How Do You Conserve an Artwork Made Out of Teabags?
Three M+ conservators discuss how they conserved a work made out of thousands of used teabags stitched together
Leung Mee-ping created her work Elsewhere V (2014) by stitching 10,000 Chinese teabags onto stretched fabric by hand. It is part of the Elsewhere series, which she began in 1991 after a close friend passed away. Forlorn and drinking tea everyday, she started sewing her drying teabags into an artwork. The repetitive action of sewing the teabags represented a meditative contemplation on life and death. The work entered the M+ Collections in 2016.
The completed conservation and stabilisation of the work was an unusual process, because it couldn’t be neatly placed in a single category. Should the paintings conservator conserve it, because it is on a flat surface? Should it be the objects conservator, because the work has a sculptural, three-dimensional quality? Should it be the paper conservator, because the teabags are made out of paper? In the end, all three specialists decided to collaborate on the work: another example of how the diverse M+ Collections bring these overlapping areas of expertise together.
Below, Natalie Harding (Conservator, Objects), Jo-Fan Huang (Conservator, Paper), and Karina Jagudina (Conservator, Paintings) explain how they and their team dealt with this unique work.
What We Had to Conserve
Natalie: Prior to our initial inspection, I was worried about possible mould, since the work was made out of wet teabags. We opened the crate expecting a mouldy smell, but instead we were hit by this lovely, and very strong, scent of tea. For several weeks, our conservation lab smelled faintly like tea.
Karina: When we first unpacked the artwork, we made a condition assessment. The work consists of thousands of teabags sewn onto fabric on a stretcher. We quickly realised that a lot of the teabags were torn and constantly losing tea, with a lot of loose tea found in the packing.
We wanted to understand the work better, so we asked M+ curator Tina Pang, who had acquired it, if we could invite the artist, Leung Mee-ping, to our storage facilities. Leung told us about the history of the work, the materials that she used, and how she created it.
Natalie: We found out from her how the teabags were coloured. The tea is ordinary Chinese tea off the shelf. Leung wet the teabags, then put them outside in the sun and let them age and discolour. How long she kept them outside correlates to the different shades of brown. Some were left outside for upwards of thirty days, but some were still wet when she started to apply them and sculpt the surface of the work.
Jo-Fan: The teabags are constructed from very thin, machine-made paper. A non-synthetic, natural fibre paper. It’s what a teabag should be.
Natalie: We noticed a coating on top of the teabags. Leung explained that this was actually rice starch, which she’d used to fix the teabags in place. It also acted as a kind of protective layer. When deciding on a treatment option, we chose wheat starch paste as our adhesive, as it dries clear and has similar material properties to rice starch.
Karina: In addition to the challenge of the torn teabags, there was also an issue with stretching. Originally, Leung stretched and stapled the fabric onto a wooden stretcher she’d built herself. The fabric is a synthetic polyester, like you might find lining the inside of a suit jacket. It’s very slippery and not strong enough for the weight of the work, so it has started to slip out of the staples. For now, it's stable, but in the future it will need to be reinforced, which we also discussed with the artist.
How We Conserved the Work
Natalie: This is a good example of a work in the M+ Collections where three different conservation methods overlap and come together.
Karina: Elsewhere V is neither solely an object, nor a sculpture, nor a painting, nor a paper-based work. It’s a very unique piece.
Jo-Fan: There are slight differences in approaches among our specialties, so we had to try to adapt them to create a common one. If it had just been paper conservation, for example, we wouldn’t have treated it the same way.
Karina: We did a lot of brainstorming and discussed a lot of ideas when deciding on the treatment plan. When the artwork came to our lab, the three of us gathered to discuss what paper we should use to mend the torn teabags.
Jo-Fan: In paper conservation, we have acquired a collection of papers that we can use to respond to different types of paper-based artworks. If we do mending or inserts, we need to match the thickness of the original paper, and understand what the replacement paper needs to maintain, or replicate, regarding the integrity of the initial materials, so we have a wide selection to consider. Sometimes we have to cast our own paper to most closely match the surface of the artwork.
For this work, we looked at the paper samples and found the one that was most suitable in terms of thickness and surface quality. This ended up being a Japanese paper, which we used to mend tears in the teabags. We pre-dyed it in shades of brown, yellow, and orange using conservation-grade gouache. We didn’t use tea, although we thought about it!
Karina: As conservators, if you add something on top of the original, you often try not to use the same materials. Many years from now, if someone wants to analyse the work but the documentation of the conservation is lost, at least the difference in materials will make it clear that the conservation treatment is not part of the original. Sometimes we try to get close to the original and sometimes it’s the exact opposite.
Natalie: It took us almost three weeks in total to do the conservation work. It’s a very large piece, and after a while the surfaces and types of damage could all start to look very similar. Did I mend that teabag already? Is that hole one we’ve decided should not be patched up? You have to be very systematic; it’s like a very repetitive puzzle. This is why we created a grid map structure, which is an easy way of breaking down large works.
Karina: We divided it with threads into quadrants. We then photographed each quadrant, always using the same light setting and a colour chart. This documentation process took a long time because it had to be very detailed. We printed out the images and marked the damaged parts on them.
Finally, we could then start the actual treatment. This involved the three of us sitting around with the pre-dyed Japanese paper and brushes, cutting the paper, and pasting it in place using the wheat starch to mend the holes and tears.
Jo-Fan: The colour shading in the work is very vibrant and changes even within the same teabag, so we realised that the Japanese paper didn’t fully integrate, despite our best efforts. The next step will be to blend them in a bit more.
Natalie: We also had to reintegrate the loose tea back into the bags. I worked on the edges where a lot of tea was lost, collecting it from the folds of the packaging and carefully reinserting it inside the teabags that we’d identified as having suffered significant loss.
Jo-Fan: There will have to be lots of monitoring, later on, for pest activity. We need to make sure that the humidity is right. Structurally the piece needs to be stable. There’s still more work to do.
Karina: And this treatment will need to be repeated in certain areas in the future, because the teabags get brittle. Here and there, especially when you move the work a lot, they will open up and will need to be repaired again.
Jo-Fan: I’ve never worked with teabags before, so this was a completely new material for me.
Karina: I’ve never worked with tea before either. I myself am a huge admirer and fan of Leung Mee-ping’s work, because it’s very special and she uses really unusual materials. We also have a work of hers consisting of 10,000 shoes made out of human hair.
Natalie: Quite simple in its construction, Elsewhere V is organic, raw, and irregular. It’s stitched and stapled, undulated, and undercut, making it a very sculptural and complex surface. I think that’s reflected in our approach to the repairs: following the sculptural qualities yet applying a fairly uncomplicated conservation treatment.
As told to Ellen Oredsson. This interview has been edited for clarity. Originally published on M+ Stories.