In this ArtRatio expert interview with Diana Tay, Southeast Asian paintings conservator, we discuss the challenges and opportunities for conservation, examined in relation to technological advances, big data and cross-border differences.
13 October 2020
About Diana Tay
Diana Tay is a paintings conservator who is driven to inspire the growth of the conservation industry and wants to see it thrive. Her professional conservation practice began with the National Heritage Board Singapore in 2009 specialising in Southeast Asian easel paintings. Diana obtained her Masters of Cultural Materials Conservation (2014) and has since embarked on a quest to understand and uncover embodied values of Singaporean easel paintings. Her current PhD research is a step towards this direction, generating data insights through technical photography and examination. To value-add her research and with a curiosity for ways to turn information into meaning, Diana completed a certification in data analytics and is a research assistant for digital humanities projects. Taking her passion for sharing what she knows and what she doesn’t, Diana gives talks on the possibilities of conservation research and works closely with artists, collectors and emerging conservators. Follow her on @beneath.art on Instagram and Youtube.
Welcome Diana! Thank you very much for joining us from Melbourne. We’re delighted to be with you.
ArtRatio: May I ask how you came to study conservation?
Diana: Hi, great to be here. So when I undertook my undergraduate studies in fine arts painting at LASALLE Singapore, having a conservation practice was a career I didn’t expect. The art landscape in the 2000s was so different to today where we see increased support for the arts. After graduation, I applied for the position of an assistant paintings conservator in the National Heritage Board, Singapore, not knowing what the field encompassed. There isn’t a dedicated conservation school in Singapore, so having an art or science background was desirable for the position. The interview included a hands-on skills assessment, which tested an applicant’s colour-coordination skills, documentation approaches and strength, amongst others. For the first three years, I was trained by an international group of conservators (Australia, Spain, UK), which exposed me to various conservation approaches. However, knowing how to repair or fix wasn’t enough for me – I wanted to understand the reasons behind the choices we make. Especially when conservators are responsible for the treatment decisions and outcomes we make, having “it’s always been this way” as a reason isn’t good enough for responsible practice.
ArtRatio: And what is it that keeps you fascinated with the field?
Diana: Conservation is an inter-, multi-, cross-discipline practice because there’s just so much to learn and discover. You’re never going to be on your own. You’ll have to talk to curators, collectors, conservators, collection managers, researchers, the public and more – think of it as an art of negotiation. Practice-wise, it sits in the sweet spot of science, art and ethics. It isn’t just about putting back lost paint or cleaning varnishes. Our cultural objects and works of art are essentially made of materials (think molecules) which is where an understanding of chemistry comes in. The conservator then develops a treatment plan and carries out a series of tests before starting. Something that conservators may often exclude from the conversation is ethics because it can get quite icky, especially when uncomfortable decisions may have to be made. And because conservation is heavily grounded in decision-making, so much has to be learnt. I would say, for all of these challenges, they are what keeps me fascinated with this field.
ArtRatio: I understand that conservation has a long history in Europe, the US, and Japan, for example. Where and why does conservation still have a long way to go?
Diana: I’ll address this from an institutional art conservation perspective, where conservators practice in studios or laboratories. The conservation and restoration efforts of heritage sites and cultural objects that have been made aren’t discounted but do have an entire history altogether. To answer this, we need a little back history and to understand how museums were established in Southeast Asia.
The history of institutional conservation practice and the profession in Southeast Asia is short in comparison to Europe or the United States. In the latter, Western conservation practices have their origins in 19th-century enlightenment theories. However, in Southeast Asia, conservation as a disciplinary practice is linked to the establishment of museums and nation-building from the mid to late twentieth century. Before the Second World War, all the countries of Southeast Asia, except Thailand, became colonies of the Western powers. It was post-Second World War where these Southeast Asian countries achieved their independence. With broader economic issues to face, building and maintaining art museums wasn’t much of a governmental priority. This isn’t to say there wasn’t any art practice in the region; on the contrary, the diversity of the region is expressed through the arts. I would think that the challenge was in having a robust infrastructure to display, collect and maintain collections, in addition to developing an in-house conservation team.
