Why Did M+ Team Members Spend Weeks Collecting Old Leaves?
In the current exhibition at the M+ Pavilion, In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections, you’ll find a video installation work next to two large, suspended nets filled with leaves. This is All Lines Flow Out by Charles Lim, a work that explores Singapore’s drainage system and how it reflects the city’s relationship to the sea. The work’s installation instructions state that the leaves should be freshly gathered for each display. So, how do you find these leaves? Below, four members of M+’s exhibitions team share how they did it.
Participants: Kieran Champion, Senior Manager, Installations and Displays; Natalie Harding, Associate Conservator, Objects; Nelson Tsui, Assistant Art Technician; and Howard Wong, Exhibitions Production Technician.
Kieran: All Lines Flow Out is a work by Charles Lim that involves an audiovisual component as well as two large drain nets that contain debris and leaf litter. In the M+ Pavilion, that leaf litter comes from various trees taken from different places in Hong Kong.
Natalie: The only thing we had in storage was the nets, and nothing else. We had to do a lot of research to see how the work looked when it was exhibited earlier in other places, and what the artist intended. This included looking at different species of trees to see which leaves would be most suitable for the installation.
Howard: The artist was after a specific type of leaf, but that type of tree was actually very rare in Hong Kong. We found the tree online, but it was just too expensive to import.
Natalie: The artist offered to send us leaves from Singapore, but we really wanted to use leaves from Hong Kong because it was more practical and less wasteful.
Howard: The leaves that ended up in the M+ Pavilion come from all over Hong Kong: from the gutters in Cyberport, the Nursery Park in West Kowloon, a farm in the New Territories, a temple in Wan Chai.
Kieran: It was so hot, we were all sweating while going out and picking up the leaves. It was communal sweat! We had to work hard to find leaves that were the right size and were relatively tough. The artist and curator needed leaves that wouldn’t crumble or fall onto the floor in bits, and they had to be big enough to be able to stick into the nets. The mango tree leaves that Nelson found eventually turned out to be the best. The curator also sent photos of the leaves to the artist to make sure they were okay.
Nelson: I was in Cyberport when I saw big trash bags of mango tree leaves that looked like they would work. So I started collecting them. They were actually leaves from the gutter, which was perfect because the original intention of the work is to collect leaves from the gutter.
Kieran: We then had to try and find places to store the leaves, dry them, treat them for pests, and finally insert them into the nets. At first, we had to store the leaves in my own apartment, and in the M+ offices at one point. Then, eventually, we were able to use the M+ building mockups in the West Kowloon Cultural District to store the leaves and dry them out.
Natalie: We have to thank Jody Beenk, head of Preservation & Conservation at the University of Hong Kong, for allowing us to use the freezer at the University of Hong Kong Libraries Preservation Centre to freeze the leaves to get rid of any pests or contamination. Without treating them like this, bringing in organic matter such as old leaves into a museum environment can be potentially risky because there can be pests or mold. This was actually the first time we showed organic materials in the gallery.
Kieran: It’s certainly a strange working day to put these kinds of artworks together. But that’s what makes installation work so interesting...
Natalie: I found myself with a weird online search history, looking for things like ‘gutter nets’ and ‘where to buy dried leaves.’
What was the most fun part and least fun part of collecting the leaves?
Howard: The best part was getting to go out to pick the leaves. I loved going out to the farm in the New Territories, and meeting the professor there who taught me about different types of leaves. The worst part was definitely collecting leaves while it was extremely humid and hot.
Nelson: My worst and best are the same thing: spending lots of time outside to pick the leaves. It was very hot—I had to pick leaves in my boxer shorts in one point because of the heat—but it was also really great to be in Cyberport all by myself and see the views.
Natalie: For me, the best was absolutely the collaboration; working with all the different teams to see the result come together. The artwork itself is really amazing. The worst was the fear that we might not be able to do it. That’s always the worry.
Kieran: I also really enjoyed the process. It was more than just collecting the leaves in the sun and being sweaty. It was also a lot of research, which a lot of people don’t realise. I’d like to say thank you to the team; not just these three, but all of the colleagues who helped out. I’m really proud of everyone!
You can see All Lines Flow Out at In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections in the M+ Pavilion until 30 September. Find more behind-the-scenes stories from the M+ team here!
The above interview has been edited for clarity.
Image at the top: Installing the two leaf sculptures together with one of the exhibition curators. © M+, Hong Kong