken in the film is the problem of these objects’ origin, their implied life and function before their presentation. Sietsema described that he was drawn to artifacts from pre-colonial Pacific cultures because of their relative isolation from Western society.[13] The objects on display within the film would have functioned not as art-objects, but as tools produced and utilized for specific and necessary purposes within everyday life. Traded for by early colonizers, objects like these began to circulate throughout Europe, eventually settling into the precursors of modern day museums: the collections, cabinets and Wunderkammern that categorized and conserved them.[14] The film presents the results of this transformation, displaying the objects as if they were part of an archive or ethnographic slideshow. Separated from their activation as tools created for a distinct, utilitarian purpose, the objects have become ossified, out-of-time, or, in Smithson’s words, flattened and faded.

The film is not an elegy for the past lives of these artifacts or a Romantic recapturing of a “supposedly pure culture” through their re-presentation on film.[15] Rather, the film reveals the achronic, dissonant, and contradictory character of these forms, particularly in their physical construction. Writing in Artforum, Sietsema described the link between the utilization of available materials for the creation of tools within the cultures he was researching and the artistic approaches of post-Minimal artists. About post-Minimal work, he writes, “The sculpture took the simplest form that it could and was entirely based on the properties of the material.”[16] This type of “truth-to-materials” dictum forms for Sietsema an ahistorical bridge between the tools of the pre-colonial South Pacific and the medium-specific heyday of Greenbergian modernism.

In order to create a similarly-ahistorical object, Sietsema counterposed the pre-colonial forms of the artifacts with the materials from which they were made. These include substances commonly used by post-Minimal artists such as Hydrocal and other semi-industrial, non-traditional artistic materials. Most important, however, is the incorporation of materials used in anthropological and archaeological techniques of recording and preservation. For instance, Sietsema utilized both aluminum powder and gum arabic in the creation of his sculptures — the former used to add reflectivity and contrast to difficult-to-photograph objects, the latter a key tool in the reassembly of fragile fragments found on archaeological sites. The cracked vessels that appear in the film were created by pouring Hydrocal and printers’ ink around a plug; once the materials had hardened, the only way to remove them from the form was to shatter them. Sietsema reassembled these shards in order to create and film the vessels, but unlike the anthropological artifacts they resembled, the break-up and reassembly of these objects were natural by-products of their method of creation, rather than a preservationist attempt to oppose the material effects of time. Yet, the sculptures were ephemeral, already “deteriorating” upon completion, despite the methods and tools of conservation used in their creation.[17] Although Figure 3 visually, aesthetically, and even phenomenologically recalls the museological archive, the objects displayed within it are dynamic and shifting. Their filmic capture does not mark an endpoint in their existence, a “salvation” from the entropic nature of time through the work of conservation. Instead the film represents the ongoing fluctuations between a series of disparate-yet-overlapping locations and temporalities.


A key component of Sietsema’s work is 16-mm film itself. Today, few films are shot, much less projected, on actual celluloid, particularly 16-mm. A running 16-mm projector in a gallery gives the viewer the impression of entering a time capsule: for older viewers, the experience of watching Sietsema’s 16-mm films may bring to mind their time in elementary and high school, when similar projectors ran educational reels.

Like the artifacts in Figure 3, the exhibition of 16-mm film, described by Sietsema as an “undead medium,”[18] engenders a temporal disorientation in the viewer. In Figure 3, this confusion is compounded by the subject of the work, as 16-mm film, due to its low cost, high sensitivity to natural light, and lightweight camera, often functioned as another tool of preservation for anthropologists and archaeologists working in the field throughout the mid-20th century. Because Figure 3 performs in this way as a “lost” (or “found”?) film, an author-less visual record hidden in the archives now uncovered, it is difficult to recognize the work as the product of a contemporary artist’s studio.

