An Art Historian Investigates the Future of Obsolete Art

Photo of an art installation and a photo portrait of Emily Lawhead Yasuaki Onishi’s 'Reverse of Volume RG' (2012) and PhD student Emily Lawhead

Emily Lawhead is investigating how to archive and conserve contemporary art that is fleeting, temporary, in the cloud.

“That’s what my dissertation asks: What to do with artworks that are ephemeral or becoming obsolete?” Lawhead said.

Lawhead is in the middle of working on her dissertation for a PhD in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture (HAA). Not only is she the first in her family to pursue a PhD, but she is also in the first cohort for the revived HAA PhD program.

More on Emily

Read about which Yasuaki Onishi
artwork changed Lawhead's life.

Lawhead penned an essay for Arts
 on the Hidden Landscapes:
Yasuaki Onishi

Shortly before the pandemic hit,
Lawhead traveled to London for a
“Curating Art After New Media”
course, joining a cohort of curators
and scholars from around the world.
“We visited a wide range of institutions
around the city doing innovative work
with New Media art,” Lawhead said.
“We were led by New Media scholar
Dr. Beryl Graham (a giant in the field)
and were able to have fascinating
discussions about institutions’ abilities
to collect and display new media art.
Those conversations with my fellow
cohort members and the specialists at
each institution really set me on my
current dissertation path.”

In 2018, Lawhead came to the UO because of the department’s reputation for specializing in contemporary art and Asian art, exactly where her own specialties intersect. Or, to be specific, contemporary Japanese art and new media. Lawhead also completed UO’s New Media and Culture graduate certificate.

“My goal is to do curatorial work, or anything in the museum field,” Lawhead said.

The idea for her dissertation was sparked a few years ago by the work of Japanese contemporary artist Yasuaki Onishi. While an undergraduate at Northern Arizona University, Lawhead wrote a paper on Onishi. A professor then encouraged Lawhead to reach out to the artist. She did, and with the help of an undergraduate research award, Lawhead traveled to Japan to do studio visits with Onishi and other contemporary artists. While pursuing a master’s in museum studies at the University of San Francisco, Lawhead wrote her thesis on the artist and invited him to show his work at the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, Arizona.

In 2018, Lawhead curated the show Hidden Landscapes: Yasuaki Onishi, which included art installations that Onishi made specifically for the venue.

“I was really intrigued by his work because it was inverting space, using installation as a medium. What does it mean to have space as your medium?” Lawhead asked. What struck Lawhead about the experience was the temporary nature of Onishi’s art.

“What do we do with this work now? Does the artwork only exist in the photos we took in the gallery?” she recalled asking herself when the exhibition closed.

Photo of an art installation and a photo portrait of Emily Lawhead Lawhead with artist Yasuaki Onishi (right) and artist assistant Kyohei Fujio (left);  an installation by Onishi.

Lawhead has carried forward this fascination with Onishi and artists like him, as well as the conservation of technology-based artworks, many of which employ technology that is going obsolete or that is intended to be temporary, such as performance art on Instagram Stories.

“What does it mean to do performance art on Instagram?” Lawhead asks. “If an artwork is meant for an old TV, does a museum have to collect these TVs? Or is it ok to put it on a new flat screen?” These questions are central to her dissertation.

When it is safe to travel again, Lawhead said she will return to Japan for more dissertation research.

“It’s the great circle of this whole project,” Lawhead said.