Yaacov Agam's work to be restored

For several weeks now, Yaacov Agam's work entitled "8+1 in motion" has been undergoing restoration at the University of Montpellier. Acquired in 1969 by the University of Sciences of Montpellier, it adorned, for nearly 36 years, the hall of its administrative building before being removed in 2005. An important piece of the UM's artistic heritage that the public will soon be able to enjoy again.

"This restoration is complex, it's quite a big job that will take us between one and two months of work" says Rémy Geindreau, curator-restorer of art specialized in technical, scientific and industrial heritage. With his colleague Mélanie Paul-Hazard, who specializes in sculpture and contemporary art, they are working patiently in the historic premises of the medical school to care for a work of art that has been badly damaged by time.

"8+1 in motion". A work created in 1969 by Yaacov Agam. At the time, the architects Philippe Jaulmes and Jean de Richemond were in charge of building the new campuses of the faculties of science and literature. Within the framework of the "1% artistic" scheme, a mechanism set up in 1951 requiring the State to commission works of art to decorate public buildings, the two architects designed an ambitious decoration program and called upon renowned artists such as Pol Bury, Yvaral and Yaacov Agam.

Designed to play with light

A specialist in kinetic art, Yaacov Agam delivers a work designed to play with the effects of light and form. "It is composed of 18 wooden panels covered with stainless steel plates placed on a wall painted black. The installation is 16 meters long in total. One might think that the panels are all the same and yet they all present minute variations" explains Rémy Geindreau.

On each panel there are eight small black fins with a mechanism that allows them to rotate, inviting the audience to change the compositions. On the back of each wing, a spectrum of colors is reflected in the polished metal of the panel creating different lighting effects depending on the position given to the wings.

A work that has become unreadable

With time, unfortunately, "56 fins (out of 144) have disappeared or have been broken, the stainless steel plates have become dirty and no longer reflect the colored spectra. All the kinetic dimension is lost and the work has become unreadable for the public" says Audrey Théron in charge of museum collections at the University of Montpellier. In order not to damage it further, the work was taken down in 2005 and stored in different places before arriving at the historic site of the Faculty of Medicine.

So it took 15 years for this "8+1″ to finally find its movement. A long time but necessary for Audrey Théron, "the 1% artistic obligation requires public institutions to maintain the works which can sometimes be expensive. We have to find the funding." A cost that amounts to €20,000 for the first stage of restoration of this work, which the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (DRAC) has paid for.

Stop the alterations

The objective of this restoration is not to make the work new again, but to stop the evolutionary alterations in order to protect it and give it back its legibility," explains Mélanie Paul-Hazard. Even if they are deformed or scratched, there is no question of replacing the stainless steel plates or polishing them excessively. The goal is to preserve the physical integrity of the work, to keep the original material. This involves compromises, such as leaving deep scratches."

Each stainless steel panel was completely dismantled, dusted, cleaned, glued and polished. The deformations of the steel were partially corrected and the edge bands were reconstituted where they had disappeared. The locking mechanisms of the fins were disassembled, de-sealed if necessary and treated against corrosion. The remaining fins were straightened, cleaned and the possible impacts were reduced.

A real investigative work

This requires patience and precision, especially when dealing with contemporary materials, as Rémy Geindreau points out: "We have fewer studies to restore stainless steel than we do for ancient archaeological metals". This difficulty is even greater when the restoration concerns the reconstitution of the missing elements, in particular the fins and their color spectrum. "The sequencing of colors on the fins is not random, we have already identified eight patterns that return. A restoration requires a real investigation to understand how the work was thought".

Another requirement for conservators is reversibility, as Melanie Paul-Hazard explains. "Everything we add to the work must be removable. We do not use, for example, epoxy glue but a reversible glue with good aging." All the interventions carried out by the restorers are moreover precisely documented in a report. "It is important to differentiate between what is original and what has been modified by successive restorers so as not to misunderstand the work a few decades from now."

An artistic heritage to rediscover

In a few months, the "8+1 in motion" should be back in its original location on the Triolet campus and offer its colorful displays to a new generation of students. This will be an opportunity to rediscover the University's artistic heritage, such as Pol Bury's Columns (1974), the frescoes or the cladding of the university library created by Yvaral (1972), François Desnoyer 's tapestry (1972), or Albert Dupin's Seven Signs of Life(1970). Not to mention, of course, the new works that will sublimate the brand new Science Village.