Written by: Dawn Rogal, Gallery Assistant


Investing in art is a simple matter; buy low, (from an emerging artist, waits for them to die) sell high. According to Anthony Westbridge, writing in The Globe and Mail, “Art — and especially Canadian art — is a perfect investment alternative. It offers just about everything that other investment vehicles offer, and more. The best part is you get to enjoy your purchases for years, and all the while they are appreciating in value. What could be finer than that?”

This assumes that the art is physically durable. However many artists today are rejecting the idea that the materials they use in their practice, or the art itself, should last forever. What if the decay of the materials is part of the work itself?

Art Povera

Today’s impermanent and perishable art has roots in the Art Povera movement of the 1960s. A group of Italian artists used simple, often organic materials, performance art, and unconventional approaches to sculpture, such as installation, to create their art. The term povera also referred to the anti-institutional quality and theme of protest that originally pervaded this art.

Many of the concepts of Art Povera can be seen in today’s impermanent art; the everyday becomes meaningful, traces of nature and industry appear and the physical and chemical transformation of nature is seen.

Contemporary Examples

The Paper Wildlife Conservancy

The Paper Wildlife Conservancy

Cate Francis, based in Saskatoon, is the “chief conservation officer” for the Paper Wildlife Conservancy. This art project involves releasing paper wildlife to the urban environment, more specifically using wheat paste to attach printed and drawn wildlife to the walls of buildings in town.  According to Michael Peterson of Void Gallery, “She is installing them, tagging them, then documenting them as they deteriorate over the next year as a conservator would do for wildlife.”

Elena Herzog from Scale Shifts; Vision Adjusts

Elana Herzog uses tens of thousands of staples to attach rugs and blankets to walls in her art installations. She then tears away at the fabric and selectively reapplies these cloth shreds with more staples. At the end of the show not only the art, but the walls, are in tatters. (Thank you so much to visitors to the SCC Gallery for pointing me to Ms. Herzog’s work).

Jerry Morris, Oakura, New Zealand, World Beach Project

Children are often introduced to the idea of transient art in school. Materials are provided and the children are encouraged to arrange them within the confines of a tray or frame. Often natural materials are used which decay with use. On a grander scale, Sue Lawty, in association with the V&A, curated the World Beach Project. It ran for 5 years, from 2007 to 2012. The Project was open to anyone, anywhere, of any age – participants simply uploaded photographs of their own patterns made on a beach with stones.

Conservation and Insurance

Traditionally, art conservators work to keep artwork looking as close to the original as possible. But today’s conservators are encountering works made of perishable, even edible, materials. The art is supposed to change over time so trying to prevent this deterioration or to repair the art may contradict an artist’s intentions.  Artists can allow the buyer of impermanent art to preserve or restore the artwork however they wish, or they can refuse any steps which would slow down or prevent decay to be taken.

According to Catherine Dupree writing in Harvard Magazine, “Determining those intentions has become a priority for conservators, who must balance them against the long-term interests of museums that have paid millions of dollars for single works. To avoid misinterpretation—and perhaps seek a compromise between preservation and decay—conservators now address artists directly.”

Insurers face a similar dilemma, to what degree and for what instances can an impermanent piece of art be insured? Leo Benedictus, writing in The Guardian, “We insured a block of salt put in the sea, which, gradually, was being washed away. We insure it against things that can happen, against being anything other than it just disappearing in front of your eyes, which is the point of the art.”

Temporary Museums

The idea of temporary or impermanent art can be extended to museums themselves. The Museum of Temporary Art (MoTA), a public art experiment by Jeff Nachtigall of Open Studio Projects brings art to the people in the alleyways of Riverdale in Saskatoon. From an article by Shift Development, alleyways are “reimagined as corridors of an outdoor community art gallery, one that is fully accessible to anyone interested in pausing to take in the exhibit. Some of the paintings have been marked, scratched, or tagged with spray paint. Is this vandalism or collaboration? From the moment they go up, the paintings are vulnerable and this creates an interesting tension between art convention and art innovation.”

To view a map of current and past art from MoTA, click here.

Not all temporary museums house impermanent art. It’s just the building that is impermanent. The Black Cube Gallery is an experimental museum that operates nomadically. The gallery attempts to work outside of the white gallery/white walls of traditional museums. With no building and no art collection they work with their artists creating pop-up experiences.

In the same vein, the Nomadic Werewolf Museum of Los Angeles curated by collage artist Holly Crawford, pops-up, usually during the full moon. The museum shows contemporary art, performance and installations focused on werewolf history and culture.

Redefining Timelessness in Art

Art has always been transient in nature. Styles, waves and artists come and go. “Timeless art” is a social construct best argued by art historians. Buddhism teaches that everything that exists is transient, or in a constant state of flux. Today we live in a Snapchat culture; transience and impermanence are embedding themselves in the way we think about many things. Why not art?