The concept of copying is one that’s been prevalent in both the art and fashion world. While for many, plagiarism can mean multi-billion lawsuits. For Alessandro Michele, and recently, Italian artist, Maurizio Cattelan, it means something more. Michele has a history of encouraging artists to ‘interpret’ his work, by first inviting Trevor Andrew, also known as GucciGhost, a graffiti artist who found his way tagging the Gucci logo across New York, into the fashion brand’s HQ and asking him to collaborate on a collection. More recently, the creative director has teamed up with Cattelan, known in the art world for challenging perceptions of originality, for an exhibition held at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai. The Artist is Present (the name of the exhibition itself stolen from Marina Abramović‘s 2012 performance show), gathers work by 30 artists exploring the idea of appropriation in disparate, clever and sometimes humorous ways.
Italian artist-provocateur Maurizio Cattelan has been described as the “perfect partner in crime” by Gucci’s Creative Director Alessandro Michele—and many might think it’s a fitting description for the curator of a crossover collaboration entirely devoted to the practice of appropriation in art. It also seems fitting that Cattelan’s new exhibition should appropriate its title from another show. So, when Gucci announced their partnership with the artist, for an exhibition at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, called The Artist Is Present, many recognized that the title was taken from an exhibition by the grandmother of performance art, Marina Abramović, at MoMA New York, in 2010; and in adherence to the spirit of cultural appropriation, Abramović doesn’t appear to get a mention.
Here Cattelan curates an exhibition “that proposes simulation and copy as a paradigm of global culture,” in fact the re-authorship of existing material has thrown up many questions in the past—regarding intellectual property and legality, for the likes of artists such as Richard Prince and Jeff Koons, bot doing battle in legal courts and the court of opinion. Yet our global culture appropriates images through social media on a nanosecond by- nanosecond basis; where the image becomes a viral epidemic—trending and multiplying with an almost biological fervor—a cultural practice that seems entirely at odds with the concept of plagiarism and copyright.
“CATTELAN’S APPROPRIATION OF THE SISTINE CHAPEL HAS ALREADY BEGUN TO REPLACE THE ORIGINAL’S DIGITAL IMAGE WHEN SEARCHING ON GOOGLE”
Cattelan explores this contemporary phenomenon through a show that is comprised of 17 rooms, incorporating the works of more than 30 artists—and Cattelan as a curator seems to be employing his familiar mischievous sense of humor—but in fact this is not an exhibition of the counterfeit, or the pirated.
Andy Hung Chi-Kin’s Gucci LEGO handbag at once subverts and re-enacts a seduction, much in the same way as the appropriation. And reproduction of the original image is a re-enactment of another seduction – that contemporary cultural practice of image appropriation and digital dissemination, where we replicate the now re-contextualized image via sharing on social media platforms. In choosing the artist’s LEGO brick model of the Gucci Sylvie bag, Cattelan points to replication substituting itself for reality, with the artist’s trademark mischief. There is also a figurative East-meets-West made-literal with Chinese artist Xu Zhen’s statuary, consisting of sliced and stacked Greek God and Buddha statues, forming new cultural hybrids and appropriated forms, signifying a homogenous global culture.
In the philosophy of French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, America is the land of simulations; and simulacrum is never more apparent than in the Danish artist collective Superflex’s ‘Power Toilets/Council of the European Union, 2018’. The installation—an exact copy of the Ministers’ restroom in the Justus Lipsius Building, Council of the European Union in Brussels—is the epitome of hyperreality, a physical recontextualization of the original functioning restroom, causing you to think you’ve taken a wrong turn. It’s an uncanny installation that contrasts abruptly with Cattelan’s own work in the exhibition – his untitled 1:6 replica of the Sistine Chapel: seemingly a wooden box from the outside, until you enter the space to discover the artist’s facsimile of Michelangelo’s 15th-century masterpiece on a scale that makes the work more intimate and accessible. If questioning the authenticity of the original in this age of viral replication was ever in any doubt, Cattelan’s appropriation of the Sistine Chapel has already begun to replace the original’s digital image when searching on Google. The work exemplifies not only the dichotomy between copy and original, but also Cattelan’s own “originality of the copy.” The artist continues with his prankster conceptuality, espousing the notion that the difference between copy and original is only a question of faith.
“AN EXACT COPY OF THE MINISTERS’ RESTROOM IN THE JUSTUS LIPSIUS BUILDING, COUNCIL OF THE EUROPEAN UNION IN BRUSSELS— IS THE EPITOME OF HYPERREALITY, A PHYSICAL RECONTEXTUALIZATION OF THE ORIGINAL FUNCTIONING RESTROOM”
“THE FINAL SPACE IS FILLED WITH A PHOTOREALISTIC BACKDROP OF THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN... GIVING THE VIEWER THE OPPORTUNITY TO TAKE A QUICK SELFIE AND POST IT TO SOCIAL MEDIA, AS THE AFFIRMATION OF A FICTIONAL PERSONAL IDENTITY MADE VIRAL”
In fact all the works not only reflect Cattelan’s own post-Duchampian practice, but also the death of the singular authorial identity in art, giving way to a sense of cool postmodern irony. In Cattelan and Gucci’s exhibition, the artist becomes a seduced consumer, subverting representation—where the modernist dilemma concerning the authenticity of the artist is a thing of the past. The works are an instant re-creation, and recontextualization, reflecting the viral nature of the image in contemporary culture.
To end the exhibition, the final space is filled with a photorealistic backdrop of the Hollywood sign, set behind a highway guardrail and surrounded by fake palm trees, giving the viewer the opportunity to take a quick selfie and post it to social media, as the affirmation of a fictional personal identity made viral. Ironically, in doing so, creating their own appropriation art in an entirely new context; continuing the viral nature of the image and proving Cattelan’s “originality of the copy.” With typical humor, Cattelan explores the creation of art, not as a source born out of mass-consumer strategies and commodification, but as the practice of appropriation as an act of pure creation.
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