Dr Diana Tay: “Whether it is done by a professional or by the collector, regular checks are key to minimise risks of deterioration.” – S.E.A. Focus

Dr Diana Tay: “Whether it is done by a professional or by the collector, regular checks are key to minimise risks of deterioration.”

On caring for artworks and the future of art conservation in Southeast Asia

Dr Diana Tay is a paintings conservator and the founder of BARC Labs in Singapore. She has more than 14 years of experience in the field, having worked at institutions such as Heritage Conservation Centre (Singapore), Tate Britain (United Kingdom), National Museum of Philippines, and QAGOMA (Queensland, Australia). Her portfolio includes designing institutional policies for the acquisition of contemporary art as well as working with private collectors on their collection management. 

A look at Diana’s studio. Image courtesy of BARC Labs.

What motivated you to start BARC Labs in 2022? How does it differ from existing conservation studios in Singapore or Southeast Asia?

Well, to be honest, at the top of my mind, my first response would be a fear of post-PhD depression. After being hyper-focused on a project for five years without a break, you can imagine feeling lost the moment you submit your thesis. What will I do next? There are no conservation schools in Singapore so continuing an academic profession would not be possible. The one thing I knew for sure was that I had to come back to Singapore – for the people who have supported my research from day one and believed that there was value in conservation research outside of institutions. I do not think I would have done it any other way. They have motivated me to start BARC Labs and I do see my value here in Singapore, sharing and generating conservation knowledge.

The first significant distinction is our strong emphasis on research and the provision of research services. Through technical examination and archival research, we delve beneath the paint layer, enabling us to provide valuable insights into an artist’s materials and techniques. This process is particularly captivating as we explore artworks by artists who may no longer be with us, allowing us to journey back in time. Our endeavours contribute to the expansion of our material knowledge concerning artists in the region. We are delighted by the positive reception of this service! It has been well received by private collectors who seek to enhance their understanding of their artworks and collections. Additionally, it has proven valuable for retrospective exhibitions, providing curators with insights into the artist’s materials and techniques!

The second differentiation is that we are big on education. We have just conducted the Little Art Detectives series, a children’s workshop at Singapore Art Museum in early June, where we showed children how to spot damages on paintings, have a think about how it happened and they also had a hand at trying out some retouching techniques! Public outreach is important to change the way we think about conservation and the way our shared cultural heritage is being cared for. Right now, conservation or restoration is usually thought of only when there has been a change or damage. Thinking of it this way is quite like you going to the doctor only when requiring surgery. We can begin thinking about the health of our collection and minimising the risks of deterioration – much like a yearly check-up at the GP! I think conservation has a lot more to offer. We are always on the lookout for the next outreach opportunity.

‘Little Art Detectives: Learn How to Detect Damage and Preserve Art’, a children’s workshop at Singapore Art Museum, 3 June 2023. Image courtesy of BARC Labs.

From your perspective, what types of conservation or restoration issues are easiest to remedy?

The deterioration issues of paintings are complicated and unique to each case. Paintings are essentially made of materials, and these materials are very much alive. Within a painting’s anatomy, there are many layers – the canvas, ground, paint and possibly varnish. Sometimes, the deterioration may be happening in the middle layer. Sometimes, it could be an abrasion or a scratch that caused surface damage. For instance, a tear across a painting could be straightforward if the tear is neat and can be treated relatively quickly. However, if a tear is on an acrylic painting, and the paint layer has deformed from the impact, then it would be complicated. However, not all deterioration mechanisms can be remedied. Sometimes, the materials themselves result in inherent changes. If a paint layer begins to powder because there is not enough binder, that would be complicated.

Diana’s studio bench. Image courtesy of BARC Labs.

How easily can these deterioration issues be avoided?

The key is maintenance. This is something that is often neglected and its importance is seldom emphasised. Think about it. After purchasing an artwork, it is then displayed in a house or kept in storage. What are we doing to take care of it? I think it is quite interesting to observe how we care for other assets such as cars, where owners are constantly thinking about maintenance routines, mileage, and whether the dent is new. I know that it is quite different but as a material-based asset, I would suggest we start thinking the same way when it comes to caring for our artworks too. 

