Old people’s home: keep on rolling
Objects conservator Kim Goldsmith shares how we maintain electrical works of art.
The National Gallery has displayed a diverse range of electrical works of art – one favourite being Old people’s home 2007 by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu in the 2017 exhibition Hyper Real. Thirteen elderly gentlemen dressed in military uniforms, suits, or religious garb, slumped in their wheelchairs, roving the exhibition floor.
Each wheelchair was equipped with sensors to aid their slow navigation around the gallery space. Occasionally they would collide with one another or roll over a foot. One ambitious figure managed to roll past the barricade and move through the rest of the exhibition until they were found and escorted back!
To uphold the illusion of independent movement, each wheelchair housed a large battery. Every evening, objects conservators were responsible for rounding up the old men and plugging them in so they could recharge overnight.
Works of art that include batteries require regular recharging or replacements to meet the demand of being on show from 10am – 5pm, seven days a week. Unexpected technical glitches can occur. We would often find the characters in Old people's home dozing in a corner – either their battery needed charging, or the on/off button would need fixing, or they would behave like dodgem cars, and we would have to disentangle them.
For Old people’s home, conservators were responsible for maintaining the physical work of art, and also the more intangible aspects, such as the mechanisms for the movement of the wheelchairs. Movement created by the electrical components of this work is therefore an essential part of the meaning of the work, along with the physical parts of the sculpture. Objects conservators collect diagrams of wiring, manuals, note brands of batteries, condition report the works and record any maintenance instructions or incidents. Conservators take photographs or video that capture how the work of art should look when it is operating properly so that it can be replicated in the future.