10. Intertwined Strategies for Conservation and Display of Kinetic Art: Case Studies in the European Neo-Avant-Garde

  • Francesca Pola
  • Barbara Ferriani


This paper focuses on seminal case studies in the conservation and display of kinetic art from the European Neo-Avant-Garde, examined from the interdependent points of view of the authors: curator and conservator. Francesca Pola is an independent art historian and curator who has a special focus on conservation in her display concepts, while Barbara Ferriani is a conservator who pays particular attention to display in her practice of conservation. The case studies presented below resulted from the authors’ direct and sometimes shared experience and from their discussion of issues in their intertwined strategies and practices.

Through four case studies of works by Italian artists, we address the issues raised by kinetic objects, installations, and environments in relation to both conservation and display. The focus of this paper is not on technology producing movement but rather on the viewer’s interaction with these immersive devices, such as behaviors induced by the combination of these two elements. We explore action-based pieces and systems created by exponents, particularly Italian, of the European Neo-Avant-Garde, who used very simple technology.

Behavioral Kinetics

Giacomo Balla’s Bambina che corre sul balcone (Girl running on a balcony), from 1912, is in the collection of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Milan and is currently undergoing restoration in Ferriani’s studio (fig. 10.1). It has a direct relationship with photodynamic research on the kinetics and behavior of the body, and the artwork features an experimental technique. Bambina che corre sul balcone is one of the masterpieces of Futurism: the Italian root for the immersive, physical, tactile experience of movement—or, better, of space through movement. This kind of direct tactile and immersive interaction is a characteristic of the kinetic artworks we discuss, and it has generally been achieved by the artists’ explicit choice of an elementary technology.

A human figure in motion means physical and psychical involvement, which is the topic of this paper. Images depicting human bodies in motion, such as Bambina che corre sul balcone, could be compared to Ugo Mulas’s 1970 photograph showing artist Gianni Colombo walking inside one of his environments, Topoestesia (Tre zone contigue—Itinerario programmato) (Topoesthesia [Three contiguous zones—Programmed itinerary]) from 1965–70 (fig. 10.2).

Figure 10.1. Giacomo Balla’s Bambina che corre sul balcone (Girl running on a balcony), 1912. Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Racc. Grassi, Milan. © Comune di Milano. All rights reserved.
Figure 10.2. Gianni Colombo walking through his environment Topoestesia (Tre zone contigue—Itinerario programmato) (Topoesthesia [Three contiguous zones—Programmed itinerary]), 1965–70, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, 1970. Archivio Gianni Colombo, Milan. Photo: Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs. All rights reserved.

Case Study 1

Gabriele Devecchi’s 1959 Scultura da prendere a calci (Sculpture to be kicked), one of the earliest kinetic behavioral pieces (fig. 10.3), was first presented after the artist’s death in 2011 at the exhibition Tecnica mista: Come è fatta l’arte del Novecento, at Milan’s Museo del Novecento in 2012.

Figure 10.3. Gabriele Devecchi’s Scultura da prendere a calci (Sculpture to be kicked), 1959. Photo: © Antonio Ria, 1983. Palazzo Reale, Milan.

The replica, carried out by Ferriani, was executed following a prototype in the artist’s studio and directions from the artist’s son. The kinetics of the piece depend on the action of the spectator: the artwork has no meaning without interaction. The shape of the sculpture changes haphazardly after it is kicked—and it must be kicked—but this interaction means that the piece is gradually being destroyed.

The work is composed of eight expanded polyurethane parallelepipeds linked together with an elastic string, which is attached to a circular metallic base. Each parallelepiped is made of two polyurethane blocks that have been glued together and through which the elastic string passes. When the work is kicked, the elastic string extends, begins to weaken, and eventually breaks. The breaks occur mainly on the edges of the parallelepiped, where the glue creates high tension and inhibits the elasticity of the string.

