Made in China, the conceptual exhibition currently on view at Dulwich Picture Gallery, invites viewers to spot, among the gallery’s collection of Old Master paintings, the one Chinese replica the curator has substituted for an original. The exhibition description attempts, disingenuously, to situate this game of ‘spotting the fake’ within the well-worn paradigm of institutional critique, and purports to challenge conservative notions of authenticity. But as the description itself notes, Dulwich is already filled with non-originals: copies of Old Masters by disciples and copyists, works with forged signatures or no signature at all. It would seem that traditional notions of authenticity are already challenged with the inclusion of these works. What then, is the significance of the Chinese replica?
What in fact lies at the heart of Made in China are not hackneyed issues of institutional perception but rather issues of East and West, of what it means to be Chinese and European. While Constable copied Ruisdael’s Windmills in order to improve his own craft, it is safe to say that the unnamed Chinese copyist was driven by a different set of motivations. Nor is it conceivable that the Chinese replica will ever be seen to have artistic value in its own right, in the same way that Constable’s ‘copy’ is now attributed and displayed alongside Ruisdael’s original in the Dulwich. There is thus an implicit distinction here between the copy and the Chinese copy. The copy, insofar as it emerges out of Western art historical tradition, can still count as authentic culture, while the Chinese copy, produced outside of Western tradition by those wholly unconnected to the lineage of the Old Masters, can only be the ‘fake’ to be ‘spotted.’ What is new here then, is not the copy, but that the copy is Chinese. The title, which refers to China’s role in global capitalism as ‘the world’s factory,’ makes this implication clear: just as it manufactures knock-off goods, so China also manufactures knock-off culture.
In insidiously advancing a dichotomy between the European original and the Chinese fake, Made in China reinforces the orientalist framework which understands Europe as authentic culture itself, and the East, as always only an inferior copy. Are we honestly to believe though, that the Chinese artist who mechanically replicates European paintings all day does so freely, because imitation of the West is quintessentially Chinese? Or is she rather not forced to participate in an extreme division of labor whereby the brain and the hand, creative and physical labor, are separated utterly—not only by geography and class, but also history, language and culture? Made in China perpetuates the voicelessness of the Chinese artist. China here exists only as an ersatz ‘Europe,’ and we are invited to locate it—that dark, silent, foreign specter which has infiltrated the ‘original’ Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian imagery that line Dulwich’s walls. Indeed, it is impossible not to shudder at that seemingly innocuous question: ‘have you found the replica?’ in an exhibition entitled Made in China.
Xueli Wang is an MA student a the Courtauld.
Made in China is on at Dulwich Picture gallery until 26 April, and the fake will be reveal 28 April 2015.