Author’s Note: I’m in a class on decay this semester and one of our assignments was to let something rot for about a month. I had a lot of fun documenting this experience and wanted to share it with all of you. Please enjoy my ramblings on ecology, and art conservation. If you want to see more photos, they all live here.
A Brief Introduction
I found the painting at Mother of Junk in Williamsburg, the kind of thrift store where you spend hours picking through the discarded objects of peoples’ past lives, hoping to find that one weirdly wonderful thing crammed between overflowing crates of miniatures, densely-packed shelves of dishware, and precarious stacks of furniture.
The painting was stuck between a washed-out watercolor landscape and a discouragingly dusty motivational quote poster. My criteria was simple: a piece small enough to fit on the garden bed without attracting attention and no glass frame cover so it could be fully exposed to the elements. This portrait of a young girl watching a bird from a blue park bench surrounded by birch trees checked all the boxes. I felt a pang of guilt at checkout when the cashier asked what I planned to do with the painting. It had been there for a long time and he was happy to see it go to a new home. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth — that I planned to abandon it outside in the community garden by my house.
Whole Neighborhood Garden is located on Bedford Avenue between Lafayette Avenue and Kosciuszko Street. Previously a playground, it was rebuilt in 2013 for the community to rent growing plots and compost food scraps. I got the code to unlock the gate from my roommate and spent an hour meandering through rows of raised beds clogged with dead leaves and overgrown herbs, trying to find the best spot for this experiment. I decided to place the painting in the back where it couldn’t be seen from the street (and potentially thrown away by another community garden member). I placed the painting flat on the foliage and soil, that way rain, snow, and detritus could accumulate on its painted surface.
Day 1: February 12, 2023
Each time an artwork enters a museum or gallery, a staff member has to perform a condition report to assess the object for signs that it may need cleaning or repair.
This painting was in relatively good condition when I bought it. It appears to be oil on wooden panel. No information about the artist, only their initials “EF” on the lower left side. The paint and varnish is intact. No major discoloration or craquelure to indicate previous surface damage or significant aging. On the underside, I observed minor corrosion on nails securing the panel to the frame and rust on the hanging wire. The frame appeared to be spray-painted with a gold finish that was already beginning to rub off, revealing pink wood underneath. In the garden, the bed the painting rested on was comprised mostly dried brown leaves although I noticed some ground ivy sprouting up through the soil, most likely from the previous week’s rain.
Day 3: February 14, 2023
The painting began showing its first signs of wear, primarily through the erosion of the frame’s gold finish. As the paint splintered off, it began leaving little flakes on the canvas, disrupting the peaceful nature scene with unnatural chunks of bright coral. The canvas itself is still mostly intact, no significant debris or cracking of the paint.
Although I was only 3 days into this endeavor, I was starting to feel bad about my decision to leave this painting exposed to the elements. It felt like I was going against my instincts as a museum worker to protect objects at all costs. I was breaking every art conservation protocol I’ve ever learned. In her book Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving, Caitlin DeSilvey writes that “on an intimate register, people use objects as memory prompts to materialize elements of identity and experience. Conservation of the material past, in its most familiar mode, is an act of ‘self-preservation,’ an impulse that seeks to maintain the relation between self and surround…With each act of preservation, the vulnerable object becomes (a little bit of) us, and its unmaking threatens to unmake our identities as well.”
When I purchased the painting, it became part of me. Yet at the same time, I was relinquishing my control as its owner, leaving its fate up to random acts of more-than-human intervention by local weather patterns, flora, and fauna. This painting was not entirely mine, of course. It had been made by someone and once belonged to others. I kept pondering the painting’s unknown provenance during these early days of decay. Who had painted it? When? Who was the girl in the portrait? Was the painting a gift? Had it been abandoned before? How had it ended up in Brooklyn? Did its maker or previous owners ever imagine that this painting would not last forever?
Day 9: February 20, 2023
Nearly all of the gold paint on the frame is gone. Given the rain, I had expected more dramatic results, but I was pleased (and a little surprised) by the jarring blush of pink when I walked up to the painting. While the canvas lacked any significant losses or cracks — only patches of chipped-off paint that had grown slightly — I was surprised to see little flakes of the frame’s pink wood littered all over the painting’s surface. I had assumed that, with the temperature fluctuations and storms, most of the paint would weather and wash away rather than crumble. Yet the flatness of the painting became a site for this continued accumulation of debris from its in-garden decay.
