Screenshot of a viral video showing insects inside of a Bernd and Hilla Becher photograph at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (courtesy BBC Persian via Instagram)

One of the main benefits for any artist having work acquired by a museum is the presumption of world-class conservation efforts that will help carry their art forward to speak to future generations. That’s just one reason the internet is in an uproar about a viral video shot at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA), which shows two silverfish living their best lives under the glass of a Bernd and Hilla Becher 1978 photograph.

Silverfish are a primitive type of wingless insect, so called because they often have a vaguely chrome-plated sheen. They enjoy humid environments, making them the scourge of basements, and they are known for chasing humidity into odd places — including the surface of one of the Bechers’ minimalist photographs, featuring grids of black-and-white images of industrial buildings (referred to by the artist as “typologies”).

“Last night, my colleagues carried out the necessary investigations,” TMoCA director Ebadreza Eslami told ISNA. “Field investigations have been conducted and for further investigation, an expert from the outside is coming; no worries.”

But people are, of course, very worried. TMoCA is among the largest art museums in Iran, holding collections of more than 3,000 items. In addition to having a significant collection of Iranian modern and contemporary art, the collections include 19th- and 20th-century European and American paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures. Art conservators shudder to think of that vast cultural resource being threatened by an infestation. However, it seems TMoCA is going beyond addressing the single incursion into the work by the German conceptual photographer.

“We ourselves have a number of concerns,” said Eslami. “Last night when we were collecting the works from the exhibition to rectify the situation, we decided to consult with experts from outside the museum, because when we find a single insect we must presume that there are more of them.”

This is the second scandal this year for TMoCA, whose director was replaced by the Iranian government in March, following a botched aerial performance by performance artist Yaser Khaseb, which took place above a prized 1977 installation, “Matter and Mind,” by Japanese artist Noriyuki Haraguchi in the museum atrium. Khaseb fell too far, disturbing the surface of the 1,190-gallon pool of used motor oil, splashing some on the floor.

“Protecting the museum’s artistic works is one of the main tasks of the museum,” reads a translation of a statement made by the museum on Instagram following the incident. It promised that “with more care and sensitivity,” such mistakes will not be repeated. Whatever their intentions, clearly there are still a few bugs in the system over at TMoCA.

Editor’s Note, 8/22/2022, 11:13am EDT: An earlier version of this article misidentified art conservators as conservationists. This has been corrected.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...

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