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?

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.

Interviewees:

  • Natalie Harding, Conservator, Objects
  • Jofan Huang, Conservator, Paper
  • Karina Jagudina, Conservator, Paintings
A woman leans over a rolled up section of a large ink artwork on paper. She places a white strip onto the middle of the artwork where it’s been unrolled, next to other white strips weighted down by small weights.

Back to the Past to Conserve a Work of Contemporary Calligraphy

When restoring and preserving one of the largest ink paintings in the M+ Collections, the conservation team had to get inventive, using both modern tools and ancient techniques from the Asian scroll mounting tradition.

Hidai Nankoku’s Work (1964) is an immense 3.5 x 4.6 metre ink artwork. A documentary video recorded the performance in which the artist created the work: wielding an oversized brush and using the strength of his whole body, Hidai paints a large piece of paper lying on the ground outdoors, holding the brush upright like in regular calligraphy practice. However, his lines go against the standard movement and direction of calligraphic strokes and have no specific meaning, rejecting conventional practices of calligraphy.

Below, M+ Paper Conservator Jo-Fan Huang explains how she and her team dealt with this large work.

Two women with blue medical gloves work on an artwork laid out on a white table. The artwork consisting of German words printed on a large gold-covered vellum sheet. The sheet is rolled into a scroll with part of it flat on the table. One of the women is kneeling by the word and touching it, while the other woman leans over and observes her actions.

How Conservators Protect Objects against Sweat, Floor Paint, and Weather

Conserving contemporary visual culture is both a challenge and an opportunity. For Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint, the conservation efforts were conducted by Albrecht Gumlich, Conservator, Objects, M+, and the M+ conservation team. Below, he discusses some of the factors that the conservators had to protect against in the exhibition.

Why do we preserve visual culture, and what are we protecting it from when we preserve it? That’s the question that conservators are often asked. Objects in a museum collection are not only worth money, but they also have a cultural, historical, and social significance, which museums want to preserve for future generations to learn from, be inspired by, and enjoy.

There are many factors that can cause degradation, even in settings as carefully engineered as a museum exhibition, from the sweat on our fingers to the light shining onto an object. Below are some of the key dangers that conservators protect against.

Danger #1: People’s fingers

A woman kneels in front of a large net hanging from the ceiling filled with dry leaves. She is focused on adjusting one of the leaves sticking out of the net. In the background, two men adjust leaves in a second net hanging from the ceiling.

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.