It hadn’t occurred to me until today that I should flip the painting over and check what’s happening on its backing. I had been so concerned with maintaining pristine surface conditions that I overlooked potential discoveries lurking underneath. While the sky-facing side of the painting had dried out with the sun, its soil-facing backing was still soft and wet from the rain. I noticed greater rust on the nails, and paper film on the wood frame had begun to unpeel from the moisture. While no mold was visible, I noticed a couple of leaves rotted from the sustained wetness and, having been shielded from the worst of the weather, a few juvenile sprouts coming up from the covered soil. Rene Ebersole, in her study of body farms, notes that “even a stint in cold storage won’t halt some microbes associated with decay — some organisms are capable of working at very slow rates in subzero temperatures.” Where I had expected plants to die from the lack of sun exposure and frost, I found new life flourishing.
Day 16: February 27, 2023
By the time I visited the painting again, the whole neighborhood had been subjected to repeated bouts of violent, window-shaking wind. I expected the painting to no longer be where I left it blown away to another part of the garden. To my surprise, it was still there, resting snugly among the sprouted greenery. The painting had not sustained any major damage during this period, just some minor crackling on its surface. The painted image was beginning to show signs of soiling, gradually darkened by the dirt that had blown over it.
When I flipped the painting over, its underside revealed the greatest stress from these extreme weather events. Water damage had created vibrant gradients of staining and wet leaves and plants clung to the wooden panel. I noticed loose miters in every corner of the wooden frame and greater lifting of its protective paper coating from being pressed up against the wet garden bed. In his analysis of Himalayan wooden painting preservation, conservator Bhimbar Thapa observes that “in excessive dryness shrinkage and crackling develop in color pigment, and in excess wetness promotes the fibers to swell and softening.” Museums, both in galleries and storage, value stable conditions above all else. “Otherwise,” Thapa writes, “a force imposed by a regular change of temperature and humidity weakens the fibers of organic material.” I was now beginning to observe more clearly the impacts of this transformative force.
These material changes were not the only instability I experienced that day. As I was leaving, a woman approached me and asked if I was a member of the garden. Until now, I hadn’t encountered anyone else. All of the regulars paused cultivation for the winter. While I got access to the garden through my roommate, I hadn’t contacted anyone to get permission for my experiment. The woman introduced herself as a health inspector. She had been given the wrong lock code, but needed to look inside since the city had recently done some rat extermination. Rats are a familiar sight on this block because of the subway entrance nearby. I thought about my painting and its close proximity to the garden’s compost pile. I was reminded of Kristina Lyons’s evocation of Abdón Cortés’s description of soil as the “theater of life” in Vital Decomposition. Until now, I had thought only of the microbial, fungal, meteorological actors transforming my painting. Other non-human agents suddenly entered the scene. Had the rats scurried across the painting? Had their little claws scratched into the frame or paint? My painting had become another inadvertent stage for the age-old urban battle between humans and their rodent neighbors.
Day 17: February 28, 2023
I hadn’t planned to return so soon, but when I looked outside my window that morning and saw everything blanketed in white I knew I had to go. I almost didn’t find the painting at first. Everything was a monochromatic blur, the familiar topography of the garden completely homogenous and flattened by the snow. As I stood over the painting, I contemplated brushing off the fresh glaze of ice with a gloved hand. Seeing the snow accumulated on the painting’s surface brought to mind John Cage’s description of Robert Rauchenberg’’s White Paintings (1951) as “airports for lights, shadows, particles.” In the end, I didn’t have the heart to destroy the pristine layer of white. Besides, all that moisture could result in some interesting deterioration as sun, water, and debris soaked completely into the wood and paint.
Day 24: March 7, 2023
After sitting in the snow and rain for several weeks, its paint had finally begun to flake off in larger chunks. Nearly all of the finish was gone from the frame. Where paint hadn’t fallen out, crackling spread like spider veins. When I flipped the painting over, I saw that the rotting of the wooden frame and panel were well underway. Some foliage from the garden bed had glued itself to the underside. The nails keeping the painting in place were almost entirely corroded. I noticed that some of the plants that had previously sprouted underneath were beginning to show their own signs of decay with black stains on the edges of their leaves. Where the painting had once offered protection, it was now beginning to kill some of the greenery.
