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12 Dec 2017 / by Ellen Oredsson

Conserving Ink Art for 'The Weight of Lightness: Ink Art at M+'

A woman wearing a black headband magnifier holds a small paintbrush and is painting onto a painting on canvas.

Paintings Conservator Karina Jagudina works on Chuang Che's Moon Eater (1967)

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.

woman is brushing a thick paintbrush over a thin piece of paper on top of a print.

Conservator Jo-Fan Huang working on Li Huayi's Pine Crest

Confronting Losses

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.

A woman wearing a black magnifying visor is holding a small paintbrush and cotton swab towards an artwork on canvas.

Conservator Karina Jagudina consolidating the paper that has lifted from the canvas on Chuang Che's Moon Eater (1967)

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.

An artwork print featuring Chinese characters against a dark background is lying on top of a sheet of clear polyester in a frame, held together by clips and resting on a table.

Act of Quiet (1976) by Hong Kong artist Frog King, temporarily mounted for photography

An artwork print featuring Chinese characters against a dark background is mounted on a sheet of clear polyester in a frame, held together by clips and held up on a metal framework. The work is backlit with light shining through.

Frog King's Act of Quiet (1976) ready for photography on a temporary mounting structure

Collage made of small paper fragments with burnt edges depicting vertically written Chinese words in black ink, forming the phrases ‘Movement in stillness’, ‘Movement and stillness in unison’, and ‘Movement-stillness’. The collage is illuminated from behind, and the light brings the work’s fading yellow tone and translucent texture into view.

The final photograph of Frog King's Act of Quiet (1976).

An artwork print featuring Chinese characters against a dark background is lying on top of a sheet of clear polyester in a frame, held together by clips and resting on a table.

Act of Quiet (1976) by Hong Kong artist Frog King, temporarily mounted for photography

An artwork print featuring Chinese characters against a dark background is mounted on a sheet of clear polyester in a frame, held together by clips and held up on a metal framework. The work is backlit with light shining through.

Frog King's Act of Quiet (1976) ready for photography on a temporary mounting structure

Collage made of small paper fragments with burnt edges depicting vertically written Chinese words in black ink, forming the phrases ‘Movement in stillness’, ‘Movement and stillness in unison’, and ‘Movement-stillness’. The collage is illuminated from behind, and the light brings the work’s fading yellow tone and translucent texture into view.

The final photograph of Frog King's Act of Quiet (1976).

An artwork print featuring Chinese characters against a dark background is lying on top of a sheet of clear polyester in a frame, held together by clips and resting on a table.

Act of Quiet (1976) by Hong Kong artist Frog King, temporarily mounted for photography

An artwork print featuring Chinese characters against a dark background is mounted on a sheet of clear polyester in a frame, held together by clips and held up on a metal framework. The work is backlit with light shining through.

Frog King's Act of Quiet (1976) ready for photography on a temporary mounting structure

Collage made of small paper fragments with burnt edges depicting vertically written Chinese words in black ink, forming the phrases ‘Movement in stillness’, ‘Movement and stillness in unison’, and ‘Movement-stillness’. The collage is illuminated from behind, and the light brings the work’s fading yellow tone and translucent texture into view.

The final photograph of Frog King's Act of Quiet (1976).

An artwork print featuring Chinese characters against a dark background is lying on top of a sheet of clear polyester in a frame, held together by clips and resting on a table.

Act of Quiet (1976) by Hong Kong artist Frog King, temporarily mounted for photography

An artwork print featuring Chinese characters against a dark background is mounted on a sheet of clear polyester in a frame, held together by clips and held up on a metal framework. The work is backlit with light shining through.

Frog King's Act of Quiet (1976) ready for photography on a temporary mounting structure

Collage made of small paper fragments with burnt edges depicting vertically written Chinese words in black ink, forming the phrases ‘Movement in stillness’, ‘Movement and stillness in unison’, and ‘Movement-stillness’. The collage is illuminated from behind, and the light brings the work’s fading yellow tone and translucent texture into view.

The final photograph of Frog King's Act of Quiet (1976).

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!

Two paintings hang on a wall. The left painting shows multiple Chinese characters against a backlit brown background. The right painting shows ink blotches in vague butterfly shape against a bright orange backlit background.

Frog King’s backlit paintings, Act of Quiet (1976) and Fire Painting, Butterfly (1978), in their final form at the M+ Pavilion. Artwork: Kwok Man-ho (a.k.a. Frog King); M+, Hong Kong; © Kwok Mang-ho / Frog King

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.

Two people wearing rubber gloves hold up a print to the wall while a third person pins it to the wall.

Jo-Fan, Karina, and Kieran Champion (Senior Manager, Installations and Displays) pin Shan Fan's Painting the Moment (2007–2013) to the wall

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.

Four pins pinning an artwork to the wall.

Close-up of the needles used to pin up Shan Fan's Painting the Moment (2007–2013)

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.

Safety Measures

A clear plastic tray holding numerous flattened coins with small miniature paintings on them.

Some of the coins from Ni Youyu's Galaxy (2008–2011) being prepared by the Conservation team

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.

Two people stand next to a table, looking down at a number of clear plastic trays holding numerous rows of small flattened coins.

M+ Research Assistant Sharon Lee and Ni Youyu’s assistant sort the coins by theme

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!

Installation consisting of flattened coins, painted in acrylic with miniature landscapes, animals, people, and body parts. They are arranged and illuminated on the walls in a dark room to resemble a star chart.

The installation view of Ni Youyu's Galaxy (2008–2011). Artwork: Ni Youyu; M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation; © Ni Youyu

Microclimates

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

The left image shows a woman sitting by a table with numerous long magnetic strips on it. She is pressing down on the strip in front of her. The right image shows six short magnetic strips.

Conservation intern Erica Loh preparing magnet strips (left). Loh went through several tests (right) to figure out which magnets would work best—the ones she ended up with are made of neodymium, a rare metal

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.

A person is holding up an artwork to the wall, while another person is attaching a magnetic strip to the top of the artwork.

Loh using magnets to mount Li Yuan-chia's Untitled (1960) in the M+ Pavilion

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.

A long, narrow artwork hangs on a wall. It has a white background and thin, black ink lines and blotches along a horizontal area.

Li Yuan-chia's Untitled (1960) in the M+ Pavilion. Artwork: Li Yuan-chia; M+, Hong Kong; © Li Yuan-Chia Foundation

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.

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