Conserving Ink Art for 'The Weight of Lightness: Ink Art at M+'
Every M+ exhibition presents new challenges and opportunities for the M+ Conservation team. For The Weight of Lightness: Ink Art at M+, the conservation efforts were led by Jo-Fan Huang (Conservator, Paper) and Karina Jagudina (Conservator, Paintings).
Read on below for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the conservation process, as they recount some of the unique cases they faced. Find out what to do when dealing with losses, what microclimates are, and how difficult it can be to hang an artwork on the wall.
Karina: I had a few complicated cases for the exhibition, such as Moon Eater by Chuang Che. It’s on a canvas, but with painted paper collage on top. The paper was lifting and flaking, it was really brittle, and there were quite a few losses. The paper was never supposed to be completely flat due to the overall aesthetic of the piece, so it already had a wavy structure. I had to find a solution to stabilise the bubbles and lifting the paper without destroying this wavy structure.
After the consolidation had been done, I had a discussion with [Lesley Ma, the exhibition curator] about the aesthetics of the artwork, because the losses meant that there were just white spots where the coloured paper was missing. We decided together to tone the losses down and to integrate them with the overall swatches, but to still keep them visible enough to signify that it’s not the original look of the painting.
Jo-Fan: We had a lot of discussions with Lesley about how the artworks should look. There’s always that constant negotiation between how much you want to protect the works, and coming up with smart ways to display them without visually impacting the overall aesthetic. It’s a tricky balance, but we’re all happy with it at the end of the day.
Backlighting and Photographing
Jo-Fan: The works by Frog King Kwok, a famous local artist, are meant to be shown backlit. The curators and the M+ team really went out of their way to interview the artist about what kind of aesthetic he would like to have. We worked very hard with a contractor to come up with a design to show this work the way it should be shown.
But the fun thing about exhibitions is that these works also need to be photographed for publications. How do you do that before they’re fully mounted, especially if they need to be backlit? Well, we had to come up with a way to temporarily mount the work for photographing.
We had to set up a frame with a window, and have a light coming from the back. It was attached to a transparent support called a polyester film. This was suspended with the light shining through. We did all of this just for the photography!
In the final exhibition the works are mounted to acrylic panels. We blacked out the margins, so that the light only comes through the artwork. The works are slotted into multiple layers—the contractor actually worked out that we can slot the artworks in with an acrylic sheet, and then the light will come from the back. We also made sure that there’s no heat generating within the unit. We hope that the artist finds it satisfactory!
Pinning an Artwork to the Wall
Karina: Painting the Moment by Shan Fan has twelve sheets, which are pinned to the wall. We were thinking about how to do this in the best way, while also protecting the paper. Jo-fan reinforced the corners from the back with Japanese tissue paper, to make the holding point stronger. I prepared the twenty-four pins together with M+ Object Conservator Albrecht Gumlich. The pins were coated with two layers of conservation-grade adhesive to put a protective layer onto the metal. They are stainless steel, but you still never know; rust could develop and it could stain the paper.
Jo-Fan: There are so many considerations to take into account, even when you’re just pinning an artwork to the wall! We have to make sure the pins are rust-free, and we need to make sure that the head of the pins don’t indent the artwork, and there are various measures that we have to prevent that from happening.
Karina: We even did mockups on the wall and tried different kinds of pins! I put the two kind of pins we picked in water over the weekend as a test—they are supposed to be stainless steel, but this test showed that they can rust. That’s why we decided to coat them with two layers, to protect the artwork in the best way.
Karina: Galaxy by Ni Youyu is an installation consisting of roughly 300 coins, pounded flat and each featuring a tiny ink painting by the artist.
For this one, we actually had our object conservators Natalie Harding and Albrecht Gumlich come in and collaborate with us, because it is mixed media. That’s the thing about conservation; we have our speciality that we look after, and we really lean on each other for support.
This work was exhibited a few times in the past in other countries. When exhibited in Australia and Taiwan, the presentations were smaller than ours. In Germany and Switzerland, however, the spaces were much bigger, so all 300 coins could be shown on one wall. There was quite a distance to the artwork, so there was a telescope for viewers to see the coins close up and as if one were gazing at the stars in the galaxy.
In our case, we’re more limited in terms of space, so we didn’t use a telescope. The artist’s intention is for visitors to be able to examine the drawings on the coins, so since we’re not using the telescope, we are using a different approach. The visitors are able to come as close as possible to the coins. However, since the coins can’t be touched and can’t be picked up or removed from the wall, we’ve had to carefully look at the safety measures. There were a lot of discussions on this between the different teams who were involved in the exhibition, and in the end we came up with a satisfying solution to show the coins, but also to secure them enough so that they won’t fall of the wall, and so that if one is missing it will be immediately visible.
Jo-Fan: There are a lot of considerations behind every artwork that is exhibited. It even challenges the way our policy is forming around theft, security measures, and workflows. Every time we put something on a wall, it’s a very stimulating exercise!
Jo-Fan: For this exhibition, for the first time at M+, we introduced microclimate framing, incorporating micro-environment silicone gel sheets within the frames.
Karina: We intended for all of the framed paper works to have microclimate framing, where they are enclosed in the frame with controlled humidity inside. This is crucial, especially for fragile paper artworks.
Jo-Fan: A proper microclimate frame is actually quite expensive, so what we’ve come up with is something in-between, which we designed ourselves to keep costs down. We worked with a framer to make sure that he understood what we were looking for. Meanwhile, we’re measuring and monitoring the climate inside, to keep track of how well the microclimate is working.
In this show, you see a lot of bonnets, which are clear acrylic boxes. They don’t disrupt the visitor’s view of the artwork, and have less visual impact than a frame or showcase. What’s tricky with contemporary Chinese art is that a lot of works are supposed to be seen without any glazing or transparent cover. This is tricky with a climate like Hong Kong’s, which is very humid, and with a material that’s so sensitive and hydroscopic. With the bonnet, we can include some buffering, even if there’s no silica gel inside.
Karina: We also have a lot of white works in this exhibition, meaning that the bonnets can also act as dust and grime protection. This is crucial, especially for white paper works, which would just be totally damaged if they get black fingerprints or fly excrement (‘fly specks’) on them.
An Intern's First Project
Jo-Fan: Let me talk about Untitled by Li Yuan-chia. It’s the first time our conservation intern, Erica Loh, has taken on a project from beginning to end—that is, from the moment she receives the artwork, to condition check, to making sure that it’s housed properly, to coming up with a clever way to mount it without adhesives.
She came up with a way to mount it with magnets. She painstakingly found the right magnets, then lined the paper so the colour of the magnets matched the colour of the artwork. And then we also had to isolate the magnets from the artwork, so she came up with a whole design to do that. It took her a long time, but I think it’s a result we’re all very happy with! This work is seven metres long, so it’s very impressive visually. It’s something that I think she’ll be happy to take away with her.
As told to Ellen Oredsson (Editor, Web Content). The above interview has been edited for clarity. All images © M+, Hong Kong, unless otherwise indicated. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.