22. Future in Motion: Conservation Issues of Seven Kinetic Artworks by Dutch Artist Ray Staakman

  • Carien van Aubel
  • Nikki van Basten
  • Katja van de Braak
  • Sjoukje van der Laan
  • Anouk Verbeek
  • Marleen Wagenaar


This paper presents the conservation of seven kinetic artworks created between 1965 and 1969 by Dutch artist Ray Staakman (b. 1941). The artworks are made of various materials—aluminum or tin plate in combination with polystyrene sheets, painted chipboard, painted metal, or metal springs—but all contain one or two electric motors. The artworks had malfunctions that were caused by broken motors and the deformation of moving parts. The challenge in this project was finding a balance between respecting the artist’s intent and respecting the authenticity of the original materials. Is it permissible to improve kinetic mechanisms by replacing original parts of the artworks?

Dutch artist Ray Staakman (b. 1941) was a pioneer in kinetic art in the Netherlands during the 1960s and 1970s, and the movement in his artworks creates intriguing optical effects by the displacement of shapes. Unfortunately, several of his works began to malfunction after repeated use and could no longer be displayed. In 2012 the University of Amsterdam (UvA), in collaboration with the Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed (RCE; the Cultural Heritage Agency, Netherlands), began a major conservation project of seven of Staakman’s early kinetic artworks in the collection of the RCE. The objects, which Staakman made between 1965 and 1969, are composed of various materials, including anodized aluminum or tin plate in combination with polystyrene sheets, painted chipboard, painted metal, and metal springs (fig. 22.1). They all contain one or two electric motors, which activate the kinetic mechanisms.1 The malfunctions were mainly caused by broken electric motors and deformation of the moving parts due to repeated use or to damage that occurred during exhibition and storage. In some cases, components were not resilient enough to withstand stress generated during movement.

Figure 22.1. Components from Ray Staakman’s kinetic works, before treatment. The metal spring (left), two electric motors that move each other in the opposite direction when switched on (middle), and a worn-down gear (right) were not, and are not, robust enough to support the stresses generated during movement. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed. © Ray Staakman

Extensive research resulted in restoring both the materiality and the kinetic functions of the artworks; however, the conservators found themselves constantly questioning the practical possibilities and ethical boundaries of conserving and restoring the artworks. Following conservation ethics, is it permissible to improve or replace kinetic mechanisms? For a broader perspective on these dilemmas, we asked the opinions of three pioneers in the conservation of kinetic art: Lydia Beerkens, senior conservator, contemporary art, Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg (SRAL), Netherlands; Reinhard Bek, partner, Bek & Frohnert, New York City; and Ulrich Lang, senior conservator, LangSündermanRestauratoren, Germany.

Kinetic artworks can be divided into two categories: “sculptural” works, which still have high aesthetic value without movement; and works that are “dead” without movement. Staakman’s can be placed in the second category, as he stated: “Without movement my work is dead. The materials I used are simply a means to create optical effects through movement.”2 Bek emphasized the importance of movement in Staakman’s work and stated that “under certain circumstances the reversible replacement of functional parts, e.g., motors, especially when invisible to the audience, can therefore be considered acceptable.”3 Although Beerkens understood that Staakman’s work doesn’t have an explicit sculptural value without its movement, she expressed doubts: “improving the artwork with retroactive effect changes the artworks into more sophisticated contemporary pieces.”4 Lang said that “instead of improving a kinetic artwork by later technology, I would rather think about exhibition copies, 3-D models, or films. A faded color would never be repainted, so why would we be allowed to ‘update’ kinetic art?”5

The aim of the Staakman conservation project was to achieve at least temporary exhibition of the artworks through minimal intervention; however, the treatments seem to have been insufficient because some of the malfunctions are inherent to the quality of the kinetic components. More drastic measures are needed to allow a prolonged exhibition in the future. The choice between respecting the artist’s intent, which would require improving the artworks, or respecting the material’s authenticity will be made in continuing conservation treatments.


We thank Ray Staakman for the valuable and informative collaboration. We thank Lydia Beerkens, Reinhard Bek, and Ulrich Lang for their invaluable opinions on this subject. Thanks are also due to Evelyne Snijders, Ellen Jansen, and Ingeborg Smit, University of Amsterdam (UvA); Ron Kievits and Simone Vermaat, Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed (RCE); private conservator Daan Brouwers; and Marcel van der Sande, Kröller-Müller Museum, for their assistance and input on this project. We are grateful to our other colleagues from the UvA and RCE for their contributions, advice, and support toward the conservation of these kinetic artworks.


  1. Electric motors made by Crouzet (type: 965). Staakman used donated electric motors and industrial leftovers to create his artworks.
  2. Ray Staakman, Skype interview with Carien van Aubel, Nikki van Basten, Anouk Verbeek, Katja van de Braak, Sjoukje van der Laan, and Marleen Wagenaar, Ateliergebouw Amsterdam, December 5, 2012.
  3. Reinhard Bek, interview with Anouk Verbeek and Katja van de Braak, studio Bek & Frohnert, New York City, August 11, 2016.
  4. Lydia Beerkens, e-mail correspondence with Nikki van Basten, August 26, 2016.
  5. Ulrich Lang, e-mail correspondence with Carien van Aubel, August 25, 2016.