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German photographer Michael Wolf is currently based in Hong Kong, where his fascination with cities has taken him for both his commercial work as a photojournalist and his personal body of work, made up of a variety of series documenting architecture and other facets of urbanization.
Wolf once again explores China’s vernacular culture in the series real fake art. In this series, Wolf focuses on the multi-million dollar business that has developed in china for copying major pieces of modern art, from Francis Bacon to Impressionist paintings, principally for export to the West.
These photographs show ‘copy artists’ holding their ‘fakes,’ which are often indistinguishable from the original. The work deals with the phenomenon of mass production within the increasingly democratized world of modern art, raising questions about the value of art in the age of mass reproduction and evoking the cultural and commercial exchanges between China and the West.
Wolf’s series is very relevant, as China’s appetite for exports and low wages has seen them shift from producing cheap furniture and underwear to assembly line paintings. As in the United States and Europe, a handful of contemporary painters in China can command hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for each of their highly creative works – but this new online business of selling imitations to Westerners is done on the cheap, with most works that retail for $500 or less, with painters who work from postcards or images on the Internet.
Dafen’s art association, based in Shenzhen, sells high quality imitation paintings for cheap, exporting mostly to the US. If you want a real Van Gogh “Sunflowers,” expect to pay about $40 million, the auction record for one of the artist’s signature works. In Dafen, you can get a fake for 250 yuan ($37). Of the nearly 5 million paintings produced at Dafen each year, almost 75 percent are knockoffs (the locals prefer the term replicas).
With said factories employing a total of 10 designers, 250 painters and more than 500 framers and assistant painters, the turnover is enormous. Akin to the simple assembly lines like those that Henry Ford brought to the automobile industry, where is art and art selling heading?
This concept certainly calls into question the validity of Andy Warhol’s “artwork”, who took pride in churning out ‘mass produced’ prints and appropriating imagery from large corporations. At any rate, the internet has altered the face of art buying in many senses, with people no longer needing to see the work in the flesh before deciding to order it online, threatening the existence of galleries. Artwork is becoming a commodity and luxury item, with the popularity of such sites as Saatchi and Etsy offering a range of work to be bought by hundreds of thousands of self proclaimed ‘artists’ that I do not feel there is much of a moral question with the type of work being sold through Chinese art factories.
I am certainly in favour of people owning artwork they love regardless of their income and, certainly, every large museum sells postcards, posters and other replicas of famous paintings. This is just another industry and if the works are original and don’t infringe on anyone else’s copyright I don’t see why people should be denied a living wage. I’m surprised more artists haven’t been employing artists in China and regions where work is cheap. If they aren’t already, I’m sure artists like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst have thought about sending their work offshore.
words Karen Shidlo