Photography itself can be approached as a kind of conservation, wherein the deleterious effects of time on objects can be halted, albeit through the act of representation. The image stored in the archives of a museum often outlives the object it represents—a slice of the past that continues to move forward through time. The temporal disjunctions inherent to the separate acts of recording, viewing, and preserving film feature prominently in Sietsema’s 2012 film Telegraph. The film visually recalls Figure 3, as dissolves connect discrete presentations of objects against a black background. However, these objects are not studio creations, but real fragments of material histories: found wooden shards, assembled from a variety of sources including studio scraps and the wreckage left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. As the film progresses, the configurations of these shards alter slightly, suggesting an abstract linguistic code that has been stripped to its essentials. In one interview Sietsema states that the piece is “about transmission: simply how and what does this work transmit, what can any artwork transmit.”[19] Utilizing the iterability of the filmic medium, Telegraph explores how this kind of transmission can occur across time. In another conversation, Sietsema states: “I made the piece partially in the spirit of sending a message to a formalist painter who died very young in the 1970s. It is me sending a signal out into the time-space vacuum…”[20] Like Figure 3, the subject of the Telegraph lends itself to temporal ambiguity. The earlier film plays off of the “timeless” nature of the museum archive, but the chronological confusion exists between three discrete historic periods: the time of the objects (15th-16th centuries), of their entry into the archive (mid-20th century), and of the creation of the film itself (early 21st century). The objects in Telegraph, however, have no clear historical referent, appearing plausibly as both pre-historic and post-apocalyptic. The ahistorical nature of the wooden shards subverts a key task of conservation, in which an object is tied concretely to a specific historical moment through the maintenance of its condition at that point in time. The ongoing possibility of the shards’ transmission is enabled by photographic preservation—however, once filmed, the recorded message in Telegraph is no longer tied to any specific time except for that of its viewing.

Paul Sietsema, Telegraph, 2012, 16mm film, black-and-white and color, no sound. Approx. 12 minutes, looping ©Paul Sietsema, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Paul Sietsema, Telegraph, 2012, 16mm film, black-and-white and color, no sound. Approx. 12 minutes, looping ©Paul Sietsema, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery


Begun originally during the creation of Figure 3, Sietsema has continued to produce a number of drawings that fall under the rubric of what he has termed “figure/ground studies.” The drawings consist of detailed reproductions of newspaper pages in ink, often inverted or askew, on top of which appear “accidental” drips and rings of paint. More recently, deft enamel trompe-l’oeil depictions of paint can lids, notebooks, pens and pencils, and other typical studio tools covered in paint appear atop the pages. Some of the pages display biographical information – Untitled figure ground study (New York Times) (2009) features a review of the Empire exhibition by Roberta Smith, with white paint drips partially obscuring a “photograph” of the model of Clement Greenberg’s apartment. Others are more inscrutable, displaying non-sequitur juxtapositions common across pages of newsprint: for example, an image showing President Obama reversing key Bush-era counterterrorism policies appears side by side with a story on Sri Lankan rebels, both of which are flanked by an image of a Degas ballerina, an advertisement for an upcoming Sotheby’s auction.[21]

Paul Sietsema, Untitled, figure ground study (New York Times), 2009, Ink and enamel on paper, 31 x 34 3/8 inches, 79 x 87 cm ©Paul Sietsema, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Paul Sietsema, Untitled, figure ground study (New York Times), 2009, Ink and enamel on paper, 31 x 34 3/8 inches, 79 x 87 cm ©Paul Sietsema, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

In many ways, these pieces function as the inverse of the objects that appear in Figure 3. The artifacts in that film embody a host of conflicting geographies, temporalities, and ideologies and their transition from everyday tools to art objects forms part the foundation of present-day conservation and museology. On the other hand, the figure/ground studies represent the preservation, even the memorialization, of studio detritus, of pieces of discarded paper whose typical length of value is 24 hours.

