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Faking it in Shenzhen: the pleasures and dangers of mimesis

ART TIMES Sept Oct 2009


In China everything is produced on an industrial scale, even art.  In the city of Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, thousands of factories make counterfeit clothing, cheap electrical goods, and Monets by the million.  Yes, that’s Monets.  Or Van Goghs, Rembrandts, Leonardos, or Michelangelos, if you prefer.  In fact, just name it; it can be painted; it can be copied stroke-by-stroke, gesture-by-gesture to form a remarkable mimesis.  China’s premier manufacturing hub has 800 art dealers, producing 5 million pictures a year, which accounts for 60% of the world’s oil paintings.  85% of these images are fakes, or ‘replicas’, as the artists refer to them.  The artists are mostly fine art graduates, making a decent living from their replication skills and enjoying a previously unthinkable prosperity.  Some paintings are pathetic attempts to mirror the original; others, however, are of startling museum quality, raising issues of authenticity, intellectual property rites, the concept of hyper-reality, and whether the value of the replica should be re-assessed.  Either way, through this indefatigable reproduction, art is being mined from what happened only once.

After breast-stroking through Shenzhen’s polluted air, Dafen Oil Painting Village appears like a sanctuary. A giant hand raises an impressive paintbrush to the sky; a replica Venus de Milo guards the car park.  Dafen is not about taste, then, it is about business; it is about servicing the hotels of Macau, the casinos of Las Vegas, and the fantasies of those wishing to own a masterpiece.  With sales doubling since 2005, Dafen Oil Painting Village is a commercial success, if a questionable moral one. 
The ethical dilemma is present at every turn.  Diligent art graduates work fourteen-hour days using karaoke brush techniques to create fakes, or in Cantonese – Shanzhais.  Sadly, these works also illustrate the artist’s pedantry, their role in China’s headlong rush for riches where originality is secondary.  The artist needs to make a living; their customers need an affordable Van Gogh and a tactile one at that.  Graduates of non-artistic fields generally produce the lesser fakes but they still sell; there is still a living to be made, even if your trade is in meretricious art.

Jia Jun Pen is the owner of the Guang Sheng Oil Painting Gallery.  This is her fifth year in Dafen, and despite the credit crunch, business from American and UK customers continues to thrive.  Her paintings are mostly Monets and Van Goghs, displayed in an outer corridor like an alfresco Musee d’Orsay.  Van Gogh remains Jia’s “number one best seller”.  So the artist who famously sold just one picture in his lifetime (The Red Vineyard, notably absent in Dafen) is reproduced with painstaking accuracy on an industrial scale. When I enquire about Van Gogh’s rival in this posthumous corridor for deceased rejects, her response is surprising. “That’s Yue Minjun, the Beijing artist”.  Minjun’s pink-skinned grinning portraits were more compelling than the selection of Van Goghs primarily because the freshness of the paint – that undeniable newness – was not a detraction from authenticity.  Minjun’s work is, after all, fresh and new.  Last summer, in Sotheby’s London gallery, I saw the original paintings with an estimated price of £600,000 ($980,000).  Jia’s versions can be purchased from $37 and if you want the precise scale of the original that will be a mere $72.  Most disturbingly, the difference between the original and the mass-produced copy is unidentifiable, perhaps even to the artist himself. 

Shenzhen’s prolific fakery has roused complaints from artists and their estates.  In response, the government introduced intellectual property rites preventing galleries from selling copies of works by any living painter.  Clearly this has not been enforced with any conviction.  According to Jia, the Piracy Squad pays a visit “once a month or so” and has confiscated paintings that violate the rules, including some Yue Minjun’s.  She is coy on the subject, smiling when I suggest that a freshly painted Yue Minjun can be executed before the Piracy Police have even returned to Shenzhen’s overwhelming smog.

“Does it affect the sale of the original?” Jia asks defensively.  Judging from Yue Minjun’s valuations it would seem not. I do, however, wonder about reproduction prints and whether Shenzhen’s multiple replications are affecting a long-standing legitimate business?  Bear in mind that a Dafen painting can be viewed on-line, confirmed by e-mail, and dispatched with expediency.  There is no need to visit China and wade through Shenzhen’s furry air to select a masterpiece.  In fact, the majority of visitors are local to the province of Guangdong rather than buyers from abroad. “Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to produce and sell your own work?” I ask.  Jia immediately points to her original pictures that hang alongside the Yue Minjun copies.  Familiar with the question, she is quick on the draw. “If I sold only my paintings I would have no living. I would make no money. I am like Van Gogh! Nobody will buy my pictures until I die!” 

