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Looking good once again

Brett Whiteley and Matthew Dillon’s Almost once 1968, 1991, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Wendy Whiteley

Looming eight metres high, Brett Whiteley’s giant pair of matches has become a Sydney landmark, marking the approach to the Art Gallery of NSW from Woolloomooloo.

Titled Almost once, the sculpture is Whiteley’s most significant outdoor work, and was created with his assistant Matthew Dillon. It was gifted to the Gallery in 1991 and installed the same year in its current location.

The matchsticks of the sculpture were created using Blackbutt timber, sourced from Grafton in regional NSW. The charred timber of the blackened match was created by suspending the timber matchstick using chains and burning it to a depth of about half an inch. The red head of the unburnt matchstick was made from shaped polystyrene and coated with fibreglass, polyester resin and paint.

As a timber sculpture, Almost once is vulnerable to deterioration. Over the years it has sustained damage from termites and tenacious cockatoos nesting in the timber and eating the sapwood. The paint and coatings have faded in Sydney’s harsh sunlight, the bright red head dulled to a dark pink, and the honey-coloured timber has weathered as the protective varnish has degraded.

In 2017, extensive conservation treatment of the sculpture was undertaken, involving the expertise of many people – from timber specialists and engineers to painters, conservators, curators and the artist’s estate – with funding support from the Foundation benefactor groups Women’s Art Group and Conservation Benefactors.

To find out more about the project, click on one of the small images in the slideshow…

	The matches were craned into position in 1991.
  • 	The matches were craned into position in 1991.
  • 	The protective wrapping on the matches was removed, rather precariously, before the matches were positioned within the concrete plinth.
  • 	The first maintenance treatment was undertaken by Brett Whiteley’s assistant, Matthew Dillon, in 1995 to restore the varnish and flaking charcoal surface.
  • 	By 2002 cockatoos had caused serious damage to the charred match by eating and nesting within the timber sculpture.
  • 	In 2002 the charred black surface was cleaned and consolidated to prevent loss to the charcoal. The cockatoo hole was also patched and the varnish and paint reapplied.
  • 	In 2007 a similar treatment was undertaken.
  • 	By 2017 the varnish had almost completely flaked off, the charcoal surface was looking patchy and the red head had faded.
  • 	Metal patches applied over the cocktaoo holes during the 2007 treatment were now clearly visibile.
  • 	The first step of the 2017 treatment was to ensure the sculpture was structurally sound. We enlisted the expertise of engineers and timber specialists to advise on the safety and longevity of the sculpture.
  • 	Work began on the sculpture in November 2017.
  • 	Small portions of decayed timber were removed by hand.
  • 	The old varnish layer was removed using electric and hand sanding.
  • 	Michael Brown, the Gallery’s senior preparator, painstakingly removed some of the varnish by hand.
  • 	Old timber fills were exposed during sanding.
  • 	The timber fills were inpainted by hand to replicate wood.
  • 	The patchy surfaces required inpainting in black stain and varnishing.
  • 	Varnish was applied using a roller.
  • 	The results of the conservation treatment can be clearly seen in this photo.

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April 19 2018, 4pm
by Melanie Barrett
Objects conservator