Yet, the fragments recreated in the figure/ground studies lasted for Sietsema. He explains that cleaning out his studio every few months became an “extensive editing process”[22] and, month after month, certain newspapers remained in his studio for indefinable reasons. Eventually, these few scraps became “artifacts of the studio.”[23] Here Sietsema again simultaneously reenacts and subverts the work of conservation, as the reproduction of these ephemeral pages in ink (and the careful working-over of each tiny fold, tear, and smear that this requires) resembles the single-minded obsessiveness evident in the work of the conservators who repaired the Met’s priceless statue of Adam. Unlike Smithson, whose forthright dismissal of conservation in particular and museological practice in general was linked to his interest in entropy, Sietsema’s investigation of preservation is a constant play of tangled contradictions. Perhaps the image of the model of Greenberg’s apartment that appears in Sietsema’s New York Times drawing functions as a totalizing mise-en-abyme, a crystalline reflection and refraction of the antinomies of conservation as mined in his work: an ephemeral-model-turned-reluctant-artifact preserved through photography, reprinted into the transiency of newsprint, finally conserved through the careful act of representation.

*David Crane was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. 

[1] Andrew Berardini, “Dig Forever and Never It Bottom,” in Paul Sietsema: Interviews on films and works, ed. Quinn Latimer (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), p. 52.

[2] Ibid. p. 52.

[3] Carol Vogel, “Recreating Adam, From Hundreds of Fragments, After the Fall.” New York Times, November 8, 2014, accessed November 25, 2014, Regarding the fall of the sculpture of Adam, Jack Soultanian is quoted in the article as saying, “Nobody knew what happened — it could have been foul play.” It was eventually determined that the sculpture’s pedestal had collapsed under the weight of the sculpture itself.

[4] Ibid. Gordenker also provides the link between the technological work of conservation and “crime scene investigation” in the article.

[5] Beradini, “Dig Forever,” p. 53.

[6] The Smithson exhibition was organized for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles by Eugenie Tsai and traveled to both the Dallas Museum of Art as well as the Whitney.

[7] Ibid. p. 53.

[8] Ibid. p. 53.

[9] Robert Smithson, “Some Void Thoughts on Museums (1967)”, in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 42.

[10] “Interview with Robert Smithson (1970),” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 237

[11] Gintaras Didžiapetris, “Interview: Paul Sietsema,” in Paul Sietsema: Interviews on films and works, ed. Quinn Latimer (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), 16.

[12] In her catalogue essay for Figure 3’s presentation at MoMA, curator Connie Butler likens the act of viewing Sietsema’s diptych Ship drawing (2009) to the “hypnotic tedium of a conservator’s examination.” I believe the same kind of close looking Butler describes is active both on the part of the camera and the viewer in Figure 3. Cornelia Butler, “The Crystal Land: Paul Sietsema’s Figure 3,” in Figure 3: Paul Sietsema (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009), p. 9.

[13] Berardini, “Dig Forever,” p. 53.

[14] Discussing the dissemination of these objects within Western Europe, Sietsema states, “It’s where museums started.” Ibid. p. 53.

[15] Ibid. p. 53.

[16] Ali Subotnick, “1000 Words: Paul Sietsema talks about Figure 3,” in Paul Sietsema: Interviews on films and works, ed. Quinn Latimer (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), p. 86.

[17] Subotnick, “1000 Words,” p. 87.

[18] Christopher Bedford, Bill Horrigan and Paul Sietsema. “Chinese Ink: A Conversation,” in Paul Sietsema (Columbus, Ohio: Wexner Center for the Arts, 2013), p. 22.

[19] Ibid. p. 24.

[20] Adam Szymczyk and Quinn Latimer. “Impossibly Clean Models: Paul Sietsema in Conversation,” in Paul Sietsema: Interviews on films and works, ed. Quinn Latimer (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), p. 96.

[21] The title of this piece—Untitled figure ground study (Degas/Obama) (2011)—reinforces the unmotivated nature of this juxtaposition, managing to connect the unrelated personages with just a single backslash.

[22] Carter Mull, “Paul Sietsema: Interview,” in Paul Sietsema: Interviews on films and works, ed. Quinn Latimer (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), p. 32.

[23] Ibid.