Playing cards with Cézanne : how the contemporary artists of China copy and recreate
My dissertation investigates the concepts and techniques of “copying” and appropriation in contemporary Chinese art, which, despite its phenomenal growth, has seldom been credited as original. Critics either condemn the Chinese artists’ willingness to appropriate from others as a lack of individuality, or declare it as a peculiarly “Chinese” quality. This paper, instead, argues that the Chinese artists deliberately adopt such “copying” as a visual strategy, in order to reexamine the traditions they “borrowed”, to reflect on their own cultural status in the modern world, and to challenge the conventional concept of originality--namely, to show that originality is not created by irreducible individuality or mystified inspiration, but by the author’s choice as well as manipulation of contexts. This strategy, I argue, is essential to the proper evaluation and interpretation of contemporary Chinese artworks. The first two chapters of my dissertation focus on laying out the context from which this art grows. I review how the ideas, styles and institutional structures of western modern art were imitated, questioned and redefined by the Chinese artists, from 1978 to the present; I then examine the conceptual complexity of originality and “copying” in the theories of modernism, postmodernism, postcolonialism and in traditional Chinese art. The next two chapters focus on, respectively, calligraphy and photography in contemporary Chinese art, both of which contain the paradox between originality and “copying” in their very nature. The works of four artists, Xu Bing, Qiu Zhijie, Hong Hao and Zhao Bandi, are discussed in details. Xu's site-specific reproduction of “pseudo characters” manage to engage its targeted audiences, psychologically and physically; Qiu's obsessive yet futile copying of a canon of calligraphy returns the act of writing to its essence--a physical pursuit of one's spiritual state of being; Hong's photographic emulation of an ancient masterpiece suggests that painting may excel photography in its ability to portray a grand cityscape; Zhao’s simulacrum of pop culture paradigms enables him to evade political censorship, and to have an substantial yet ironic impact in a broader public sphere. Each of these works has made a unique contribution to the redefinition of artistic originality.