As the life span of the work is extremely short—​sometimes just a few hours—while exhibitions generally last from one day to several months, replicas were created for the Museo del Novecento exhibition, so the work could be replaced when the elastic strings broke. Despite this, all the replicas broke within a few weeks; at the request of the artist’s archive, a solution was found that would preserve the interactivity of the piece for a longer amount of time. To allow the elastic string to slide, we ran it through a small transparent tube, which was placed where the two polyurethane blocks meet. We also used a glue with an elasticity much closer to that of polyurethane. Although the modification is not visible, we let the curators decide how to show the work: as originally conceived by Devecchi, despite its short life span, or as newly remade, which sacrifices the original technique but allows a longer-lasting display. In agreement with the artist’s archive, the curators decided to display the new version during the exhibition.

Case Study 2

In Gianni Colombo’s 1967 artwork Spazio elastico—due cubi (Elastic space—two cubes), the outline of two cubes sinks into a metallic surface in slow motion. The effect of movement is further enhanced by the reflectivity of the metal panel (fig. 10.4). The work is made of a flat, chromed metal surface inserted into a black-painted wooden frame. Eight holes in the metal plate allow eight metal tubes in the shape of two cubes to be pulled in and out. The back-and-forth movement of the cubes is created by two small, synchronized, single-phase motors. Inside the work, each cube is attached to a plastic plate. Each motor moves two levers, which in turn move two small wheels, raising and lowering the plastic plates, thereby moving the cubes up and down.

Figure 10.4. Gianni Colombo’s Spazio elastico—due cubi (Elastic space—two cubes), 1967. Archivio Gianni Colombo, Milan. Robilant + Voena, London, Milan, St. Moritz.

Over time, the chrome surface had become oxidized and scratched. It had lost its brilliance and reflectivity and no longer mirrored the movement of the cubes. In addition, the motors had stopped working. We evaluated the work to decide if we should accept the degradations of the original technological apparatus and not repair the components, or if we should repair them, even though this required removing or replacing some of the original elements.

With the assistance of an elderly technician who has a well-supplied warehouse, we decided to repair the motors, although the cubes’ movement is no longer completely smooth due to a distortion of the original metal tubing. We also found two new motors, similar in form and function, that can replace the originals if necessary.

The surface degradation posed a more difficult question: should it be left as is, or would it be better to re-chrome it? This treatment, although common in the art market, would have meant irreversibly tampering with the original and different aging of the various components, giving the work an imbalanced and incorrect appearance. We decided to create a replica of the chromed metal piece. This way, the work can be shown in its present state, as witness to its history, or the original motors and the chromed piece can be replaced, to give the work its original appearance.

Case Study 3

These two pieces by Gianni Colombo—Spazio elastico: doppio quadrato bianco intermutabile (Elastic space: intermutable double white square) from 1973–80 and Spazio elastico: rettangolo (Elastic space: rectangle) from 1974—belong to his cycle of Intermutabili, or Intermutables, which addresses painted versus physical geometry. The works feature a grid of elastic strings or tubes with springs superimposed on a background of painted wood. The viewer can alter the shape of the grid by hooking the ends of the elastic elements to different fixed nails. The monochrome background contrasts with the tone of the elastic elements. In some works, the symmetrical form of the grid is painted on the bottom, and it interferes with any alteration made by the observer. The pieces are meant to be a true physical and metaphorical “exercise of freedom,” with the spectator’s hands on the surface, interacting with them.

The exhibition catalogue of the first show of Intermutabili at Studio Marconi in Milan in 1975 makes it clear that tactile involvement is essential to the behavioral kinetics of the artworks. In photographs taken by Maria Mulas, the artist himself is shown changing the configuration of the single pieces, and the catalogue’s cover illustration focuses on the details of his hands in action on the surface.

Figure 10.5. Gianni Colombo’s Spazio elastico: doppio quadrato bianco intermutabile (Elastic space: intermutable double white square), 1973–80. Archivio Gianni Colombo, Milan. Robilant + Voena, London, Milan, St. Moritz.