Seeing these various states of growth and decay taking place simultaneously brought to mind a passage from ‘Rotten Energy: Spaces with Consciousness’ by environmental artist Daniel Lie: “If a space has many elements that are decaying, changing, and transforming, many possibilities of living entities are there — beyond the visible and invisible. It is like its own ecosystem: the conjunction of these beings together in one ambience, the relationship among them and the negotiation for their coexistence.” As plants absorbed nutrients from the rain and soil, their growth began to alter the composition of the painting’s wooden and metal components. Wind, warming and cooling, as well the movement of animals each added to this ecological collaboration. Weeds were beginning to creep over the frame, gradually integrating the painting into the garden bed’s site of multispecies cohabitation and collaboration.
Day 35: March 18, 2023
The experiment reached its conclusion on an unusually pleasant day. I decided to do one last condition report of the painting to assess the extent of its damage. I hadn’t noticed it when the painting was laying flat but one corner had begun to dramatically warp, sinking under the weight of all of the water that had been collecting on top of it for the past month. By now, the painting had patches of missing paint and abrasions. Its protective varnishing and coatings were completely weathered away. In their research on painting surface deterioration caused by environmental changes, scholars Gustav Berger and William Russell note that, after frequent cycles through different humidity and temperature levels, the painting “[becomes] is deformed to such an extent that no single physical force could bring it back to its original condition.” Material expansions and contractions took place across the upper surface layers of paint down into the thickest parts of the wood. In this unstable environment, the painting lost its structural integrity. The damage it sustained cannot be fully undone. The painting will never look or feel the same again.
A Brief Conclusion
This project of decay was one continuous act of unlearning. Although I was documenting changes through repeated visits and photographs, these transformations did not take place by my actions alone. I found myself, to draw from Sebastian Abrahamsson and Fillippo Bertoni’s notion of togetherness through compost, in “a politics that diffuses activity among heterogeneous entities and processes, encompassing fluidity and transformation, and grounding this mutability in the asymmetries of eating.” I had created the conditions for its decay, yet the garden itself enacted the painting’s ultimate mutation. There were numerous other nonhuman beings and atmospheric entities who made their own contributions and alterations, at times and scales I couldn’t always observe. It was a collective experience full of failed predictions and unexpected outcomes which, because of the cold’s reduced rate of decomposition, had forced me to embrace a slower ecological pace of destruction.
With art, we only discuss decay’s destructive effects on cultural heritage and react by halting (rather than embracing) these biochemical changes. Looking at the painting now in its ruined state, it was more beautiful to me than ever before — a dynamic recording of the month’s ecological changes. By refusing repair and preservation, I set the painting on a different life trajectory. I had grown attached to the painting during this time. I cared for it even if my choice to destroy suggests otherwise. At times I had felt powerless, anxious, uncertain, unsure when to intervene, but I was also excited by this loss of control. DeSilvey writes that “weathering and ruination can be understood as a form of self- excavation through which a structure gradually discloses its internal properties and material constituents.” While the painting never reached a point of extreme deterioration, this subtle alchemy took the artwork from a state of stasis into one of metamorphosis. As extreme weather threatens to destabilize our cultural institutions and infrastructure, it felt fitting to study this decaying painting and find new forms of material storytelling that could potentially adapt to our future of precarious meteorology and multispecies collaboration.
I moved the painting off the bed and left it against a wall to continue its rot. The painting’s fate was up to the outdoors now. Every time as I walk to and from the subway, I can still catch a glimpse of it through the fence. When they reopen the garden in the spring, someone may decided to throw it out. I can only hope that someone will see that image of a girl watching birds through the trees and decide that the garden is the best place for this artwork to live.
Author’s Note: I didn’t know it at the time, but the community garden would conduct its seasonal clean-up the week after I finished my experiment. The last time I saw the painting, it was sitting under a “FOR FREE PLEASE TAKE ME” sign. For a moment, I thought to stop and take it home with me. I ultimately decided not to. When I came back, it was gone.