While our eyes are inevitably drawn to objects on display during museum visits, the vessels presenting these objects have equally fascinating stories to tell
As early as the 16th century, collectors in Europe presented precious items in cabinets known in German as Wunderkammer, literally ‘cabinets of wonder’. These furniture pieces housed curious and exotic objects. The displayed items were varied, with sculptures, paintings, ancient artefacts, minerals, and plant samples being the most popular. At a time when long-distance travel was expensive and risky, collecting eccentric items from around the world cost a fortune, and a richly filled cabinet of curiosities was both a spectacle and a status symbol.
These collectors often begin acquiring exquisite objects to satiate their thirst for knowledge or to entertain their guests at a private event. Yet, as the collection grew and the cabinets filled one room after another, the research and educational value of Wunderkammern began to attract the attention of scholars and the wider public. In a way, the cabinet of curiosities functioned like a precursor to the modern museum.
Similarly, in Asia, traditional wooden display cases commonly known as ‘寶籠’, literally ‘treasure cages’ in Chinese, were dedicated to displaying fine works of craft like porcelain, jewellery, and Buddhist statues. Some treasure cages from the Qing Dynasty even contain multiple custom-built compartments of different objects. Decorated with auspicious motifs like mythical beasts and carved patterns, these display cases are functional and artistically valuable, complimenting the items they showcase.
For Three to Tango, Hong Kong artist Trevor Yeung assumes the role of a collector of the spindle tibia: a species of sea snails whose shells are highly sought after for their unique appearance. Yeung places three interlocking spindle tibia shells in an Eastern-style wood vitrine, reinventing the practice of specimen preparation in the Western natural history tradition. A metaphor for the delicate balance of a three-way relationship, this trio of shells provokes us to move beyond the limits of black-and-white thinking and towards an alternative perspective that diverges from the usual East-West dichotomy.
With a title satirising the human tendency to romanticise, the three shells, with their sharp and brittle siphon channels, are held in a precarious position. Without the flesh of the sea snail, the shells are merely lifeless testaments to the creatures’ existence, collected and turned into souvenirs by humans for their material beauty. A vessel for its flesh, the sea snail’s shell, is put into a display case inside the square space of a gallery. This multi-layered imagery invites viewers to consider what other possible frames exist in life beyond these boxes. With self-deprecating humour, the artist explores how collecting simultaneously reflects and defines the relationship between humans and nature.
Yeung often distorts the natural states of existence of animals and plants in his practice and places the result in an exhibition setting. Whilst highlighting the intangible spatial ties between natural materials, the artist also uses the natural ecosystem as a metaphor for different social systems.
During discussions about the role of the modern museum in society, different members of the public can have vastly different perceptions and expectations of how cultural institutions collect and position themselves. Continuous public engagement is vital if a museum wants to maintain its relevance in contemporary society. Yeung’s trio of shells are giving us ideas around these deep conversations.
Three to Tango is now on view at the Courtyard Galleries at M+ in the exhibition The Dream of the Museum.
The Chinese version of this article was originally published on 12 October 2022 in Ming Pao. It is presented here in edited and translated form. Originally authored by Lok Wong, translated by Erica Leung, and edited by Christie Lee. All images: M+, Hong Kong © Trevor Yeung