Spazio elastico: doppio quadrato bianco intermutabile (Elastic space: intermutable double white square) (fig. 10.5) is composed of a wooden board painted black; two square patterns are formed by white plastic tubes connected by a thin cord. Metal springs at the corners of the two squares can be anchored to any nail in a line of nails inserted along the perimeter of the black background, thereby changing the shape of the composition. Over time, the elastic springs that secure the squares had lost their elasticity and no longer functioned, and the white plastic tubes had weakened and, in some places, cracked.

A similar problem occurred with Spazio elastico: rettangolo (Elastic space: rectangle) (fig. 10.6). It is composed of a wooden board painted black, with a white rectangular and linear pattern painted in the center. Another pattern can be created by white elastic strings, the shape of which can be altered by attaching black elastic strings to any nail in two lines of nails inserted on the perimeter of the black background. All the strings had lost their elasticity and were elongated.

Figure 10.6. Gianni Colombo’s Spazio elastico: rettangolo (Elastic space: rectangle), 1974. Private collection. Archivio Gianni Colombo, Milan.

The question was: Should the various elements be replaced to make it possible to interact with the piece? Or should an exhibition copy be created, so that the interactive aspect could be retained while the original was preserved?

Pola was faced with a similar dilemma for the Intermutabili in Gianni Colombo: The Body and the Space 1959–1980, an exhibition at Robilant + Voena, London, in autumn 2015. Visitors would not be able to touch and manipulate the original Intermutabili, which are fragile, but there was not enough space to display exhibition copies next to the originals. Pola decided to display the originals next to Colombo’s video artwork, Vobulazione e bieloquenza neg (Wobbulation and Bieloquence Neg) (fig. 10.7), realized in 1970 in collaboration with conceptual artist Vincenzo Agnetti and featuring the “intermutable” nature of the square. The two artists created it with a Wobbulator, a device that manipulates and distorts the electronic image of the square through human action and choice: the same concept as the Intermutabili. Because Pola could not allow the Intermutabili to be interactive, as they were originally intended, she chose a conceptual/contextual display strategy that respected the physical integrity of the objects while providing information on their full function as works of art.

Figure 10.7. Vincenzo Agnetti and Gianni Colombo’s Vobulazione e bieloquenza neg (Wobbulation and Bieloquence Neg), 1970. Archivio Gianni Colombo, Milan.

A similar solution was adopted for Jean Tinguely’s Méta-Matic No. 10 (1959). Exhibition copies are never allowed for these works by Tinguely, and curators sometimes provide a video of the artwork in action, as a documentation and presentation resource. However, we would like to underline that because Méta-Matic is about automatic motion, the video solution is practical. For Colombo’s work, a video cannot replace the action of the spectator interacting with the art: the point of Méta-Matic is not the spectator’s choice (as it is in Colombo’s work) but the anonymity of the mechanical drawing.

Case Study 4

Gianni Colombo’s Topoestesia (Tre zone contigue—Itinerario programmato) (Topoesthesia [Three contiguous zones—Programmed itinerary]), 1965–70, is the most immersive work of these case studies (fig. 10.8). This environment can be experienced at the Museo del Novecento in Milan, where it was first reconstructed in 2012. It was presented in London in 2015, its first appearance outside Italy. The Archivio Gianni Colombo has the original drawings, detailed plans, and even samples of original materials, so an exact replica of the original could be made using new materials. Immersive and “walkable” interactive environments such as this are not objects but experiences. They are more like a performance to be enacted by the spectator than an image or object to be looked at. Every time a performance is interpreted, it is not a reenactment but the real piece. We could ask ourselves: can we apply this kind of performative category to Colombo’s “behavioral” environments?

Figure 10.8. The third corridor of Gianni Colombo’s Topoestesia (Tre zone contigue—Itinerario programmato) (Topoesthesia [Three contiguous zones—Programmed itinerary]), 1965–70. Archivio Gianni Colombo, Milan. Robilant + Voena, London, Milan, St. Moritz.