Now, we can observe increased investments in dedicated art museums, both public and private, around Southeast Asia. This is spurred by the growth of Southeast Asian art and its collections. If we think of conservation beyond the repair-works, and think of how technical research is part of this profession – there is so much more to do and find out. For most of my practice, I have been taking care of the National Collection of Singapore, which is the most extensive public collection of Singaporean and Southeast Asian modern art. Through the years, I came to realise that we need to know more – the materials the artists used, their techniques, the environment the artwork was subjected to, etc. Greater attention needs to be paid to conservation as a discipline in the region. And because conservation goes beyond conservators, much more advocacy on the importance of taking care of your artworks needs to be done.
ArtRatio: Why did you study conservation overseas and not in your “home” market?
Diana: Well, in addition to what I just mentioned, we currently do not have a dedicated conservation school in Singapore (or anywhere in Asia, for that matter). Some of the local conservators, like myself, might first pick up conservation skills on the job from our international conservation colleagues. This might change over time with increasing awareness and interest in conservation; I see more locals going overseas to pursue formal education.
I am currently undertaking my PhD research at the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne. The Centre has a strong commitment to the study of cultural materials in Asia-Pacific, and my supervisors have supported and advocated for regionally-relevant conservation approaches for works of art in Southeast Asia through their research. My research focuses on Singaporean art, so a big part of data collection takes place in Singapore. Back in Melbourne, I have access to supervisory guidance and scientific instrumentations to process all that data. After all, knowledge isn’t bound by geography!
ArtRatio: So true! So, on the subject of geography, when a layperson thinks of conservation, it’s easy to assume that all conservation is the same, apart from the degree of damage and what it may be caused by.
ArtRatio: How much does conservation differ by region or cultural differences?
Diana: Conservation can be categorised under two general umbrellas, preventive conservation and interventive conservation. Think of it as going to the doctor: you could prevent, or rather, minimise the chances of falling ill by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, or you might have to go to the doctor to get a diagnosis, and if possible and when necessary, find an intervention for the condition. However, an intervention that works for Person A might not have the same effects for Person B. This said, conservation of different objects, even from the same region, would differ, and even more so for other regions. Through the years, creators of cultural objects or works of art would have used different materials, different paints, different techniques – all of which would result in different materiality and have other demands. Take, for instance, in regions with humid climates such as Southeast Asia and some parts of Latin America. The kinds of changes or damages you might encounter more frequently would be mould or undulations. However, the artistic techniques and paints the artists employ are likely to vary between these two regions. Cultural sensitivity is an essential consideration that a conservator would have to practice, especially when we are treating works that are outside of our knowledge ecosystem. You will find that in Southeast Asia, especially in cultural heritage objects, there is a significant aspect of traditional knowledge or cultural beliefs. In my opinion, cultural differences are present depending on the ecosystem that we are in. We might overlook how the human factor, such as working with other allied practitioners, clients and artists, is vital in creating a regionally-relevant approach. This includes how we interact, understand and negotiate with them. Conservation doesn’t have a straight forward copy + paste method!
ArtRatio: How are the rapid advances in tech and big data impacting the Art world, in particularly your area of expertise? To what extent do you think data analytics can help the conservation of art?
Diana: Tech and big data are something to look out for in the Arts industry. Reading about how it aids in the analysis and prediction of art market trends and its subsequent investments, virtual reality experiences, creative AI robots that can paint – I think we are just in its beginnings. Data analysis has always been a useful tool in the monitoring of the environment in preventive conservation. When I first started my practice, we could only read the hygrothermograph at the end of each month when we changed its paper recordings. This meant that any issues would probably be addressed in retrospect. With technological advancements, that is quite a thing of the past. Now, you can get real-time readings, receive notifications on-the-go and have data visualised! The upcoming technology to look out for in preventive conservation is the use of suspended particle devices (SPD) smart glass as radiation (or light) is one of the agents of deterioration.
In the context of paintings conservation, there is a lot of potential using data analytics. When we think of paintings, we often think of it as a visual image. However, there is so much material data embodied within them. If we think of it as layers of materiality (canvas, ground layer, sketches, paint layers, varnish), we could transform unstructured data into structured data to be analysed. This is pretty much a summary of my current research with Singaporean art which incorporates the use of some data analytical tools. Research and data collection is the way forward to understand works of art of the region better!