The relationship between copying and creating has always been a hot topic. We often believe that a copy cannot possess the aura of the original because it only imitates the original and doesn't have its true value, so we consider a copy as a counterfeit. Does copying indeed lack aura? In The Artist is Present, a Gucci-sponsored exhibition, we will tackle this question and explore the meaning of originality and the truth about copying
New judgments are made in every era, especially when it comes to discussions of "copies" and "originals". We are keen to discuss whether "copying" can maintain the aura of original artworks. Here, the aura of an artwork includes thought-provoking elements in the work, the emotions of the artist and a context that makes the audience feel connected. Philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote in his book The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that works of art are in principle reproducible because things made by humans can be imitated, but only "aura" cannot be inherited, as it cannot exist when separated from immediateness and uniqueness – the innate characteristics of the author and his creation. Nowadays, the discussion about copying and originality are continuous, but we can look at that from a different perspective.
The Artist is Present is initiated by Gucci's creative director Alessandro Michele and curated by artist & curator Maurizio Cattelan. They re-examined the complex relationship between image and reality, reproduction and presentation. They entrusted us with the power of interpreting and examining the statement that "copying is creating": whether copies may also be act of creating, and have the same artistic value and aura as the originals do.
The act of appropriation has always been controversial in fashion industry, but in art field, it is regarded as a creative act and can be openly discussed and interpreted. As the curators of the exhibition, Michele and Cattelan are considered belonging to two different fields: fashion and art, but they both share the path to the exploration of "copying is creating".
In the fashion world, Michele is the most respectful successor to ancient cultures. His fantastic aesthetics, as well as blooming design concepts and systems based on his love for past cultures, have transformed Gucci. He is passionately exploring content from different ages and dimensions that can be integrated with his own system, as if he is adding different materials into a huge container and finally refining them into gold. Borrowing elements from ancient cultures is, in a sense, also a form of copying, but the final product of their combination is brand new with Michele's signature style and the brand's gene – actually an act of creating. So, is the "aura" we mentioned retained at this moment? As objects being borrowed, their original "aura" has been reconstructed in the process of copying and integration. They have been separated of their original meaning and given a new life as a new product. In Gucci 2019 Cruise Collection, we can see a large number of elements borrowed from works of the Middle Ages, ancient Rome, ancient Greece, and modern times. They are dismantled, reorganized, and given a new life in a new form, full of spirituality. It is interesting that every reorganization by Michele will raise controversy and discussion.
No wonder people are speculating whether this cooperation with Cattelan is Michele's response to the outside world: Does appropriation really have an absolute meaning? Does a reproduced and reorganized artwork have the same artistic aura as the original?
Cattelan once said, "The context of an artwork becomes part of its meaning, and at the same time, forms the viewpoint it expresses." At The Artist is Present, Cattelan created a 1:6 replica of the Sistine Chapel, separated this historical site from its original environment. In the last room, he borrowed the "Hollywood" photo-taking wall from Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles.
When "copying" separated from the artist's identity and scene, its artistic value and significance have changed, as Cattelan said: "Copying is like a blasphemy: it could seem not respectful towards God, but at the same time is the significative recognition of its existence." It’s worth mentioning that Cattelan expressed his views on the controversial topic of "knock-offs" in the fashion industry before the exhibition opening. He believed that originality, as a product of industrialization, should not be overrated, and that everyone has the right to interpret art because art belongs to subjective interpretation.
For The Artist is Present, curator Cattelan invited more than 30 artists to discuss on using of copying, how originality is established, and how originality existences through copying. These artists’ works were integrated in 17 rooms and presented to the audience in a visually interactive way. In the last room, he especially displayed a stack of newspapers entitled The New Work Times, only one letter different from The New York Times. This exhibition brochure contains articles about all types of appropriation and stories behind them in our present life. One article, entitled Shift of Aura, argues, "'Copy' is not necessarily a variant as it shares the same etymology as 'Copious', which means a rich source. The concept of copies suggests no meaning of inferiority, but is only a proof of productivity."
If copying contains the act of conscious and purposeful creating, and the ultimate goal of creating "something new" instead of direct imitation and appropriation, is this type of copying/appropriation equated to creating? Does the copy also have "originality"? This time, we interviewed two artists who have participated in The Artist is Present: Aleksandra Mir and Nevine Mahmoud.
1. How were you involved in "The Artist is Present" exhibition? What do you think about it?
It was my first exhibition in and visit to China so it was a very big experience for me in every way. I was really happy to be involved.
2. What do you think of the relationship between "Copying" and "Originality"?
It is a by now a classic problem in art. Walter Benjamin wrote about copying in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical reproduction’ in 1935, arguing that a work of art is devalued when multiplied. Others have countered that theory and the discussion is ongoing.
3. Shanghai（2018）looks like a copy of Venezia (2009) from the 53rd International International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Why did you choose this subject for the exhibition?