There are risks we cannot run away from such as mould, especially in Singapore. Even buildings or institutions with the most consistent and regulated temperature and humidity can still have mould challenges. The spores are microscopic and if we think about the conditions of where artworks are produced, or stored, it is seldom in a climate-controlled environment. So, it is always better to take care of artworks from the onset and have them checked frequently.  This is because it is impossible to restore some damages back to the artist’s original intention. When we take maintenance seriously, we can avoid many risks.

Diana working with a swab. Image courtesy of BARC Labs.

Can a layperson look out for these “symptoms” or do you think that only professionals can properly do maintenance checks?

With the right knowledge and purpose, a layperson would be able to do it. I have guided some clients on what to look out for in their artworks. They are the first set of eyes! However, with some clients, they prefer having a professional conservator in to help maintain their collection. Whether it is done by a professional or by the collector, what matters most is the acknowledgement that regular checks need to be done. Looking is the first step. Now, the next step is addressing an issue when you spot one. This is something for which you definitely need to call on a professional. 

Works in oil, acrylic, paper, and print are some of the commonly collected mediums. On the topic of care, what are some precautionary measures collectors based in Southeast Asia can take?

Well, the first thing is to pay attention to the storage conditions of the work. Good air circulation is important. Do not store artworks in their bubble wrap after they have been delivered to your place.  Much irreversible damage is caused by packing paper or bubble wrap getting stuck onto the paint layer, leaving behind their marks, especially in warm and humid Singapore. At the end of the day, it all goes back to maintenance. Things like mould, bubble wrap damage, tears and holes can be easily prevented. Artworks should also be professionally cleaned to minimise dust accumulation. 

For artworks on paper and print, I think foxing is one of the biggest challenges I have seen in Singapore. This can be caused by the humidity, the way it was framed or by the paper quality itself. If it is the latter, there is nothing much you can do as it is inherent to the material. I would usually tell collectors that as long as they like the work and can accept the visual anomalies, they should just acquire it. It is unreasonable to expect something material to not go through change. Even we get wrinkles! When we see old master paintings, we might find the cracks beautiful. So why might we find that difficult to accept when it comes to artworks we own? That said, the responsibility of using good-quality materials begins with the artist, and that is where conservators can also collaborate with artists to understand the impact of using certain materials.

There is ongoing research on the conservation of artworks and its materials in tropical climates. Our climate is different from that of temperate countries so it influences how materials react, the type of pests we might have or how we start thinking about our storage conditions. Our challenges here in Southeast Asia are quite specific.

Removal of old restoration work. Image courtesy of BARC Labs.

I would like to dwell on paper as a material. Paper quality is one factor in the mix, could you talk about other variables we should consider?

Sure. It is not only about the acidity of paper. Its absorbency could also affect the way paper interacts with humidity. At times, the artists may want the surface to absorb pigments in a certain way so they prepare the surface differently. All that said, I do not believe in altering an artist’s practice or interfering with the artist’s intention. They should not change materials for the sake of conservation if it affects the final outcome. 

We also need to think about how the artwork is displayed and the materials used in frames. Some artists may choose to exhibit their paper works by pinning it up on four corners onto the wall. I think we have seen this before where bulges or undulations occur, especially if it is in a  room that has the air conditioning turned on and off!  When it comes to framing paper works, we need to be aware of how it is mounted, whether it is adhered, as well as the materials used in framing.

Getting painting cross-sections ready to be scanned under an electron microscope. Image courtesy of BARC Labs.

Lastly, could you touch on the relationship between conservation and the art market confidence?

What I hope to work on is establishing artist attribution and building a conservation material record for Southeast Asia, starting with modern paintings in Singapore. To do so, artworks need to be accessible for research. This applies not only to private collections but institutions, galleries, and artist estates too. This process is usually done in our studio and involves collecting 100 data points from the artwork through technical photography, visual examination and material analysis. Only when there is breadth in the data collected, can we move towards the conversation about artist attribution and possibly, authenticity. I think what we need in Singapore are joint research efforts by institutions and private stakeholders. 

That said, I am excited for the future. There are currently quite a few Singaporeans undertaking their Masters in Conservation overseas and they are interested in researching our local cultural heritage. The conservation discipline in Singapore is slowly developing and people today are more aware of the profession. With the right support for research, I do believe that we will see a significant change in three to five years’ time when these locals complete their studies and bring their expertise home. 

This interview has been edited.