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How to Restore an Artwork That No Longer Exists

Two people suck on opposite ends of the same enlarged straw.

Jiang’s early photographic work, Sucker depicts a kingdom of ‘Suckers’. Here, straws are used to suck up all the information and natural resources in our community

M+ curators and conservators chat about how to restage Sucker, a work that no longer physically exists, as part of the Canton Express exhibition.

Welcome to the kingdom of Suckers. Here, straws suck up all of the information and natural resources in the community. The national flag is made up of giant colourful straws, and the national anthem, ‘We suck, we suck, we suck’, is played repeatedly. On the walls, there are ominous messages: ‘We’re gonna suck your future. We’re gonna suck our brain. We’re gonna suck your heart.’

This is the fictional world that artist Jiang Zhi created at the 2003 Venice Biennale with his Sucker installation. Using eye-popping colours and a large, glowing, rotating pole, he turned a tiny space into one where visitors could explore the ‘kingdom of Suckers’. Photos on the walls depicted the fictional inhabitants of the kingdom, and the national anthem played on a loop. In the work, sucking becomes a socio-political metaphor for how societies and individuals consume energy and resources from the world, communities, and each other.

But this original kingdom has since been lost.

【Canton Express】Artist Interview – Jiang Zhi 【廣東快車】藝術家訪問-蔣志
【Canton Express】Artist Interview – Jiang Zhi 【廣東快車】藝術家訪問-蔣志

Jiang first realised Sucker as an installation of photography, books, and sound at Canton Express in 2003. The installation was inspired by a Guangdong hair salon; a revolving hair salon pole light was installed in the middle to look as if it was a drinking straw

Video Transcript

JIANG ZHI: I moved to Shenzhen from Beijing at the end of 1998. Sucker could be considered one of my early works. Actually, it is one of my earliest works. I started creating this work in Beijing in around 1997.

After graduation, in 1995, I joined a magazine company. That magazine company was actually based in Shenzhen; later, they stationed me in Beijing. I was actually quite free there. I could even spend time on my art during office hours. The company would ask me to do some journalistic work, such as doing interviews and so on.

One day, I suddenly had an idea. I thought, what if I made a mock, fabricated interview, created a fake report, a fake photo report. It was like this: I had to do a photo story, but everything in it was made up. I said that I’d found a kingdom of ‘suckers’ somewhere, where they all used tubes to suck everything in. Food, messages, resources, everything sucked in through tubes. Then, I took a lot of pictures, and the story was written up for the so-called Sun News.

Back then, I always carried a camera everywhere, looking for people to photograph. For example, Qiu Zhijie was one of my characters too. I also called on lots of people, including friends. I would tell them, ‘I have to shoot this. You should put the tubes in your mouths and then do some strange actions.’ It was just like that. That fake photo story was actually completed in 1997.

There are two people in the work. They’re like ‘you’ and ‘I’, a hybrid of contradictions. One is the inner self, the other is the outer self—it’s this kind of relationship. Maybe one’s a subject and one’s an object. In that way…the two can embody various relationships. Many people are likely to think there's a relationship between the sucker and the sucked, or mutual sucking, a relationship of absorbing each other. Countless meanings can be extended from the two.

At the time, Hou Hanru told me, ‘We’re going to have an exhibition called Canton Express.’ He invited us to join. I thought, if I’m going to take part in the exhibition, I have to develop my work. It can’t just consist of photos and text. So I created a national anthem and a flag for the Sucker kingdom, I made them all together.

In Venice, there was a staircase that extended all the way up. It actually felt a bit utopian. It went like this, and that, with some twists. Of course, it didn’t rotate all the way round like that. The space was quite tall, about four metres high. I was thinking about how to use that space. At some point, in the middle of the night, I thought, sometimes, walking round the streets of Shenzhen, you suddenly saw these hair salons with very narrow shop fronts. The interiors were often a sort of pink colour.

So I thought of combining the idealistic utopian concepts with these special, Guangdong-style salons. There are actually a lot of salons in the south. There weren’t so many in the north, at that time but there were a lot in the south. I think there are…Actually, I particularly like things that combine bad taste and elegance. I think that’s more in line with my aesthetics.

If you’ve been following our Canton Express conservation series, you’ll know that the Canton Express project, which Sucker is part of, was originally organised in 2003 at the Venice Biennale and restaged in 2017 at the M+ Pavilion. Restaging Sucker, however, has been a special case, for one simple reason: the original installation simply does not physically exist anymore. At the end of the 2003 exhibition, due to budget issues, the artist decided to demolish the installation, leaving only a few printed photos and books, digital files, and installation instructions.

