A Virtual Gallery Resurrects Lost Art
Tiffany Jow

While the current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery highlights art that was deliberately made to be invisible or unseen, a new online archive focuses on works that have involuntarily disappeared. Curated by Tate Media, the Gallery of Lost Art focuses on art from the past one hundred years that has been lost, stolen, erased, rejected, destroyed, or gone missing. Its aim: resurrect significant irretrievable artworks not by re-creating them virtually, but by telling the stories and facts surrounding them.

Visitors enter the site to find a dark, warehouse-like floor plan with illuminated desks scattered about every corner of what looks like a working research laboratory. Grouped together according to how they vanished, evidence of artworks is laid out on tables with chairs alongside them, inviting viewers to sit down and study each case. The Glasgow-based creative consultancy ISO designed the gallery, and took full advantage of the freedom that comes with the digital realm. Unlike a traditional exhibition, viewers can wander about the space however they please without the guidance of physical gallery halls or wall text. Since there is no set format for how each object is presented, descriptions run as brief or as long as they need to, and also incorporate supporting elements of film, interviews, essays, and archival images that would seem out of place in an actual gallery context. The Web page also provides a platform for user interaction and a place to discuss the notion of lost art.

Curator Jennifer Mundy chose to feature works both well-known and long-forgotten. The backlog of information provided on Tracey Emin’s career-launching Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (lost in a fire at an art storage facility) or Diego Rivera’s murals for the Rockefeller Center (destroyed for their revolutionary undertones) is wholly absorbing, as are accounts of a portrait painted by Graham Sutherland of Winston Churchill that his wife smashed up, the sudden disappearance of Kazimir Malevich’s Peasant Funeral, and Joseph BeuysFelt Suit, which was meant to be shown in a gallery display but was ruined by an infestation of moths.

Twenty works are currently on the site, and twenty more will be added over the course of the next six months. Forthcoming specimens include Richard Serra’s rejected Tilted Arc, the theft of five paintings from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2010, Henry Moore’s stolen Reclining Figure, and Edward Ihnatowicz’s robotic sculpture the Senster, which was dismantled in 1974.

Exploring the site conjures up lots of topics, spanning sponsorship, censorship, conservation, politics, theft, and how the digital world we inhabit will effect art. However unseen, The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones speculates at the works on view:

Perhaps in some ways, being lost is the perfect condition for a work. Safe from the clumsy efforts of restorers, protected from being badly lit or hung against the wrong colour, it becomes indestructible by being destroyed.

The Gallery of Lost Art will be online until July 2, 2013.