(Original language: Cantonese)
ZHENG GUOGU: At that time, I had finished the structural plan for Canton Express and allocated the spaces among the artists. There was one leftover space under the stairs that wasn’t being used so I thought, why not use it myself?
I saw how some people from Yangjiang traded goods, through Hong Kong, such as handling knives and kitchen utensils. All they had was a little sample room, but even with just one person, it seemed like they could do big international business. A sample, a label, and a message would be sent to Hong Kong, and international orders were received through Hong Kong. I thought, ‘This is real globalisation!’
So I presented this Yangjiang style of trading. I made a tiny sample room, a space that could also do big international orders. Later I found it quite amusing. The work is actually a visualisation of the concept ‘Made in China’. At that time, the whole world was ‘Made in China’.
We can put it like this: US army knives were made in a certain factory in Yangjiang. At the same time, Iraqi army knives were made in the same factory. The only difference was the delivery address. These parcels were sent to the US and the Iraqi parcels were sent to Iraq. The knives were used on the same battlefield. Maybe the US army knives were more expensive, and the quality was better, and the Iraqi army knives were cheaper and the quality was poor. When they met on the battlefield, the Iraqis lost. But the knives was produced by the same factory. It was all made in China. I think this phenomenon is really funny. Through these types of business transactions, we can see how politics, wars, and current affairs work on an international level.
Very few people could go to Venice at the time. Very few people could go there in person. Also, a lot of people just went to look at the work for fun. They weren’t genuinely studying them. Actually, things are still like this in the art world. Very few people truly study the works or think they’re important. Very few people truly understand them.
That’s why this M+ exhibition, as far as I’m concerned, is like a mirage. It is very meaningful to be able to re-stage the exhibition for the public. It can make an even deeper impression. It is rare to be able to see works on site. For many works, once they’ve left the exhibition venue, you can only experience them through photos or word of mouth, it’s hard to feel their presence.
It’s important for viewers to experience the actual setting for themselves. It’s good to have first-hand experience. When Hong Kong audiences go to experience this, it should be very interesting.
We’ve gone through a lot of strange artworks in our Canton Express series: giant bug objects, lifesize chicken sculptures, and mini-kingdoms filled with giant straws. For this final part of the series, we will be looking at something seemingly much more normal and mundane: a tiny room filled with kitchen products.
Sample Room by Zheng Guogu is the concept of ‘Made in China’ in artwork form. In the city of Yangjiang, Guangdong, local samples of products, such as kitchenware, are produced and put into display rooms to be shown for international buyers. In 2003, Zheng Guogu took these local kitchen products, put them in his own manufactured display room, and then shipped the entire thing to the Venice Biennale. There, it was part of Canton Express, a project originally organised in 2003 and restaged in 2017 at the M+ Pavilion.
Those original kitchen products are long gone; lost in the initial trip back to China from Venice. So when the M+ curators and conservators were faced with restaging the work, it meant closely examining the artist’s concept and recreating the entire process by shipping the kitchenware all the way from Yangjiang—this time to Hong Kong instead of Venice.
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) chat about the particular challenges of Sample Room.
Pi Li: When restaging Canton Express, we spent a lot of time exploring the original concept of the exhibition and artworks. But when some pieces were missing, we sometimes had to challenge the idea of the artist as the only author of an artwork. A good example is Zheng Guogo’s Sample Room, where the version that we’ve recreated looks very different to the original.
The original idea of Sample Room was that the artist reconstructed a room for showcasing production samples of kitchenware from Yangjiang, and transplanted this whole room from Yangjiang to Venice. But throughout the years, all of the original kitchen objects have disappeared.
We could easily have found kitchen stuff in any supermarket here in Hong Kong, but, together with the artist, we decided to take the most complicated route. We still wanted to import items from Yangjiang, because that’s part of the concept—how a small place can become an international business. The artist sent us photos of selected kitchen objects from Yangjiang, and we shipped them to Hong Kong this time instead of Vienna.
Harding: Sample Room definitely raises a lot of questions. In ten years' time, for example, will we use the same utensils that we have now? Most likely yes, because they’re entering into the collection.
Pi Li: And somehow, after fourteen years, the style of kitchenware has totally changed. The original items were more black and white, more metal. But now the Yangjiang kitchen products have become very colourful!
So, you can obviously see that the work that we reconstruct here is not 100% the same. It was impossible to have the same version in 2017. But we tried to stick to the concept as close as we could.
Pesme: It’s interesting because, in 2017, Sample Room reflects a moment of globalisation in the real world, even though it was made fourteen years ago. In 2003, it was of course also about globalisation, and about how the Chinese market was reaching out, but fifteen years later it’s a completely different, but still relevant, reality.
Huang: From a conservator’s point of view, the challenging part of this exhibition was understanding the artist’s intent, so that we could answer the question: what is the most important thing to preserve here? In Sample Room, if we lose one or two of the utensils, it’s not the end of the world, because the idea of Sample Room is not lost. The utensils are replaceable, as long as the concept of the artwork is retained.
Harding: The major component of this exhibition has been understanding what information to capture, and what documentation to gather. For me, I’ve had to really focus on making sure I get everything, and then sift it and going, okay, which bits are actually important? I look at all of the materials we’ve gathered and decide, that can be documented as the history of the exhibition, this can be documented as the present of the exhibition, and then that bit there is being documented as the potential future of the exhibition. It’s been this sort of mass gathering of information.
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.