I COPY THEREFORE I AM
Updated: Sep 14
By Mark Antony Dobson
I recently visited an Art Exhibition (The Artist is Present) after moving to Shanghai for a one-year sabbatical. This isn’t a critique on the exhibition. I am writing about the various questions and thoughts brought up within me as an Artist. Forewarning, I detest academic writing and vowed never to do it again, my blog posts contain vulgar language because synonyms irritate me.
I can’t remember the last time I had an original thought without any source or reference to influence it. I am so much a believer that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ that it has made me search for other examples of work that might look or sound like my own ideas just to prove that I am indeed unoriginal. Which has led me to adapt or re-interpret ‘my idea’ before I have even had time to actually develop said idea organically. Does that make sense? And I think many artists in our age of hyper-visibility and the internet struggle with authenticity and originality. In contrast, others just don’t struggle with it at all because they are perfectly fine just copying the shit out of each other.
“Every human practice begins with copying. Learning takes place specifically with copying: one studies, praises, and admires a work of a master by copying it. A creative process takes place not as a sudden event, but as a slow process that requires mistakes and engagement with what precedes us, in order to create from it. To create something out of nothing is a Godlike quality: we, as human beings, are unable to create from scratch . . . And if you think about this, each and every one of us started saying “Mom” trying to imitate the sound of the word we heard our own Mother saying.” – Gucci Exhibition: Maurizio Cattelan's "The Artist is Present"
This was the first of nine Artist statements at the Gucci's art exhibition, in cooperation with Alessandro Michele (the current creative director of Gucci) and Maurizio Cattelan (the famous Italian artist) as curator, the exhibit aimed to explore the theme of "the copy is the original” and more importantly “to copy is to love”. The exhibition fully embraced copying even in its title stealing it directly from Marina Abramovic's performance masterpiece at MoMA in New York a few years ago. The Artist Is Present’ questioned what copying can be if we discarded every negative connotation and begin looking at it from a different perspective seeing appropriation and copying as an act of love and respect with regards to the original.
This exhibition brought up so many issues I have with the theatre industry in South Africa and I definitely walked out of the gallery fuming. I kept thinking “how can artists allow such bullshit to happen to their work” but I knew that this feeling was important and that this exhibition had more to it than just a bunch of Instagram selfie opportunities. As an Artist who has had his work copied and who has copied himself the biggest problem I have with South African theatre-makers is the complete lack of acknowledgment for one's sources of inspiration.
It seems to be common practice for directors or producers to visit Europe and other parts of the world and then come back to South Africa and regurgitate the work they’ve seen from other artists to a South African audience who is none the wiser, by throwing their own spin on it, if they even do. Next, they translate the work into a different language, grab a few funders and force an all-star cast into the plagiarized work who then parade around like the said director is God’s gift to the theatre.
“…one studies, praises, and admires a work of a master by copying it”
Essentially there is nothing wrong with adaption, translation, lifting material and ultimately reworking existing work. We do it to Shakespeare all the time, and Shakespeare did it too. Yet there is a continuous movement to not give credit or ask consent from the original artist when it happens. I don’t understand where this inability comes from to not be upfront about your sources of inspiration? It doesn’t make you less of an artist if you are able to reference the work of others who have been instrumental in your development process, on the contrary, it makes you a bloody academic.
1. Pope Julius II Portrait by Raphael (1511)
2. Pope Innocent X Portrait by Diego Valazquez (1650)
3. Study after Valazquez's Portrait of by Francis Bacon (1953)
“A creative process takes place not as a sudden event, but as a slow process that requires mistakes and engagement with what precedes us, in order to create from it.”
The fashion industry and visual arts have the advantage of being material art which one can continuously see, touch and feel. When they are replicated and copied by other designers one is still reminded of the original by watchdog Instagram pages like Diet Prada as well as galleries and exhibitions celebrating the concept of copying. The same can be said for the visual arts where pieces can be copied, mass produced and sold because we have curators, critics, organizations and the internet to govern and give us visual references to prove any “wrong” do if it occurs. They even have genres for it like Appropriation Art & Pop Art.
Documentation thus becomes integral in our distinguishing process of what is real and what is replicated. The problem for me comes when we copy immaterial art, art that happens at the moment which is never the same the second time, like music, performance art, and theatre which are all notoriously undocumented. (And I know music is recorded all the time and they have sheet music blah blah blah, I’m talking about live performance and experimental work here Becky) Sure we can take photos and video archives of performed work, but let’s be honest these art forms charge spaces with energy which influence our emotions and the emotions of the viewer in real space and time and when we look at recordings of work they all tend to look a tad shit and dull.
Immaterial art forms can never truly be captured and preserved, but the concepts and ideas behind them can be. Now if we look at the artist statement from Cattelan: “the copy is the original” one can also argue that in the world of theatre, for instance, every time a play is re-staged or even performed after opening night it is simply copying the previous performance, thus becoming the original and that ‘original’ works just copy themselves. I am not disputing that on the contrary, I will explore that at a later stage. My annoyance stems from not crediting your sources or even hiring them for your project. One of the best examples in recent years is when Björk hired the talent she was inspired by for her album cover Utopia giving credit to Hungry the avant-garde drag queen responsible for Björk's look and making her a part of the project. Now that's classy. Be more like Björk people!
Copying ideas and concepts from immaterial art rarely has any repercussions. Sure we have organizations like DALRO where you can register written plays but there is no space where we can claim our ideas as our own or even the aesthetic by which we curate our Instagram feeds. My point: Nothing is new under the sun, but what would be ‘New’ is if theatre makers credit their sources of inspiration in something as small as a program or even just a social media post that remains for longer than twenty-four hours.
Respect, Love, Consent, and Acknowledgement that’s all we need to do as immaterial artists navigating and carving our own way in the Art world.
Maybe by acknowledging that we are in ourselves inauthentic and filled with tremendous amounts of influences, we will reach a level of authenticity that is tangible and realistic. Because I fear that if we only copy from each other we will never make mistakes and engage with what has preceded us, nor develop and create anything which has any kind of worth or meaning.