Now on view is the exhibition Glow, featuring three works from the collection that use light as a central visual component. And just a couple days after going on view, one of them—Thomas Wilfred’s storied “lumia”—had to be removed for emergency maintenance. The incident is a great example of how museums are caretakers, ensuring inspiring works are conserved for future generations.
The Honolulu Museum of Art’s permanent collection includes artworks created by artists who used technology that at the time was cutting edge, but is now obsolete. Electronic and digital media are distinct among art genres because instead of or in addition to having dimensions listed as a descriptor, they are measured in time duration. Time-based works, as we often call them (audio, video, film, and electronic or computer-generated imagery), rely on materials and components that are sometimes difficult to replace while maintaining the integrity of the artist’s original intention. Including digital artworks, time-based pieces are surprisingly fragile because of the hardware or software required to keep the piece operable. (As with HoMA’s WareZ Academy by Nam Jun Paik.) This is further complicated by the fact that some of the common materials historically used by light and sound artists to construct their works’ internal mechanisms have since been identified as health hazards and are considered extremely sensitive to handle.
Such is the case with artwork by Thomas Wilfred. Born in Denmark in 1889, Wilfred is among the early light artists who devised techniques to create beautiful color patterns using electricity as his medium. Wilfred’s pieces produce a glowing effect when the electric filament in a clear incandescent light bulb is mirrored against a reflective surface. The filament reflection is controlled in part by a third component, a small internal shield that directs the reflected light onto the artwork’s encasement. The result is a light show resembling nature’s own spectacular light phenomena, Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), only configured into the shape of a lightbox set to a duration timer. Wilfred called these works lumia, and constructed them with an internal part made of asbestos, a material now known to be unsafe. The artworks are perfectly safe to experience as long as the object remains fully enclosed as constructed. No problem, right? Right…until the light bulb needs to be changed.
During the planning of Glow, Wilfred’s work Convolux, Opus 160, made in 1965 and given to the museum by Clare Boothe Luce, was in good working order and assistant curator of contemporary art Katherine Love was excited to put it on view for the first time in decades. Then two days after the show opened, the light bulb died.
With asbestos inside the Lumia, replacing the light bulb isn’t a simple task. The priority is to ensure that HoMA’s Collections and Installation teams are not exposed to asbestos. Museum staff quickly contacted lumia specialist AJ Epstein (who had previously seen HoMA’s work) and conservator Jim Gwinner, who was working on another project at the museum. The museum followed their instruction and advice on replacing the lightbulb, and followed best safety practices with proper gear and equipment to preserve this rare lumia by an innovative artist. Convolux, Opus 160 is now back on view for your illuminated viewing.
Read more about Convolux, Opus 160 and the special visit it received from a lumia expert (who happens to be AJ Epstein’s uncle).