In Shanghai, the best shopping deals are secreted away from the high-street glitter in ever-changing locales: the fake-goods market is currently located on level B1 of the Science & Technology Museum metro stop, where countless little stalls offer, for a fraction of the original price, counterfeit Balenciaga sneakers or Rimowa suitcases. At these rates, even the matron of Jia Jia Tang Bao, a tiny little greasy spoon that serves delicious dim sum (an institution), can afford a “Gucci” T-shirt. But the fact is that wherever you go, from the stalls of Shanghai to the clandestine stands of Clignancourt, copies are everywhere, and the phenomenon is global.
Unblinkered observers of today’s world, Cattelan and Michele seek less to celebrate the copy than to give meaning to this incessant flow of reproductions, which reflect multiple realities
Indeed the virulent copying virus has also attacked the art world, a fact that the Yuz Museum in Shanghai – founded by mega-collector Budi Tek – is currently acknowledging with the exhibition The Artist is Present. “Originality is overrated,” exclaims the introductory manifesto. So long live the copy? The show, curated by Maurizio Cattelan in partnership with Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, asks the question with a certain irony.
Cattelan is too often reduced to his bravado and sense of derision, both of which he certainly needed to celebrate the copy in Shanghai with Gucci, one of the most copied brands on earth. But neither Cattelan nor Michele stoop to simple provocation, nor do they evoke level B1 of the Science & Technology Museum metro station. Unblinkered observers of today’s world, Cattelan and Michele seek less to celebrate the copy than to give meaning to this incessant flow of reproductions, which reflect multiple realities: copy-pasting of internet images; a copy of the Lascaux caves to welcome hordes of tourists; copies on glossy paper of the Mona Lisa; pirate copies of films and music.
In 16 rooms, The Artist is Present brings together 30 or so Chinese and international artists. The title, and the poster that goes with it, are in fact facsimiles of a notorious 2010 MoMA show by Marina Abramovic: a lookalike is shown on the poster and obisously the artist will not execute a single performance in Shanghai. It’s a truism that the copy first of all underlines an absence, that of the original, it being understood that, with respect to art, the original is supposed to be inseparable from the individual intervention of the artist with respect to a physical object. The show sets out to deconstruct precisely this myth and to demonstrate that art no longer has any use for such outdated ideas. The fetishization of the new, unique and personal, which was born along with modernity, was just a phase that is already behind us; there are now other paradigms.
The artist is absent, and there’s nothing wrong with that, because their ideas are all present and correct. Elaine Sturtevant (1924–2014) made a career out of reproducing the works of iconic artists of the 20th century; when Andy Warhol was asked about how he’d made one of his pictures, he supposedly replied, “Ask Elaine!” Among the works on display at the Yuz Museum is Sturtevant’s reproduction of a Martial Raysse, Peinture à haute tension; she never sought to produce an identical copy, but on the contrary usually worked from memory, using the same techniques to arrive at the same errors, but also with certain differences. By copying, Sturtevant, like Cattelan today, was simply asking the same eternal questions: what is an artwork? What makes it valuable? Neither the object nor the author perhaps, but a powerful gesture that is as formal as it is intellectual.
Celebrating the copy turns out to be the ideal pretext for opening the Pandora’s box of existential questions that concern art and society today.
Copying is stealing?
The artistic entity Reena Spaulings, which appeared in the middle of the noughties, has deconstructed yet further this cult of the author. A character out of a novel, Reena Spaulings produces perfectly real works while a gallery bearing her name has opened in New York. Thumbing its nose at the cult of celebrity, the project allows a collective experimentation which belongs to everybody and no one. In Shanghai, its surf boards are shown opposite Speech Bubbles by Philippe Parreno, an ensemble of golden balloons in the form of cartoon dialogues. For the art world, Parreno embodies the absolute symbol of a collaborative artist. His projects form dialogues: with Douglas Gordon for the video masterpiece Zidane – Un portrait du 21e siècle; with Tino Sehgal, etc. The individual artist is dead; long live the artist as shifting and embracing community! But Parreno embodies another problem, that of the artist for whom the work is less about the object (the sculpture, the video, etc.) than about the exhibition, the interaction between the elements that constitute it, the ecosystem that thereby establishes itself between them.
Show’s big idea: the copy is a vital and positive force. Reproduction allows circulation.
But mourning for the artist and the object is treated as a festive affair in Shanghai. And celebrating the copy turns out to be the ideal pretext for opening the Pandora’s box of existential questions that concern art and society today. Copying is stealing? But it’s also a way of making something accessible to everyone. The collective Superflex has reproduced, using undercover photos, the toilets of the European Council in Brussels, i.e. one of the most secret and protected places in the Belgian capital, a grotesque symbol of a fortress-like EU that is distanced from its citizens. To copy is to desire? Is this desire more legitimate when its object is a luxury item, a sign of social status, or when it’s an artwork? And what distinguishes the two today? The question of the artwork as ornament didn’t escape John Armleder, who is also present in the exhibition. His 1979 series of Furniture Sculptures already highlighted the “trivialization” of art by mixing design and painting. Near to his work, a window from Barney’s department store in New York has been reproduced by the artist Margaret Lee… Trivialization of art on the on the one hand, but also extension of its territory on the other. Design, fashion, etc. – art today uses all available means and vampirizes every aspects of modern life.
It would be impossible to discuss all the avenues opened up by the exhibition, so to conclude let’s consider its dazzling Postmodern side. Through his selection of works, Cattelan demonstrates that artists copy less than they hybridize forms and inspirations to create new worlds that transform our perception. Xu Zhen deconstructs geographic and cultural hierarchies by attaching Chinese religious figures to statues from the Parthenon. Anne Collier reconfigures images taken from mass media to create psychological associations that electrify ideas about power and gender. Ragnar Kjartansson has got a local singer to perform a popular Icelandic song, and in so doing has created a delicious time-space warp in an era of enraged debate about the question of cultural appropriation. It would have been nice to find out Cattelan’s view on the subject, although he does treat us to the spectacle of a previously unseen work, an impressively accurate 1:6 scale model of the Sixtine Chapel. But the show’s big idea comes through loud and clear, that the copy is a vital and positive force: reproduction allows circulation, reconfiguring the very idea of frontiers and categories; this oh-so-contemporary flow allows for evolution and hybridization. In this light, art comes across as an exciting mutant organism. In this new world, where the individual creator is no longer so valued, the new masters are called curators or artistic directors, cultural DJs whose genius lies in their ability to stage and sample ideas, forms and concepts produced by others. There remains just one question: why do these professional samplers still all dream of being called artists?
The Artist is Present, Yuz Museum, Shanghai, till 16 December.