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Shanzhai - a Berlin exhibition on the art of copying

May 21, 2010

Business people and politicians often complain about the culture of piracy or copying in China. But in the arts, there is a new interest.

Exhibition in Berlin, Shanzhai, shows the art of copying
An exhibition in Berlin, Shanzhai, shows the art of copying

There are much-reported incidents from European industrial fairs about confiscated products that were manufactured in China regardless of existing copyrights. However, what leads to legal battles and claims for damages in the field of industry and commerce, is looked upon with curiosity and interest in the field of arts.

A shop assistant displays a fake Louis Vuitton bag at a store in Beijing
A shop assistant displays a fake Louis Vuitton bag at a store in BeijingImage: AP

About two-hundred visitors gathered in Berlin recently for the opening of an art exhibition that deals with creative copying, or Shanzhai, as it is called in Chinese. The event is the climax of a joint project by the School of Art, based in Berlin-Weißensee, and partners in Guangzhou, Southern China. Twenty-two young artists from both countries presented their views on the relationship between original and copy, as lecturer Thomas Adebahr explains. "I am very interested in what 'original' means, what 'copy' means. And how important is the copy? How important is the original? This was some kind of research that we did in China about what copying is all about."

What constitutes a 'copy'?

Earlier this year, a group of nine students from Berlin spent a whole month in China. They held discussions with artists and participated in practical workshops. In China, every work of art is based on earlier pieces. Shanzhai is therefore a common and traditional approach. The students from Berlin quickly started to question the Western aim of creating something original, and found advantages in the Chinese approach.

Adebahr believes the Chinese system allows more artistic freedom of expression "because we think very traditionally, and everybody wants to do something completely new. But the Chinese, with copying, they try to find their own way."

Chang Liu's
Chang Liu's "copy talk" at ShanzhaiImage: DW

Professor Huang Xiaopeng from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts invited his students to team up with the young artists from Berlin. He points out that Westerners only speak about copying in materialistic terms. "Talking about copying today is more about copyright, you know, more about property. Who owns this, who owns that? But what I'm interested in is: if something during the copying process went wrong, it can be more interesting than the original."

A flaw can be a new development

Professor Huang has a name for those things that go wrong. He calls them "dislocations“. They usually mark the beginning of new developments, which can be seen in the Berlin exhibition.

For instance Chang Liu's video installation, where teams of two students lead each other through Sino-German language lessons, based on hearing and imitation. Jasmin Walter's set of three paintings shows the same motif in three variations. It's everybody's guess which picture was painted first and might have served as a model for the others. Xian Jun Yue's interactive installation invites visitors to stamp little iconic pictures onto a map of 13th century Berlin, making it look like a map of medieval China.

Berlin exhibition Shanzhai -Jasmin Walter,
Jasmin Walter's set of three paintings - which is the original?Image: DW

Klaas Hübner is one of the students from Berlin. He remembers that it was hard to find a clear position for or against copying as an artistic means. Still, he cherishes the exchange of ideas with his Chinese colleagues. "They didn't have a very different point of view to ours. But they were also art students and art people. Maybe if you had talked to businessmen involved in a TV production, it would have been quite different."

Which brings us back to the economic aspect. The exhibition offers a unique and very compelling shopping idea: if an art lover wants to buy a piece of art, the organizers commission a Shanzhai artist in China to produce a copy, which is then signed by both, the copy maker as well as the creator of the original.

Author: Thomas Voelkner
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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