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Preserving the History of Tomorrow

Conservator Natalie Harding and former conservation intern Jessica Wu are cleaning parts of Liang Juhui’s work, ‘City’, a tall tower-like structure that has been temporarily dismantled for cleaning purposes.

Conservator Natalie Harding (right) and former conservation intern Jessica Wu (left) clean dismantled sections of Liang Juhui’s work City (2003)

One curator and three conservators from M+ sit down to share how they collaborated in restaging Canton Express, an exhibition from 2003, at the M+ Pavilion.

When Chinese curator Hou Hanru organised the project Canton Express—part of the larger exhibition Z.O.U. – Zone Of Urgency—for the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, art from the Pearl River Delta region had never before been given such a major international showcase. Featuring works from fourteen artists and independent art groups, Canton Express took a pointed look at the impacts of China’s rapid globalisation on the heavily and quickly industrialising Pearl River Delta region, with a focus on conceptual and site-specific art that contrasted sharply with previous figurative contemporary Chinese art.

The history of the project took an unexpected turn when, after the Biennale, Canton Express was collected as a set by the pioneering Chinese collector Guan Yi. The works were stored together for ten years and donated to M+ in 2013, and the project is now being restaged nearly in its entirety at the M+ Pavilion—an exciting, important, and challenging task that pushed M+’s curatorial and conservation teams to rethink their roles in putting together an exhibition.

The main challenge? The 2003 project was spontaneous and creative, but it was organised with little knowledge about the fate of the artworks after the show and, therefore, little thought as to how they should be properly stored and documented. As a result, fourteen years later, the artworks have ended up damaged, incompletely catalogued, and missing many of their components.

Tasked with restaging an exhibition that lacked documentation and was in urgent need of repair, the M+ curatorial and conservation teams decided to embark on their most ambitious and extensive collaboration to date, in order to bring Canton Express back to life. Below, Pi Li (Sigg Senior Curator, Visual Arts), Christel Pesme (Senior Conservator), Natalie Harding (Associate Conservator, Objects), and Jo-Fan Huang (Conservator, Paper) share their reflections on the process.

Photograph of Difficult to Birth by Feng Qianyu as it looked in 2003, consisting of two large plastic bug-like structures with photos attached. One is lying on the floor and the other is suspended above it.

Feng Qianyu's Difficult to Birth at the Venice Biennale in 2003. If you’re scared of bugs, don’t worry; the two large bug-like structures have since been lost. © Feng Qianyu; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Guan Yi, 2013

This was the first time at M+ that the curatorial and conservation teams worked together so extensively in creating an exhibition. What did this collaboration look like, and why did it take place?

Pi Li: It can be hard to understand the role of conservators in a contemporary museum, because everything is assumed to have been newly made. But we are an institution that maintains and safeguards heritage. The contemporary is the history of tomorrow, and we are preserving that history. That was particularly clear with this exhibition.

It’s been a very interesting journey. We needed to build up a dialogue with our conservators for the exhibition, and it was especially crucial in this case. The original Canton Express was put together in a rush and therefore lacked very basic documentation. We had some photos and publications, but none of them contained serious records. So when the work was donated to us, we didn’t know much more about it. We had to open the crates and explore all of the possibilities to see what we could do.

So, I raised the idea of a collaboration between the conservation team and the curatorial team. Together, we would do research, build up basic documentation, find a way to conserve the objects, and then, in the end, restage the show. Every exhibition in the M+ Pavilion involves M+ conservators, but for this particular project, they weren’t only there to conserve and protect the works and check the conditions, but also to be involved in the display and concept.

Harding: Because the original project was produced without thinking about future preservation, things weren’t packed or treated with great care. The artworks were put into storage for ten years and were unchecked for many years. When we received them, there were structural damages and missing components. If we hadn’t done the conservation work on them, some of the things would have been physically unstable to even stand up.

A really good example, I think, is the photographic strips from the work Difficult to Birth by Feng Qianyu. Originally, they were mounted on two plastic bug-shaped objects, which no longer exist. We had to come at that from a different angle, asking what we could do to display the photos when we didn’t actually have the whole work. So we came up with a mounting system and a frame. The work is displayed in a slightly different physical manner, yet the context of the photos being on display is still there.

Restaging and rebuilding
Restaging and rebuilding

Installation of Feng Qianyu's Difficult to Birth in the M+ Pavilion in 2017, restaged with a new structure

Pesme : It’s important to point out that even though the storage conditions were not perfect, those conditions still saved the work. But the original project was made without knowing ahead that it was an significant historic event, and so, therefore, there was a lack of documentation.

Pi Li: And the original Canton Express project, especially, was highly conceptual and site-specific. Most works were quite oriented around the original time frame, context, and culture of the Pearl River Delta. So for us, curatorially, it was a challenge. We had to ask, do we restage it or not? If we do restage it, to which level?

Harding: The space is a big part of the exhibition, and it will definitely have to be refabricated every time the exhibition is restaged. In 2003, the exhibition had two long lines, like a street, with colourful rooms, and ‘shops’, on both sides. In the Pavilion we had to bend the street, because it’s smaller than the original Venice Biennale space, and it is more square-shaped. So I think every time the exhibition is put on, it will be different.

A time lapse video capturing the installation of Feng Qianyu's, ‘Difficult to Birth’ at the M+ Pavilion. A team of art handlers, conservators, curators and registrars work together to install the piece in preparation for the M+ ‘Canton Express’ exhibition.

Canton Express exhibition view at the M+ Pavilion. Note the L-shaped layout of the colourful ‘marketplace stalls’ that contain the installation

Pi Li: It’s hard to keep a balance. On one hand, curatorially, you want to keep the original feel and texture at its purest, but on the other hand, the conservators have to keep the work safe and stable. So it’s interesting for us to find the rationale of how we work together, and how we can represent the history through objects; through conservation.

Harding: I think a turning point between curatorial and conservation, in terms of understanding each other, was a conversation we had where we were thinking about what will happen when we do the next iteration of this exhibition and how to prepare for that. I think, at that point, the curators had mainly been thinking up until 2017, putting the exhibition on, and hadn’t quite gotten to thinking about when the exhibition will be put on again in the future. That shifted, I think, during that conversation, and it made the whole process a lot easier.

Conservator Jo-Fan Huang sits by a table and cleans Zheng Guogo’s Software and Hardware of a Canton Street, a miniature model of the colourful ‘marketplace stalls’ containing many of the exhibition’s installations in a row. The model shows how the rooms were originally placed in a long row, mimicking a street.

Conservator Jo-Fan Huang cleans Zheng Guogo’s Software and Hardware of a Canton Street (2004), a miniature model of the colourful ‘marketplace stalls’ containing many of the exhibition’s installations. The model shows how the rooms were originally placed in a long row, mimicking a street

Huang: At the end of the day, the most critical thing is to understand that this exhibition is unique. It’s almost like archeology; we’ve been going back in time and trying to understand it. For me, this exhibition was not about conventional conservation treatments, but about really understanding what it was like and what the artists’ intents were and how the curator wanted it to be. And once we had that vision, of how the concept of the artwork could be preserved, it was easier for us to come up with a conservation strategy. Then there was a roadmap that we could follow.

When you walk into the exhibition, you can see those collage images from 2003 on the wall. At the opening, people were coming up to the wall, pointing, and saying, yes, I was there! I almost had this impulse to record them, and ask them what things were like back then and if they felt that we achieved the original artistic vision. I asked Duan Jianyu, one of the participating artists who created Artistic Chicken, that question and she said that, yes; we achieved it. That was great validation.

All images: M+, Hong Kong (unless otherwise indicated). This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

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