• Rachel Rivenc

“All of a sudden it hit me why not just movement? If there was such a thing as composing music, there could be such a thing as composing motion.” —Len Lye1

The word kinetic derives from the Greek kinetikos and simply means “moving, in motion.” Kinetic art not only incorporates movement but often depends on it to produce its intended effect and fully realize its nature as a work of art. Movement can be energy, experience, or matter to be composed. Kinetic art can take a multiplicity of forms and include a wide range of motion, from motorized and electrically driven to that created by wind, light, or other sources of energy. It can include light, sound, and slide or video projections.

Kinetic art emerged throughout the twentieth century. Naum Gabo’s Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) (1919–20), often considered one of the earliest examples of kinetic art, is discussed in two papers in this publication; the lesser known clavilux (light played with a key) created in 1921 by Thomas Wilfred is also discussed in these pages. Kinetic art had its major developments in the 1950s and 1960s with the groundbreaking efforts of artists such as Jean Tinguely and Nicolas Schöffer as well as collectives such as the ZERO group in Germany, Gruppo T in Italy, and Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) in France. In the 1960s, a branch of Op Art or optical art—that is, abstract art based on optical illusion—also started to incorporate actual movement; other artists explored the possibilities offered by interactive kinetic environments, in which the viewer’s experience takes precedence over the object in defining the work of art. Kinetic art continues to appeal to contemporary artists, and more recent creations such as Chris Burden’s Metropolis II (2011), Liz Larner’s Corner Basher (1988), and Leo Villareal’s Flowers 8 (2005) are also discussed in these papers.

In contemporary art conservation, much thought is devoted to the reconsideration of the concept of authenticity and to the dichotomy of preserving a work’s original materials versus its functionality. The conflict is especially acute with kinetic art, where a compromise between the two often seems impossible: when engine parts stop working, when light bulbs go out, the artwork will stop functioning if the components are not replaced. Wear and tear is inherent to the nature of the artworks and inevitable if they are displayed in motion, and issues of technological obsolescence thwart the most well-intentioned maintenance strategies. To further complicate matters, although parts of an artwork might be deemed “only” functional, strong sociological and historical information and meanings are often embedded in a given technology and its use by an artist. Keep it Moving? Conserving Kinetic Art is an attempt, if not to answer all of these questions, at least to convene a wide range of professionals who routinely grapple with them and initiate a discussion. Presenters from North and South America, Europe, and Oceania gathered to discuss issues in the preservation of kinetic art. Some of the discussions were very technical, but more general and wide-ranging preoccupations also emerged: the role of the conservator; functionality and experience versus materiality; the question of artist intent and artist involvement; the meaning of longevity and identity; obsolescence not only of materials but also of expertise and competence; and the influence of fame, fashion, and market on conservation. While most presentations originated from the conservation point of view, broader definitions of preservation were also proposed in a thought-provoking paper (see Brobbel and Rees, this volume) by the Len Lye Foundation. The two keynote articles lay important theoretical ground for the subsequent papers and tackle two major aspects of kinetic art preservation. Tiziana Caianiello focuses on re-creation and restaging to explore the boundaries between interpretation and overinterpretation, while in his paper, Reinhard Bek establishes three main preservation strategies for kinetic art: retirement, replication, and maintenance.

As expected, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, especially considering the wide range of artworks and situations included under the umbrella of “kinetic art.” Every decision is a compromise, which means that something is inevitably lost. But of course when works of art need conservation, it is often because something has been lost already, something has changed, and we are reacting to it. Deciding upon a conservation treatment or strategy often implies deciding what is the most acceptable loss, and how to retain as much of the artwork as possible. In this process, conservation emerges as an effort to define, over and over, what a work of art is: the specific work of art in front of us, but also a work of art in general. Each decision, each treatment is a tentative answer to that question. Some refer to conservation as an activity aiming at managing change rather than preventing or stopping it altogether. This especially resonates for kinetic works: Caianiello quotes Umberto Eco writing about Alexander Calder and defining a kinetic work of art as “a field of open possibilities.”2 So perhaps when we think of kinetic art, we can think of it as art in motion, not only because of the movement it incorporates but also because it is art that does not possess a fixed state; rather, the art is in flux, as is our understanding, interpretation, and reception of it.3

I would like to thank the Museo del Novecento for its generosity and wonderful assistance, especially Iolanda Ratti, collections curator, and Claudio Salsi, director, as well as Marina Pugliese, the former director who initially proposed this collaboration. The organization of this symposium would not have been possible without the diligence and tremendous efficiency of Barbara Ferriani and her studio, especially Elena Calasso. Lydia Beerkens and Julia Langenbacher also contributed greatly to the organization of the meeting. Within the GCI, I would like to gratefully acknowledge Jeanne Marie Teutonico, associate director of programs, and Tom Learner, head of science, for their support of the project. I would also like to extend my thanks to Cynthia Godlewski, senior publications manager, and Gary Mattison, senior project coordinator, both at the GCI, who expertly coordinated the preparation for publication of these proceedings.

The quality of the posters and the presentations given at the symposium was impressive, and I am extremely grateful to all the presenters and authors who shared their work during the symposium and in these proceedings. I am also profoundly indebted to Reinhard Bek, who coedited this volume—this project would not have been possible without his immense knowledge of and great enthusiasm for the topic, as well as his hard work and dedication. Finally, I am thankful to the talented staff at Getty Publications who turned our proceedings papers into a functional and beautiful publication: Beatrice Hohenegger, project editor; Jennifer Boynton, freelance manuscript editor; Greg Albers, digital publications manager; Eric Gardner, software engineer; Nick Geller, graduate intern; Nina Damavandi, image acquisition and permission; Rachel Barth, assistant editor; Zoe Goldman, editorial assistant; and Tom Fredrickson, proofreader.


  1. Citation: Lye 1984:64 [Lye, Len. 1984. “Art That Moves,” 78–87; “Considering a Temple,” 87–90; “Tangible Motion Sculpture,” 75–78; and “Why I Scratch, or How I Got to Particles,” 94–96. In Figures of Motion: Len Lye, Selected Writings, edited by Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks. Auckland: Auckland University Press.], quoted by Brobbel and Rees in this publication.
  2. Citation: Eco 1989:86 [Eco, Umberto. 1989. The Open Work. Translated by Anna Cancogni. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Originally published as Opera aperta (Milan: Bompiani, 1962).], quoted by Caianiello in this publication.
  3. The question of change, identity, and authenticity in relationship to the conservation of contemporary art has long preoccupied the field, and much has been written about the topic. For an in-depth discussion of these notions centered around time-based media installations, which present many issues overlapping with kinetic art, see, for example, Pip Laurenson, “Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media Installations,” Tate Papers 6 (Autumn 2006),​/research​/publications​/tate-papers​/06​/authenticity-change-and-loss-conservation-of-time-based-media-installations. For a more recent discussion of identity as a continuum of change, see Muriel Verbeeck, “There Is Nothing More Practical than a Good Theory: Conceptual Tools for Conservation Practice,” in Saving the Now: Crossing Boundaries to Conserve Contemporary Works, September 12–16, 2016, Preprints, Studies in Conservation Supplement 2, International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC), 2016.