Replicas & Re-imaginations: Curating China’s Copyists

There are some blog posts that seem to take a little longer to write. This is because a criticality breeds around the topic in my head not letting it be. One project, an instigator of this process, was Doug Fishbone’s ‘Made in China’ that was recently on show at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, in addition to Liu Ding’s solo show ‘New Man’ at MOT International.

A challenge, an exchange, an observation, a commentary, an exhibition…the project asked viewers to tell the difference between an Old Master painting and a contemporary replica that was “Made in China” – ‘Young Woman’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard – through the infiltration of a fake into the gallery’s 270+ painting permanent display. Initially the “fake” was unknown to audiences, allowing them to make guesses, then revealed to the public at the end of April 2015.


I spoke to Doug on the phone about his project just after ‘Young Woman’ was revealed. He said sometimes you have to ‘force yourself to write a proposal – it is about durability versus a quick notion’. Originally, Doug approached Dulwich Picture Gallery and Roger Malbert, Senior Curator of Hayward Touring with the idea of new-old masters interpreted through a conceptual intervention, where Xavier Bray, Chief Curator of Dulwich Picture Gallery discussed the project in depth from different angles saying he could work with any of the paintings except the Rembrandts. Doug wanted to work with a museum that had global reputation with a collection of iconic paintings – ‘it was different working with a gallery of the stature and a traditional curatorial structure. They were open to it at every level.’

When overlooking painting, he wanted something unusual from that era, expressive brush work and behind glass it was a good gambit – it gave “wiggle room” on the varnish, from which Doug selected ‘Young Woman’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. It was about inserting something inappropriately into a different context, hence why it was linked to China.

Doug sourced replica artists in China at the Meisheng Oil Painting Manufacture Co., Ltd., a professional supplier of oil paintings working with over 150 artists based in Xiamen, in the Fujian province of China. Southern China is the world’s leading centre for mass-produced works of art, its reputation made famous by Dafen Village whose numerous studios and workshops produce an astonishing five million replicas a year for the global art market. The transaction was conducted all online with jpg images to work from. It was about engaging in this process, making the order, seeing what happens, it was never about making it unidentifiable as a replica, it was about raising questions…a classical project yet a contemporary replica – not studio artist, it is a global supply chain in total costing $88.

“It was imperative that it was made in China, more subtle and also introduce a different notion of replica rather than just “spot the fake”.” – Doug Fishbone

At the time when Doug and I spoke, ‘Made in China’ had quadrupled visitor figures, creating a different quality of engagement as people get up close to the works, questioning the validity of the works. Art experts from Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses were also invited to guess. The gallery tracked guesses collating nearly 3000 votes via iPads in the Gallery, revealing trends and the key suspects in the hunt for the replica. Only 12% of audiences identified the fake. A painting by Rubens was the second most chosen painting, Doug thinks this was because it was recently restored therefore more vivid in colour. When the images of the real and the replica are side-by-side, you can see that the replica is so much brighter and more vivid once back in its proper frame.

reveal made in china doug fishbone

Doug made reference to Christian Jankowski’s exhibition ‘Heavy Weight History’ on show at Lisson Gallery (London) in 2014, which included a photo-realistic series of canvases called ‘The China Painters’ (2007-08) produced by copyists (called a colony of replica painters) from the notorious ‘oil painting village’ of Dafen, China – an artistic equivalent of the country’s piecework factories churning out garments or shoes. In Dafen, about 10,000 painters produce works for the mass market. ‘The installation of paintings elucidates their cultural self-understanding and reveals the lack of a social consensus concerning museums and the art to be presented there, while relating the copyists’ works to the art world at the same time…They highlight the potentially serious ramifications of staging or altering reality, whether that manipulation happens through translation via mass-media or as a by-product of an inherent flaw in man’s nature.’

'The China Painters' (2007-08) by Christian Jankowkski
‘The China Painters’ (2007-08) by Christian Jankowkski

In a Post-Modern twist of the western historical economic relationship with China and the current contemporary art system, Christian Jankowski, commissioned works from seventeen painters in the ‘artist’s town’, officially named Dafen Oil Painting Village, in Shenzhen, China. The works became Jankowski’s series, The China Painters. The painters he approached all earn a living from the replication of artworks from internet sales; Dafen is essentially a factory of reproduction art. Jankowski bucks the system by asking the artists, who he gives a backdrop of the unfinished new art museum in Dafen, to impose any painted canvas they like on to the museum wall. From replica Old Masters to a family snapshot, the works are an open debate on the value of authorship and the relationship of commissioner and artist and commodity. Sold under Jankowski’s name in his European commercial gallery, the journey of the artwork and the ambiguity of authorship are heightened.

The work ‘Classical Flowers’ below references the popular flower paintings of c.17th Dutch still life tradition.  The cut flowers representing life’s fragile transience, are displayed in an export ware vase from China. This type of vase would have been first bought to Europe by the Dutch East India Company which forged the way in trade with China and began the fashion for all things “Chinese”.


In previous works, Doug Fishbone has inserted himself into other cultures such as into Nollywood films, the Nigerian film industry, English language cinema, things that are low cost and produced quickly. As are conversation progressed, we went on to talk of architectural replicas from ‘Thames Town’ to fake Austrian towns…an architectural “Disneyland” that intrigues me.

From our conversation, this blog post and my recent review of Liu Ding’s exhibition ‘New Man’, another exhibition that examines notions of replica and value in and from China, I’ve begun to put together thoughts. perspectives and writings on ‘Replicas and Re-imaginations: Curating China’s Copyists’…the notion of reproductions and replicas and their re- imaginations through collaborative artistic and curatorial practices between China and the UK. China has become renowned for its production of reproductions – an era of “fake” culture – where artists colonies including the oil painting village of Dafen and sculpture centres of Dong Cheng, create and produce over 60% of the worlds replicas. In addition to this, China’s copycat culture has extended to architecture, where whole cities have been replicated through public planning projects such as Shanghai’s ‘Thames Town’ based on London, UK. Using these contexts as a starting point, I want to discuss the industry of copycat artists known as “copyists” through specific curatorial projects, how authenticity is assigned to replica artworks, ultimately questioning the construction and infrastructures of value systems within the global art world.

Questions include who measures and assigns the author and “value” of art and art production? Is it the concept, the artist, the curator or the art gallery? Are audiences buying the concept or the artistic skill? What is the cost of authenticity? What happens when a replica is presented in an art gallery? What are the ramifications of manipulating audiences through creating a staged and altered reality in the art gallery? Is China’s era of “fake” culture, a contemporary art ecology and art market in itself? If anyone has anything to add to the conversation, get in touch.

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