Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade

Printed Matters

Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade

By Jing Cao June 11, 2015

From artists' monographs to beach reads, "Printed Matters" offers a monthly take by a rotating group of contributors on visual art through the printed word.

Winnie Won Yin Wong’s book Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade opens on 100 Chinese painters seated behind easels, each making a separate reproduction of Ilya Repin’s 19th-century masterpiece Portrait of the Art Critic Vladimir Stasov. This spectacle is the Dafen Painting Competition, sponsored by the local government to promote the city of Dafen as “the world’s largest production center for handmade oil paintings.”The prize is a hukou, or documentation to become a legal resident of the neighboring city of Shenzhen, with all of the legal, economic, and cultural privileges that such residency would imply.

Two apprentices at work in a Dafen studio, 2012. Photo: Winnie Wong.

Dafen is a suburb of Shenzhen, a sprawling metropolis just across the strait from Hong Kong. Its local economy is driven by international demand for hand-painted reproductions of Western oil paintings, and more recently, contemporary Chinese works. These works are sold to big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target, who use them to sell picture frames, and to informal networks of vendors, who pass them off as their own works in flea markets or outside of museums.2

Dafen’s history begins in 1978, when changes in Chinese economic policy transformed Shenzhen from a sleepy fishing village into an economic powerhouse. Dafen also benefited from this boom. As businesspeople from Hong Kong and Taiwan moved across the strait to take advantage of lower production costs, migrant workers from across China moved to Dafen to pursue their dreams of making a living as artists.

Her focus quickly turns from the scale and objects of production to the painters themselves.

The almost mythical-sounding idea of a Chinese village devoted to the industrial-scale manufacture and export of reproductions of Western art is Wong’s starting point in Van Gogh on Demand. But Wong’s approach moves beyond the touristic limitations of such framing to make a far more ambitious argument. Her focus quickly turns from the scale and objects of production to the painters themselves. Through a fascinating blend of ethnography and art history, Wong casts Dafen’s “art bosses” as conceptual artists and their business as a kind of performance. Far more interesting than the fantastical opening scene is Wong’s radical claim that there is no significant difference between the practices of these painters and those of the global art elite.

Wong’s claim flies in the face of conventional wisdom. To defend her position, Wong deflects objections from both sides of this equation. First, she challenges the art world’s reverence for the creative agency of artists, suggesting that instead of producing creative works, successful artists work to produce the idea of creativity.  Second, she asserts the economic and creative agency of the Dafen painters, revealing Western artists’ engagement with these painters to be far less sophisticated than the practices of the painters themselves. By presenting and denuding the mythologies of “maverick artist” and “alienated worker,” Wong is able to close the distance that separates these two groups.    

Oil painting over a digitally printed draft, in progress, 2009. Photo: Winnie Wong.

A common Western cultural narrative about contemporary Chinese art is that of the contemporary Chinese artist as someone whose family suffered greatly under the policies of Mao, but who is ultimately able to transcend those traumas through art. We hear of how Ai Weiwei’s father, a celebrated artist and scholar, was made to scrub toilets in a hospital, or of the postmodern calligrapher Xu Bing’s parents, who were brutally humiliated because of their educational background.3 In this narrative, Mao, or his policies, serve as a narrative foil against which the artist forms his vision or identity, finds his authorial voice, and comes into his own agency.  

Wong’s stories of the Dafen artists reveal the limits of this narrative, one that has largely served to help only the most internationally recognized Chinese artists. While Ai Weiwei and Xu Bing were sent to reeducation camps to erase their privileged backgrounds, the artists-turned-bosses of Dafen were, as Wong tells it, ecstatically discovering their own “bohemia,” achieving personal and professional goals beyond their childhood dreams. Wong describes artists in Dafen innovating new painting techniques, becoming their own bosses, and adopting a postmodern posture of distain toward “academic art.” The social upheaval that cast Ai and Xu as victims also created opportunities for the Dafen painters to realize their creative and economic ambitions. The subsequent rise of China’s art-world elite has eclipsed other players in the story—such as the painters of Dafen—demonstrating the larger positive and negative effects of China’s cultural reforms.

But as Wong shows, cultural capital has been harder to redistribute, let alone erase. 

