Sample Room in 2017 at the M+ Pavilion. The exhibition consists of a room with dozens of pieces of kitchenware hanging off hooks on the wall. The wooden slats of the wall have emails between the artist and curator printed on them.

When Kitchen Products Become Art: Curating and Conserving Canton Express

We’ve gone through a lot of strange artworks in our ‘Curating/Conserving 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 in Guangdong province, 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.

Sample Room in 2003 at the Venice Biennale. The visible part of the artwork shows two walls and a doorway. The walls are full of hooks carrying wooden spoons and other kitchen utensils. In the doorway, there’s a man crouching down just outside the artwork, and a big brick pillar.

Sample Room in 2003 at the Venice Biennale. Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong.

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: shipping the kitchenware all the way from Yangjiang, this time to Hong Kong instead of Venice.

Read on as one curator and three conservators from M+ chat about the particular challenges of Sample Room, such as: why couldn’t M+ simply get new kitchen products from a Hong Kong supermarket? How different is Yangjiang kitchenware fourteen years later? And what do curators and conservators have to keep in mind for a work like this?

Participants: Pi Li (Sigg Senior Curator, Visual Arts), Christel Pesme (Senior Conservator), Natalie Harding (Associate Conservator, Objects), and Jo-Fan Huang (Conservator, Paper).

Sample Room in the M+ Pavilion. We’re looking at one of the walls of the artwork from below. Rows of hooks are on the wall, and different types of colourful plastic kitchenware hangs off the hooks. The wooden slats on the walls have sentences from emails sent between the artist and the curator in 2003 printed on them.

When cheap kitchenware becomes art. Sample Room in 2017 in the M+ Pavilion. Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong.

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.

Two walls of shelves with rows of kitchenware. Some of the kitchenware is black or metal, but most of it is very colourful plastic. Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong.

'Shopping list': a photo of Yangjiang kitchenware taken by Zheng Guogu, the artist, to show the M+ curators what sort of kitchen products would be needed for the 2017 version of Sample Room.

Natalie: 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.

Close up of kitchenware hanging on the wall of the 2003 version of *Sample Room*. Wooden spoons hang from hooks on the wall closest to us. The hooks on the back wall, visible to the right in the photo, are filled with metal stands, whisks and spatulas.

This is what kitchenware from Yangjiang looked like in 2003. Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong.

Christel: It’s interesting because, in 2017, Sample Room reflects a moment of globalization in the real world, even though it was made fourteen years ago. In 2003, it was of course also about globalization, and about how the Chinese market was reaching out, but fifteen years later it’s a completely different, but still relevant, reality.

Jo-Fan: 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.

Natalie: 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.

That’s the end of our 'Curating/Conserving Canton Express' series! Anything left unanswered? Want to hear more from our curators and/or conservators? What was your favourite Canton Express artwork? Write in with your questions and comments!

Video of the artist talking about 'Sample Room' and the process of creating it. Video transcript available in caption.

Want to learn more about the artwork? Have a look at this interview with the artist. Video transcript here.

Canton Express is on display at the M+ Pavilion from 23 June 2017 until 10 September 2017.

The above interview has been edited for clarity.


Image at top of post: Sample Room in 2017 at the M+ Pavilion. Sample Room, Zheng Guogu. Kitchenware, suspended racks, wooden slatwall panels, text. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Guan Yi, 2013. Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong.

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