I didn’t chose it! The work was invited by Maurizio Cattelan who had a very clear idea of the show he wanted to make —a complete work of art —like a symphony where the artists are playing different instruments. I knew nothing about the other works before the opening and I loved discovering how unique in their respective articulations they were and how symbiotic they became under his vision.
4. When you replaced the original “VENEZIA” with the word “SHANGHAI” in the postcards, do you think the meaning of the work has changed? Do you think is it an original inheritance, or did it build a new content?
Since I first made it in Venice in 2009, I have been asked to re-create in at least 10 other locations. I always said no, I am not a travelling circus and I don’t like to repeat my work, but in this case, I thought there was an opportunity to learn something new. It has been ten years and I was curious to see how both time and geographical distance would change the work and the difference was radical. In Venice the VIP crowd jumped on the piece and 300000 cards disappeared in the first 48 hours, while in Shanghai we had to explain to the more measured audience that it was OK to take one. A lot of people here photographed the work instead and spread it via social media, while that didn’t even exist ten years ago.
5. Many people think that the value of an artwork lies in its scarcity and small-scale spreading. Postcards are mass-produced. Why did you chose the postcards as an art medium?
I have developed original art projects that refer to the traditions and technologies of printing, publishing and distribution for many years. I don’t see those projects as less valuable than anything I have made in steel. In Venice I printed 1 million cards, which is the equivalent of 16 tonnes of paper, so it is actually a monumental piece of work. Part of the trick is to make you believe that a postcard is something ephemeral, fragile and disposable, when in fact their combined volume and distribution might guarantee their longevity forever.
6. About this artwork, you said: “The public completes the work like pollinating bees, spreading them by every means of transport and around the world”. Do you think that the act of "Spreading" is also some sort of a "Creation”?
Distribution was always part of my idea. In Venice I asked for official mailboxes and stamps to be sold on the site to facilitate this process. In Shanghai I personally addressed over 500 cards that were mailed to friends all over the world. And if you as a viewer even take one, put a stamp on and address your card, you will have created something utterly unique of both emotional and maybe even monetary value.
7. The Project called Fashion Hats for The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1997 is your “fashion project”，I think. You made it as a shop window display, which was inspired by the fashion hat company at 581 Broadway. I think it was also a form of “copying”, what do you think?
Yes, haha, that was probably my first attempt at direct copying. The New Museum of Contemporary Art in NYC used to have a shop window on Broadway next door to this very colourful and jubilant hat shop. The hats always looked more interesting than the art, so I thought, why not just copy the hat shop? The hat shop owner gave me everything I needed and in return his business expanded its real estate by 2/3. Everyone was happy.
8. Do you mind if others "copy" your work, in the name of art?
I still have to see that happen. It might be interesting. It might also be completely pointless. In copying you still have to make an original point. A rip-off as in the current scandal where Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami had fakes made of their work by a company who also deceived the public is not the making of an original point, it is simply being lazy, lying and stealing. A copy that holds the intelligence of its creator always gives more than it takes.
9. Many people like to interpret Artwork. I think that the "interpretation" is still another kind of "creation". Interpretation cannot restore the "truth", but adds a layer of "reinterpretation". The ‘truth’ we see is what we want to see, but perhaps not the real truth. What do you think?
I agree, Criticism, good and bad is very much part of it. I am currently editing a book called BAD Reviews, where 100 artists dating back to the 60s have submitted their worst reviews. We all recognize that a vibrant discussion makes our art relevant, not just the applause and the schmoozing of our egos.
10. Do you think fashion is art? What is the criterion for judging a work as an artwork?
I think fashion can be art, just as I think gardening and cooking and bus driving can be art. Art is not limited to a discipline, just as you can be a painter and still not be an artist if you do not contribute anything critical or new. I take the bus sometimes with a driver who greets every passenger as if he was driving a limousine and makes everybody who gets on tired and grumpy from work smile while telling jokes over the loudspeaker. When they get off they all wave to him and yell thank you and have a nice day! I think he is an amazing artist.
11. I find that many of your works involve feminism, such as New Rock Feminism (1996), Pick Up (Oh Baby!)（1996）and First Woman on the Moon（1999. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I often make work that begin with my experience of living in a female body, but I never liked calling myself a Feminist because I find the term both too general and too easy to hide behind without explaining what one actually does. Everything Feminism asks for; bodily integrity, workplace equality, basic respect and protection from systemic abuse already fits under Humanism so those things go without saying and for me do not require further identification. If you believe people should have Human Rights you obviously believe in Feminism but is it enough to be a believer? Defining specific feminist acts is both more tangible and more difficult to do. So tell me, what exactly did you do to advance the situation for women today? Some days I can answer that clearly, other days I did nothing and so I simply can’t (call myself a Feminist). An artwork also has to reserve the right to be ambiguous and open ended. Art doesn’t always compute with a political agenda.