Curating/Conserving Canton Express: Chickens in the Gallery
Have you ever walked into a contemporary art exhibition filled with dozens of chickens? Were they all suspiciously still and silent? Were they, on closer inspection, actually made of fibreglass and paint rather than feathers?
Then you probably know what it is like to visit Canton Express.
Artistic Chicken by Duan Jianyu consists of a flock of 100 hand-painted chicken sculptures. The work is part of Canton Express, a project organised in 2003 at the Venice Biennale and restaged in 2017 at the M+ Pavilion. Bringing together fourteen artists and independent art groups, the original project addressed issues relating to the impacts of urbanization and globalization on the rapidly industrialising Pearl River Delta region.
Chickens are silly, and when inserted somewhere they do not belong, they make the whole thing seem ridiculous. Based on this simple premise, Duan Jianyu decided to create numerous life-size chicken sculptures and scatter them throughout the area, where original Canton Express was shown in the Arsenale section of the 2003 Venice Biennale. She described the Biennale as “a particularly sophisticated place - like a sacred place for art. I thought that if I presented chickens in such a setting, it would create an impact.” The presence of the chickens coaxed visitors to question and challenge the context that they were in. The absurdity of encountering a flock of chickens in an indoor art setting like the Venice Biennale (or the M+ Pavilion) makes the space more less serious, and, as a result, less authoritative.
But a flock of chickens, whether real or sculptural, is hard to keep in one place. In 2003, Artistic Chicken consisted of around 100 chicken sculptures. However, by the time the work was donated to M+ ten years later, after multiple transportations and years of storage, less than half of them remained.
How do you exhibit an incomplete chicken-themed work brought back from the past? That question is answered in this second part of our “Curating/Conserving Canton Express” series. One curator and two conservators discuss the unique case of restoring and exhibiting Artistic Chicken; a process that included a “chicken map” and some help from the artist herself.
Participants: Pi Li (Sigg Senior Curator of Visual Arts), Natalie Harding (Associate Conservator of Objects) and Jo-Fan Huang (Conservator of Paper).
Pi Li: There were likely more than 100 chickens in the original Canton Express project, all made from fibreglass and hand-painted by the artist. Each chicken was unique. But unfortunately, when we counted how many chickens we had after unpacking them, it turned out that only forty chickens remained, and all of them damaged to different degrees.
Since we had photos, we could have reproduced another sixty. But of course, once you reproduce something, it’s not the original thing. So we decided we would give up on the idea of reproducing new chickens. Instead, we would just display the absence of the chickens; the missing parts. That’s also part of the work’s history.
Natalie: We weren’t trying to make the objects go back to what they originally were. We were trying to make things stable. We had an interesting conversation about that with the artist, who asked, “Well, why don’t you just repaint them?” I said no, because the paint on the chickens is from your hand. I can’t copy your brushstrokes exactly, so I don’t want to go over them.
We didn’t want to push too many of our artistic ideas onto the artworks, because so many components were either missing or had very little documentation. When there are so many gaps, you have to be careful not to fill them with what you think should be there based on your own impressions of the work.
Pi Li: The chickens were spread out all over the room in the original Canton Express in 2003. For this iteration, we wanted to show them standing on the floor, but also keep them safe. So Natalie designed a structure that hides the fact that they are actually mounted on the floor. This keeps the work safe, and it provides a given placement for the chickens. Even in ten years, if we are not here anymore, future curators can copy that placement.
Jo-Fan: It all boils down to proper documentation, so that the museum can restage this exhibition again and again in the future. It’s not always about straightforward conservation treatments; it’s more about understanding what the artwork is really about. For example, with the chickens, we needed to understand their placement, and for that, we needed to ask the artist.
Natalie: We invited the artist back to position the chickens while we were in storage. We were all there in the room doing it, and it was actually quite fun! We developed a map, so we’d know where the chickens could be placed during the exhibition installation. She positioned all the chickens and then we traced their placements. Even though we will have a different space in 10 years time, we now have this map. It’s like a guideline of where they should be.
But when you’re developing documentation like this, you have to accept that, with something like Canton Express, they’re only guidelines. We’re recording it so that the curators and conservators of the future can see—oh, that’s what they did. Maybe we can do something similar.
The above interview has been edited for clarity.
Image at top of post: SQUAWK. Artistic Chicken at the original Canton Express in 2003. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Guan Yi, 2013. Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong.