Curating/Conserving Canton Express: How to Restore a Work That No Longer Exists
Welcome to the kingdom of Suckers. Here, straws are used to 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 over and over. 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 the way societies and individuals consume energy and resources from the world, from communities, and from each other.
But this original kingdom has since been lost.
If you’ve been following our “Curating/Conserving Canton Express” 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 three conservators and one curator from M+ reveal their answers.
Participants: Pi Li (Sigg Senior Curator, Visual Arts), Christel Pesme (Senior Conservator), Natalie Harding (Associate Conservator, Objects), and Jo-Fan Huang (Conservator, Paper).
Natalie: Sucker was a difficult one, because we had to figure out: what’s the best way of exhibiting this again when we don’t actually 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 in the form of 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 that we had as digital files and reprinted those as well.
Jo-Fan: 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". Originally, it was nailed to the wall of the installation while visitors were invited to look through it, and because of that, a new book was needed every time the work was exhibited. But we only have two copies of the book left, 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.
Natalie: The photos and book were the only physical components that were left of Sucker, but we did have photos of what the original installation looked like. This meant that we could recreate it through making exhibition copies.
When you don’t have really anything to work with physically, but you have the data or intangible information, you then move onto exhibition copies. These are essentially fabricated artwork copies made specifically for an exhibition, which then may or may not enter the collection.
Jo-Fan: When the exhibition copies were being created and we were restaging the work, we stayed as close to the original as we were able. It’s still not exactly 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 where and how to crop them. We also weren’t able to print the wallpaper exactly 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 itself, 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 next time.
Natalie: 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 kind of like this. They will have something physical to use, and not just photos. So we’re building a reference library.
Christel: It’s about refining the interpretation levels, not providing an absolute rulebook. Otherwise, the risk is that we cover up the original iteration of the work, which is less documented that our recreation. So our documentation is only there as a reference.
Natalie: Coming from a historical conservation background, I normally work on objects or artworks that have a long history. The object tells you what’s happened to it, or, even if it’s just a handwritten scroll, there’s some sort of documentation available. That’s what we base our very first research on, before we even think about 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.