So how do you revive and conserve a work that isn’t actually there? Read on as Pi Li (Sigg Senior Curator, Visual Arts), Christel Pesme (Senior Conservator), Natalie Harding (Associate Conservator, Objects), and Jo-Fan Huang (Conservator, Paper) reveal their answers.

Two photos, one of Sucker in 2017 at the M+ Pavilion and one of Sucker in 2003 at the Venice Biennale. The 2017 installation has a slightly thicker revolving pole and fewer photos on the wall.

Sucker at the M+ Pavilion in 2017 (left) and at the Venice Biennale in 2003 (right). © Jiang Zhi; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Guan Yi, 2013

Harding: Sucker was a difficult one because we had to figure out the best way of exhibiting this again when we don't have anything?

Our first step was to look at what we did have. There are photos on the wall of the original installation showing the inhabitants of the 'kingdom of Suckers'. We had some of these original photos and others as digital files. The original photos were unfortunately too damaged to be displayed, so we digitised them and printed them out. Then we took the photos we had as digital files and reprinted those as well.

Black and white photograph: two men stand on either side of a person sleeping on a pile of brick in a dilapidated urban area. The men are connected through a giant tube that they hold up to their mouths.

This photo is one of the original digital files from 2003 that was reprinted for the 2017 restaging. Look closely at the photo of the installation above—you can see this photo in the bottom right corner of the wall

Huang: We also had a couple of original copies of the Sucker book. This book is written by the artist and presents the fictional history of the 'kingdom of Suckers'. Initially, it was nailed to the wall of the installation. But, at the same time, visitors were invited to look through it; because of that, a new book was needed every time the work was exhibited. But we only have two copies of the book, which we need to protect and keep safe. So, instead of being nailed to the wall, the book is now exhibited in an acrylic case on the wall.

Two photos, one of the Sucker book in 2017, exhibited in an acrylic case, and one of the Sucker book in 2003, nailed to the wall.

The Sucker book in the 2003 exhibition (right), nailed to the wall in the top right corner of the photo, and one of the remaining copies of the book in the 2017 exhibition (left), safely preserved in an acrylic case

Harding: The photos and book were the only physical components left of Sucker, but we did have photos of what the original installation looked like. This meant that we could recreate it by making exhibition copies.

When you don’t have anything to work with physically but have the data or intangible information, you move on to exhibition copies. These are fabricated artwork copies explicitly made for an exhibition, which may or may not enter the collection.

Huang: When the exhibition copies were being created, and we were restaging the work, we stayed as close to the original as possible. It’s still not the same. The photos and documentation of the 2003 exhibition didn’t show every angle of the work, for example, so there was a lot of discussion about what photos to place and how to crop them. We also weren’t able to print the wallpaper the same. But even though it’s not exactly like the original, we still retained the spirit of the work.

Pi Li: Apart from the digital files, photographs, books, and the exhibition design of the space, Sucker will only exist as exhibition copies when Canton Express closes. And those copies will most likely not become part of the collection. So, for this iteration, rather than storing and conserving the work itself, we have to document and archive everything for the next time.

Harding: Exactly. Now that we have the physical work as an existing installation that has been reproduced, our task is to gather everything that is part of that installation. We have to, for example, collect a sample of the wallpaper, a sample of the feather boa, a sample of the glitter, and so on. That means that in the future, the conservators and curators will have a file that they can look at and say, okay, maybe we can’t get that exact feather boa, but it has to look like this. They will have something physical to use, and not just photos. So we’re building a reference library.

A photo of the Sucker installation in 2017 at the M+ Pavilion. The right wall is visible, with the following words emblazoned on it: “Love you, suck you, suck to win, suck, more fair? Sick, more openly, beautiful for for a great straw, suck or not”. The glowing rotating pole is visible to the left, with one of the staircases right in the center, leading up to a wall with multiple photographs of people sucking through long tubes.

Installation view of Sucker in 2017 at the M+ Pavilion

Pesme: It's about refining the interpretation levels rather than providing an absolute rulebook. Otherwise, the risk is that we cover up the original iteration of the work, which is less documented than our recreation. So our documentation is only there as a reference.

Harding: Coming from a historical conservation background, I usually work on objects or artworks with a long history. The object tells you what's happened to it, or there's some sort of documentation available, even if it's just a handwritten scroll. So that's what we base our research on before we even consider touching an artwork.

Canton Express has a history, but it was almost as if it was frozen in time, and now parts of it have filtered through to 2017. You pull back the layers, and there's just a blank sheet. And that's quite intimidating because we have to imprint onto that.

This 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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