This November, I was an assistant for the OCAT international art residency program, through which I met artists Frank Haermans and Thomas Adebahr, the artist collective of Nika Oblak and Primoz Novak, as well as curator Paula Orrell. Together, they put up the show Future Relevance, or as we translated it “明天，谁说了算？”
Interacting with the artists and curators was interesting because it inspired me to think differently about my own forays into creative ethnography and forms of representation that engage different (and frankly) wider audiences. In particular, Thomas Adebahr’s earlier work, The Benjamin Project (shown at Gallery Diet) had me thinking about contemporary art conventions that value some forms of copying and reduce other forms to “labor” albeit “skilled”. The question, of course is: how do we move across and between these social structures to create meaningful dialogue about human creativity?
In The Benjamin Project, Adebahr and Empfangshalle explored the practical meanings of a work of art in the era of glossies, movies, and the work of art as speculative investment in two ways. Empfangshalle hired Dafen artists to copy double pages of Benjamin’s hand-written draft of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, while Adebahr made a film about the process. In terms of contemporary artist practice, the Dafen artists’ skills notwithstanding, the creative moment (in terms of investment practices) was the “concept” and so in this way Empfangshalle created the “work” even if they didn’t actually do any painting. Likewise, Adebahr’s film was also “original” even if his medium could be endlessly copies.
I have decided to respond to The Benjamin Project by transcribing 机械复制时代的艺术作品 in 隶书 on a rice paper scroll; at present, I’m calling the work in progress 隶书本雅明. Why am I doing this? To make a simple point. In Chinese calligraphy, we are always copying and yet the act of copying does not signify the absence of a “concept” and thus, by extension, a creative lack. Instead, in calligraphic practice we are 临摹ing, literally the character lin, meaning “to face or to arrive” and the character mo, meaning “to imitate or to copy”. In other words, linmo assumes a relationship between the calligrapher and the character-style (usually attributed to a person); we approach and emulate a character style for all sorts of reasons – because we find it beautiful, because the practice calms the heart, because we can get bonus points on the gaokao – but not because we assume that copying is in and of itself a mechanical process that lacks an originary concept and thus is not art.
My point is actually quite simple – we in the west need to think about how our art became about concepts and artistic skills were reduced to “copying”. In other words, we need to understand that aesthetic value is produced through cultural norms that identify, promote, and sustain various forms of creativity, rather than simply to assume we not only know a copy when we see one, but also its price. More broadly – and this comment returns us to how Future Relevance could be translated as “Tomorrow, whose voice will count?” – we need to remember that relevance is ultimately about forms of human relatedness, a fact that permeates Mandarin, both in the speaking and the calligraphic moment.