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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.