Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade

Van Gogh on Demand argues that the global contemporary art world is shaped by two powerful ideas: the postmodern assertion of "the death of the author" and the universalist notion that "everybody is an artist." It does so by focusing on an unlikely case of global art production, China's Dafen Oil Painting Village, a flexible production center of eight thousand Chinese painters who produce five million oil paintings per year, sourced from the Western art canon and made for the world's retail and wholesale markets. Based on five years of fieldwork in this transnational trade, this study offers, first and foremost, a comprehensive account of this "readymade" art. Assessing its full theoretical impact, however, its narrative centers on two unique sets of "authors": internationally-active artists who made Dafen village into a source of appropriated paintings and a subject of conceptual art; and the Chinese party-state, which turned Dafen village into a model cultural industry and the subject of extensive propaganda spanning television and the World Expo. In examining the encounter between contemporary artists and the Dafen painters whose labor they appropriate, the study traces critical issues of artistic authorship and assesses their deployment at a site of anonymous production. In examining how this encounter operated within the Chinese government's embrace of creative industries and its attendant production of creative subjects, it offers an account of art practices in a period of cultural shifts heightened by an ascendant China.

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Reviews and press for Van Gogh on Demand in the Shanghaiist, Wall Street Journal, International Business Times, The Believer, South China Morning Post, Times Higher Education, BBC World Service's The Forum, Boston Globe, New Left Review, China Information, New Books Network, and Art Practical

Lantern Slide Moments and the Taught Subject, 1906 and 2006

Lu Xun’s lantern slide moment looms large in the history of modern China. As is well known, it occurred when Lu Xun was a student at the Sendai Medical Academy in Japan between 1904 and 1906. As Lu Xun tells it, he had nurtured the dream of becoming a Western medical doctor since the premature death of his father, whose life traditional Chinese medicine had failed to save. At the time, microbiology lectures were delivered using instructional images projected by a slide lantern in the classroom, and when there was extra time at the end of each class, the students were shown slides of scenic landscapes or current affairs. These included reportage images of Japanese victories in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War, which Lu Xun, as the only Chinese student in the room, said he felt obliged to join his Japanese classmates in applauding. One day, one of the slides depicted the imminent beheading of a Chinese spy for the Russians by Japanese soldiers, an image that Lu Xun recalled for its sturdy bodies but blank and numb faces of the Chinese spectators who were photographed as witnesses to the execution. Lu Xun described the incident in two later autobiographical accounts (in the preface to Outcry in 1922, and in the essay “Mr. Fujino” in 1926), implying in both cases that this event was the catalyst for his decision to abandon his studies in Western medicine. He turned instead to revolu- tionary literature, rationalizing that modern medicine could only heal the bodies but not the spirit, of a weak and backward nation.

Read more in positions: asia critique, Spring 2015

Image: Brown University

Creative Commons: on Architectural Copies

In 1749, at the height of the European mania for chinoiserie, a British employee of the Swedish East India Company named William Chambers returned to England after two voyages to the port of Guangzhou, China. Chambers' firsthand experience of China was hungrily lapped up by his compatriots eager for descriptions of that great civilization, and, after further studies in Rome and Paris, Chambers fashioned himself into the leading architect and landscape designer of his day, notably designing the Chinese Pagoda and the House of Confucius at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in 1762 for King George III. A pet project of the well-heeled naturalist and explorer Sir Joseph Banks, the Kew Gardens presented a veritable encyclopedia of the natural and built world within reach of the British East India Company, whose agents assiduously brought back plants from numerous climes and soils just as specimens of world architectural styles past and present were built throughout the park.

Chambers boasted that his ten-story wooden Chinese Pagoda, which still stands today, was modeled on the famous Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing built of porcelain bricks in the Ming dynasty, though we can be quite sure that Chambers never came anywhere near that fabulous marvel. He would have known of it only through a brief description in Johan Nieuhof's account of the 1655 Dutch Embassy to Peking, first published in London almost a century prior to Chambers' own voyages. Instead, Chambers probably based his design on the rather unremarkable tower at Whampoa Island, the swampy backwater outside the port of Guangzhou, where all European ships were obliged to anchor and await admittance into the Great Qing empire. As Chambers wrote in his treatise, Designs for Chinese Buildings (1757), “I do not pretend to give this as a very accurate plan of that building: exact measures of Chinese structures are of small consequence to European artists.” An exact good copy, it would seem, was never Chambers' goal when he built his "Chinese" Pagoda.

From the March 2014 issue of Artforum.

Image by Yu Haibo.

Learning from Shenzhen: China's Post-Mao City from Special Zone to Urban Model (1980-2010)

Created in 1980, the city of Shenzhen is the emblem, frontier, and model city of China's post-Mao transition. This multidisciplinary volume brings together, for the first time, a comprehensive history and anthropology of Shenzhen, providing a definitive account of China's socialist transition from the perspective of one of its most central and yet most overlooked cities. In a set of essays by researchers who have completed concerted on-the-ground research covering the thirty-year history of the city, this volume covers salient issues in the fields of social history, urban history, and urban anthropology, while comprehensively addressing topics in public health, labor, architecture, planning, infrastructure, creative industry, gender, politics, and education. Methodologically, the volume offers the general and expert reader alike a broad and interdisciplinary scope of study supported by up-to-date fieldwork. This collective history of one of the world's most dynamic cities contributes to the multidisciplinary interest in the urban case study as the site of critical problems in contemporary China and beyond.

Co-edited by Mary Ann O'Donnell, Winnie Wong, and Jonathan Bach, currently in progress.

Image by Jia Yuchuan.

Ambiance as Property: Experience, Design, and the Legal Expansion of "Trade Dress"

Who authors and owns a space? Who authors and owns its appearances and sensations? Who, in turn, has the right to preserve or transform it? Disputes over the authorship and ownership of architectural design in the realm of intellectual property law can give us indications of the limits of these questions, or at least illuminate one important battleground on which they can be contested. In 1990, under the obligations of the Berne Convention, American copyright protection was extended to architectural works for the first time. Under the act, a Yale University architecture student, Thomas Shine, sued David Childs, a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Shine alleged that Childs had copied his student work in Childs-SOM-Liebeskind's 2003 unbuilt design of the New York Freedom Tower—work which Childs had indisputably seen when he served as a guest critic for Shine's review at the school in 1999. The lawsuit marked a rare moment when the tensions of hierarchy, privilege, and propriety within the architectural profession and its training apparatus were publicly revealed, but anyone cheering for the underdog—in this case, a young student defending his individual creativity against a strong and storied firm—would likely find dissatisfying the court's reasoning that for Shine's work to qualify as original, "[t]he level of originality and creativity that must be shown is minimal, only an 'unmistakable dash of originality need be demonstrated, high standards of uniqueness in creativity are dispensed with.'" The legal bar for owning a design as a copyright is, in other words, far lower than what the culture at large would grant as creative authorship.

Read more in Future Anterior, Volume IX, Number 1, Summer 2012.

Image by Derek Mathis, 2009.