Wandering around this McDonald’s of the art world, I am mindful of theoretical debates concerning the ‘copy’.  From Plato to Walter Benjamin, the copy has played a notable role in art theory; derided by some, respected by others, but never ignored.  It has been the subject of huge controversy, with infamous simulations duping the experts, and in the case of Han Van Meergeren, a series of would-be Vermeer’s that swindled the Nazi’s.  It also links art to the philosophic concept of hyper-reality, that dystopian world of author Philip K. Dick where authenticity and the counterfeit become indistinguishable.  As the post-modernists maintain, sometimes the fake is so real, it becomes realer than real (hyper-real) and we may come to prefer it.  In Shenzhen’s case, the Shanzhais are creating the illusion of authenticity but it is a shared fantasy between artist and buyer.  No one believes a genuine Van Gogh is available here; the strength of the icon protects it.  No one could claim with sincerity that their Van Gogh is the Van Gogh. The danger, then, is not concerning the old masters per say, but rather contemporary artists.  Though Yue Minjun’s valuations remain impressive, the more savvy Dafen painter could target the work of artists on the cusp of international fame rather than those already reaching for the pinnacle.  Speculations on the next rising star could therefore alter the dynamics of the contemporary art market, with Shenzhen being the hypocenter for that flux.

Wei Xue Mei is the owner of Hengyixuan Painting, a shop that like so many in Shenzhen is modest in size but impressive in output.  Outside the shop a wall of eclectic images exemplify the customer’s range of interests and the artist’s subsequent ability to meet those demands. Be it photo-realism, twee landscapes, or ubiquitous images of Mao Zedong, Wei and her fellow graduate Qiang, can paint, package, and deliver, your request within seven days.  With average prices of just $34, business is good, and for a brief moment a move away from replication can be observed – at least to some extent.  I cannot resist the Barack Obama portrait that hangs just beneath the Mao Zedong on the outer wall.  “That is our most popular”, confirms Wei.  “We sell Obama to everyone: Americans, British, Chinese, and Germans too.”  It is an original of sorts, taken from a photograph with the suggestion of Lady Liberty behind.  Inside the shop, Qiang is close to completing Ingres’ The Grand Odalisque – a request from an American client.  Using just a postcard image to copy from, it is eerily close to the masterpiece. The replication is startling and causes me to consider the talent of the graduates and whether original work should not be pursued instead?  “We have tried” confirms Wei, “but they don’t sell. People want what is already famous”.  The evidence supports this, but if fame is the pre-requisite for a purchase of this kind, then perhaps Dafen Oil Painting Village will attain its own fame – or infamy – given time.  It is plausible that Dafen’s increasing notoriety could create its own brand; a symbol of inferiority to some, a stamp of quality to others, but a brand all the same.

Whilst browsing the galleries, one has to wonder if the original works are not being devalued by this production line?  In terms of monetary value perhaps not. But can one really look at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers as an artwork anymore?  Surely the official range of merchandise, from bags to umbrellas, mouse-mats to coffee cups, has altered our response to this particular masterpiece by the sheer inculcation of commercial reproductions.  Its cultic value has increased at the detriment of its original conception.  It may possess what Walter Benjamin described as ‘an aura’, whilst losing its aesthetic meaning to the majority of viewers. A resurrected Van Gogh, enacting a Christ-in-the-Temple show of despondency, is more likely to ravage the high-priced souvenir products than the accurate reproductions of laboring artists.  However, in terms of fakery, the old masters occupy a safety zone. The artists of Shenzhen may produce their Sunflowers atom by atom but the provenance of a masterpiece will be the undeniable – and ultimately invaluable – difference.  The challenge to the contemporary artist is distinctly different though. The sangfroid of Shenzhen’s production line may threaten the contemporary art market in ways yet to be realized.  The Yue Minjun fakes were not the equivalent of knock-off Gucci watches with their mechanical faults and their cheap materials.  In the right hands, paint is paint, and the result can be indistinguishable.  Why pay six-figure sums for something that can be purchased – with no discernable difference – for a fraction of the cost? And if someone wants to believe that a picture is an original work of art, like an artistic placebo effect, is that really such a bad thing?
Mark Callaghan © 2009