Colombo coined the word topoestesia for this work: a sensory experience (esthesia) of a place (topos). We could call it an environment–itinerary or an environment–behavior. As the title Tre zone contigue suggests, it consists of three successive and parallel corridors of the same length. It is an itinerary that can be experienced only by being followed: it invites visitors to effect a psychic and physical immersion that does not end with the purely visual dimension, not even when they simply enter the environment, but requires further involvement, that of following it through to the end. The piece is activated each time a spectator walks in, so we could say that the artwork is the experience, as well as the physical environment that makes it possible. It is precisely this reenactment of the experience whenever one walks through the environment that defines the uniqueness and the topicality of Colombo’s work. It is analogous to performance practice, but with the responsibility of the action transferred to the viewer.

The viewer walks down the first corridor accompanied by the rhythm of a timed pulse of light, which reveals different geometric patterns on the walls, floor, and ceiling, depending on the type of illumination. Under ultraviolet light, an orthogonal green grid is revealed; under red light, a red cruciform layout. The second corridor adds a crucial element to this immersive destabilization, modifying the usual experience of space, which is generally orthogonal: a progressive twist of the floor and walls forces the viewer to walk in a situation of imbalance between inclined walls and on a surface that progressively changes its orientation.

In the third corridor, there is only a Wood’s lamp (black light) and walls composed of a pulsating grid of elastic strings. The slow and almost imperceptible movement of the elastic strings is in stark contrast to the rhythmic pulses of light in the two preceding corridors, and the visitor is immersed in a darkness in which the only coordinates for finding the exit are provided by the “breathing” of the surrounding grid. With Topoestesia the artist wanted visitors to gain a more precise understanding of their habitual and conventional relationship with space, so they can free themselves of learned behaviors.

Colombo’s intentions were expressed in the work’s original installation at Vitalità del negativo nell’arte italiana 1960/70, in Rome’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni, where Topoestesia was the first part of a longer itinerary. It was followed by two other walkable environments: Campo praticabile (Practicable field), by Colombo and Agnetti, and Spazio elastico (Elastic space). Further evidence can be seen in Ugo Mulas’s photographs of Colombo, where the artist, as if on a theatrical stage, performs his own behaviors inside Topoestesia.

The reconstruction of this environment in 2015, as well as the reconstructions of all Colombo’s environments, was carried out by the Archivio Gianni Colombo. As Marco Scotini, director of the archive, has stated: “Colombo’s environment is a repeatable spatial device, a device which operates autonomously and, in some measure, anonymously … [and] which requires the direct participation of the spectator” (Citation: Ferriani and Pugliese 2013:100 [Ferriani, Barbara, and Marina Pugliese. 2013. Ephemeral Monuments: History and Conservation of Installation Art. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.]).


The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how kinetic art, even more than other forms of artistic expression, requires a close collaboration between conservators and art historians/curators to ensure that it is conserved and displayed correctly. We are aware that the choices made to conserve artistic heritage often result from current approaches, not immutable criteria, and we have kept a range of solutions open to consideration.

We have attempted to identify, on a case-by-case basis, solutions that will maintain the historical value, the use value, the symbolic value and, not least, the economic value of kinetic art in such a way that, if not all works can be conserved, curators can choose which to favor. For example, one might decide to accept the deterioration of an original technological apparatus, thereby abandoning the recovery of the moving components, or decide to replace some elements, “updating” the work while acknowledging that its authenticity will be altered. As far as possible, we have sought solutions that can coexist.

Kinetic art is often interactive, and only in the exchange of information between curators and conservators is it possible to understand the limits and accuracy of conservation strategies and, at the same time, have these strategies allow a correct use of and involvement with the kinetic works, as close as possible to the meaning envisioned within their original concept.


Ferriani and Pugliese 2013
Ferriani, Barbara, and Marina Pugliese. 2013. Ephemeral Monuments: History and Conservation of Installation Art. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.
Pola and Scotini 2015
Pola, Francesca, and Marco Scotini. 2015. Gianni Colombo: The Body and the Space 1959–1980. Venice: Marsilio Editori.