How closely do you really look at a painting when you visit the gallery? What is an original work of art? Would you know a replica if you saw one? These are the questions posed by Dulwich Picture Gallery’s latest exhibit, which opened this February and will run until July 2015. Utilising the gallery’s permanent collection, ‘Made in China’ questions our perceptions of art by replacing one of over 270 masterpieces with a cheap replica. Conceptualised by contemporary artist Doug Fishbone in collaboration with chief curator Xavier Bray, the exhibition aims to test the viewer’s discerning eye and encourage a close engagement with the gallery’s collection.
Doug Fishbone is perhaps best known for the mountain of 30,000 bananas that he placed in the centre of Trafalgar Square for less than 24 hours in October 2004. Assembled overnight and dismantled later that day to be given to the public, the work was accompanied by no explanation and variably seen as a commentary on capitalist greed, a celebration of natural form and colour, or simply a prosaic heap of fruit. This was the work of a satirist examining the variability of meaning, consumer culture, and mass media by inviting the viewer to question their environment, and ‘Made in China’ follows similar agendas. With the desire to re-involve the public in art, Fishbone ordered online a replica of one of Dulwich’s masterpieces, paying only £80 (€105) for the piece to be made in Dafen village on the outskirts of Shenzhen city in China. This replica has now replaced the original artwork in its frame and has been hung amidst masterpieces by Poussin, Raphael, and Rubens to name but a few. Fishbone’s probing question is whether or not the public can tell the difference. Luckily for critics, the gallery asked publications not to reveal our own conclusions, presumably in order to avoid ruining the concept for its visitors but also excusing us from making any misguided assertions. They probably heard the collective sigh of journalists’ relief in China.
To the untrained eye, the replica is not immediately recognisable in the gallery setting, a disconcerting fact considering its cheaply manufactured nature. Produced in Dafen, otherwise known as the ‘oil painting village’, the replica is one of approximately 5 million reproductions made in the village each year. Beginning in the 1990s, artist and dealer Huang Jiang led a group of artists to set up studios in this area, making reproductions of paintings by artists whose work is out of copyright jurisdiction and can thus be replicated and sold for profit without legal repercussions. The industry saw a steady increase in demand, and today the village is home to over 700 galleries and over 5000 working artists. The art of reproduction is a specialized skill, as artists at Dafen are trained at academies and compete in timed ‘facsimile matches’ in order to be chosen to work at the best studios in the village. To Dafen, reproduction is not forgery but an industry, with each artist working quickly to produce dozens of artworks per day. At the gates to the village stands a sculpted hand holding a paintbrush, a celebration of the hand of the artist which to a critical eye may seem ironic for a village whose speciality is replicated artworks.
Not only examining the aesthetics of reproduction, ‘Made in China’ raises issues of intellectual property and art piracy, interrogating the importance of originality in art. Within the museum setting, the Dafen replica may be appreciated by unsuspecting viewers for its formal qualities before its identity is revealed in April. Here another question arises: can a case be made for the appreciation of a fake work of art? In 1937, Dutch artist Han van Meegeren created an original composition of ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ whose style, colour, and pigments were carefully calculated to pass as the work of Johannes Vermeer. The painting’s formal qualities convinced critics who raved about this “hitherto unknown painting by a great master,” and marked the beginning of van Meegeren’s career as the most successful forger of the twentieth century. Since being exposed as a fraud in 1945, approximately twenty paintings have been established as forgeries by van Meegeren. However, there remains forgeries that have yet to be identified, raising Theodore Rousseau’s point that “we should all realise that we can only talk about the bad forgeries, the ones that have been detected; the good ones are still hanging on the walls.” The point being that, within the museum’s walls, an object is elevated to the status of art and will be perceived by the viewer as such whether fraudulent or not.
Once van Meegeren’s paintings were exposed to be forged, they lost the reverence that surrounded them and inevitably fell out of favour in the public eye. But does a painting lose its aesthetic value when established as a fake? How would you feel if a work of art you loved was revealed to be a forgery? The case of van Meegeren and other such art forgers demonstrates the influence a signature has on our perception of an artwork and its value. While Dulwich Picture Gallery is by no means advocating an admiration of forgery, ‘Made in China’ not only asks the viewer to look more closely at its permanent collection, but to question the importance of authenticity in art. Doug Fishbone is particularly concerned with the way in which a museum environment affects our perceptions of an object, and wishes to encourage the public to actively engage with the paintings on display and appreciate their aesthetic qualities. The identity of the replica will be revealed on April 28, after which the gallery will invite comparison between masterpiece and fake, displaying it alongside the original until July 26.