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Two people stand in front of a large flat artwork consisting of thousands of used teabags sewn together. The person on the left is brandishing a small paintbrush, hovering it over the work.

How Do You Conserve an Artwork Made Out of Teabags?

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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, the three conservators explain how they and their team dealt with this unique work.


  • Natalie Harding, Conservator, Objects
  • Jofan Huang, Conservator, Paper
  • Karina Jagudina, Conservator, Paintings


What We Had to Conserve

Three people sit or stand around a large flat artwork on a white table. The artwork consists of thousands of used teabags in differing shades of brown sewn together. The people all hold small paintbrushes. One of the people is using the paintbrush on the artwork.

Three M+ conservators jointly undertaking conservation treatment on the artwork. Photo: Winnie Yeung@iMAGE28

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.

Jofan: The teabags are constructed from very thin, machine-made paper. A non-synthetic, natural fibre paper. It’s what a teabag should be.

A woman peers over the edge of a large artwork consisting of thousands of used teabags sown together. Only the top half of her face is visible and the rest is obscured by the artwork.

Natalie Harding, Conservator, Objects, inspecting the outer edge of the artwork. Photo: Winnie Yeung@iMAGE28

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

Close-up of a person’s hand in a blue vinyl medical glove holding a small paintbrush. The paintbrush is being used to paint on the edge of an artwork consisting of numerous used teabags stitched together.

Detail of colour matching and inpainting an area of Japanese paper repair. Photo: Winnie Yeung@iMAGE28

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.

Jofan: 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.

Jofan: 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!

A person’s hands are holding down and tearing off a strip from a sheet of feathery, fibrous cream-coloured paper.

Preparing the pre-dyed Japanese paper for the infills. The Japanese paper is feather-cut in this way to utilise the strength of the paper fibres. Photo: Winnie Yeung@iMAGE28

Close-up of a person’s hands as they are using a pair of tweezers to place a small piece of feathery paper onto an artwork consisting of multiple used teabags sewn together.

Manami Hori, Associate Conservator, Paper, placing Japanese paper on a damaged area of teabag. Photo: Winnie Yeung@iMAGE28

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.

A woman wearing blue vinyl medical gloves sits next to a flat artwork consisting of numerous used teabags sewn together. The artwork is lying on the table in front of her. She holds a paintbrush and a metal box of gouache paint and is dipping the paintbrush into the palette.

Karina Jagudina, Conservator, Paintings, colour-matching and inpainting the Japanese paper infills. Photo: Winnie Yeung@iMAGE28

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.

The edge of an artwork made out of numerous used teabags stitched together lies on a white table, viewed from above. Next to it are multiple printed out sheets with photographs of the artwork taken from different angles, with notes written on them. A metal box with a palette of paint also lies next to it.

A sample of the documentation used to track and monitor the condition of the artwork and the palette used for inpainting. Photo: Winnie Yeung@iMAGE28

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.

Jofan: 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.

Jofan: 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.

Three people stand in front of a large flat artwork consisting of thousands of used teabags sewn together. The person in the middle is holding a sheet of paper with a photograph of the artwork, pointing at it with a smile. The other two also look at the sheet. Another sheet of paper with a photograph of the artwork lies on top of the artwork in front of them.

Three M+ conservators discussing the condition and treatment options for the artwork. Photo: Winnie Yeung@iMAGE28

Jofan: 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.

Read more blog posts about the M+ conservation team and their work.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Image at the top of post: Manami Hori, Associate Conservator, Paper, and Natalie Harding, Conservator, Objects, examining the surface of the artwork. Photo: Winnie Yeung@iMAGE28

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