This is not to downplay the wrongs of the Cultural Revolution. Rather, as Wong does in her book, I want to complicate the narrative of Chinese history that has conveniently fueled the market for contemporary Chinese art, a narrative dependent on two assumptions: first, that Mao’s regime repressed artistic expression, and second, that by turning past social inequalities on their head, the Cultural Revolution undid systems of cultural privilege. Communist policies took property from landlords, factories from capitalists, and dignity from educated elites. But as Wong shows, cultural capital has been harder to redistribute, let alone erase. 

The myth of the contemporary Chinese artist is based as much in place as in persona. A quick scan of the biographies of internationally recognized contemporary Chinese artists reveals that they uniformly attended one of China’s prestigious state-run art academies.4 Within an art system that ascribes authorship and originality only to academy graduates, painters who lack access to academic training cannot gain recognition as “original” artists.

However, as Wong reveals, admissions to these academies, where as few as 1% of applicants matriculate, heavily favor students born within their respective cities, and graduates of feeder high schools within that group.5 Without a hukou, or residency status, rural migrants cannot attend urban schools or sit for entrance exams in these cities. The Dafen painters lack the place-based credentials required to compete.

Selection of standard products from Zhao Xiaoyong’s shop in Feb. 2009. Photo: Winnie Wong.

Readers may sympathize with the Dafen painters’ limited career options in the face of the Chinese art apparatus, thinking to themselves, “If only these painters were given the opportunity to express themselves!” Here, too, Wong anticipates such an affective turn and reveals its flawed presumptions. Wong offers several accounts of international conceptual artists who have engaged the artists in Dafen—in some cases with the stated intent to highlight their exploitation, in others to give them a voice. To an international audience, these projects may seem like sophisticated meditations on authorship, appropriation, and globalization; to the Dafen painters, they are just another work order. However, Wong argues, even within this arrangement, the Dafen painters are able to outmaneuver the conceptual artists commissioning them to subtly assert their own authorship and originality.  

To illustrate this point, Wong describes a series of engagements between two Western conceptual artists, Michael Wolf and Christian Jankowski, and one Dafen artist, Yin Xunzhi.6 Michael Wolf’s China Copy Artist is a series of photographs of Dafen painters posed next to works they purportedly painted. These photographs have titles, such as Gerhard Richter, €80, that name the author of the reproduced work while erasing the authorship of the artist photographed. However, in an interview with Yin, Wong learns that Yin made all of the paintings himself—none of the men in the photographs painted the works with which they posed. Yin playfully allows his friends to stand in as “authors,” positioning himself, not Wolf, as the savvy conceptual artist.

Jankowski’s China Painters series asked Dafen painters to paint the interior of a museum with one of their own paintings hanging on the wall. For this series, he asked Yin to paint a work titled Museum Director’s Chair, which he believed to be Yin’s original image. However, the chair Yin painted within Jankowski’s conceptual frame was actually an appropriation of Wolf’s photograph Broken Chair—the image that opened Wolf’s China Copy Artist series. By inserting the appropriated work of one Western artist into another’s, Yin again orchestrates his own conceptual coup.    

How to Paint van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” Photos of Zhao Xiaoyong and apprentice, eight states of two van Gogh Sunflowers, oil on canvas, 20 × 24 in., 28 Oct.–6 Nov. 2008. Photos: Winnie Wong.

The international art world’s approach to multiculturalism and inclusivity, as Wong points out, requires a flattening of the social and political dimensions of the regions that it seeks to include. In order to welcome “Chinese art” into the global contemporary, the struggles within Chinese society for artistic legitimacy and the on-the-ground complexities of various modes of artistic production are smoothed over and swept away. Thankfully, Wong’s book avoids such flattening along with any hint of its attendant range of potentially patronizing affects: self-righteousness, pity, guilt, or outrage. She recounts the experiences of the Dafen painters without adopting the treacly tone of an international-development worker, accounting for the motives and ambitions that inform both sides of an exchange such as the projects instigated by Western conceptual artists. While her accounts of the policies of the Chinese party–state are less neutral, she doesn’t facilely cast blame or point fingers. For moral indignation would simply cast the Dafen painters as victims, ironically, denying them the very recognition as subjects that they want most of all.

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  1. Winnie Won Yin Wong, Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 1.
  2. Wong, 47, 58, 64.
  3. For these and more examples, see Maxwell Hearn, Ink Art: Past and Present in Contemporary China (Met Museum, 2013).
  4. Namely the China Academy of Art in Zhejiang, Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in Sichuan, or Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in southern China.
  5. Wong, 90.
  6.  Wong, 198-207

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