Is imitation a form of flattery or discovery? Gucci’s Shanghai exhibition has some answers

A nose is tickled, grows large and red, and the woman to whom it belongs sneezes out plates of food that lie mouldering on a bench. On the floor below, a Chinese worker at a table in a pearl factory uses a system of pulleys to work a fan that wafts a breeze to irritate said nose, while others sort through thousands of spheres with as much respect as they would a heap of pebbles. This is NoNoseKnows, by the Argentina born artist Mika Rottenberg, a video installation that examines the precious. It is one of the exhibits at Maurizio Cattelan and Gucci’s The Artist Is Present at Yuz Museum Shanghai (on till December 16, 2018).

art wall collection
On the wall: Brian Belott’s Copy From The Rhoda Kellogg International Children’s Art Collection 1-11 (2018). Right: Big Chief, Miguel, Irene And Johnnie by John Ahearn (with Rigoberto Torres).

The title of the show itself is borrowed from artist Marina Abramović’s 2010 Museum Of Modern Art (MoMA) retrospective (which, interestingly, was presented in part by the LVMH group), and the poster is taken from the documentary that emerged from the show. It’s an exhibition that makes you think about appropriation, context, repetition, and reproduction, and it is co-curated by Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele, whose recent revival of the house’s ‘Guccy’ logo — in a move that subverted the knock-off industry that long used it—tells you just how much thought has gone into it.

Art serves many purposes: to expand your thoughts, to touch your emotions, to inspire, to shock…to change the world even. Yet, what you see is affected by where and when you see it, as the late art critic John Berger said. It is no surprise then that for maximum impact, the exhibition opened in China, a country that recognises no copyrights, where counterfeit and luxury items are produced in equal volume, and where ‘shan zhai’ is a term given to the powerful, disruptive counterfeit industry, which has led to market innovation.

Room 5
Confusion, an installation of trees, plants, and dirt, by John Armleder. Right: Having It Both Ways by Margaret Lee.

The exhibition raises many questions: what is originality? Are the Old Masters in museums what the artists painted, or have these works been restored to such a degree that they are but facsimiles of the real thing, like prints? What do you make of Maurizio Cattelan’s Untitled, a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel and its frescoes at one-sixth its scale, or that of asparagus stems magnified? Is Superflex’s recreation of the bathroom from the United Nations Security Council (a building where no photographs may be taken) a meditation on security and secrecy or, you know, a copy of a loo?

untitled by Maurizio
Untitled (2018) by Maurizio Cattelan
speech bubbles
From left: Untitled (2015) by Jose Dávila, Over And Over Again by Lawrence Weiner, Mollusk (Nero Velato) and Mollusk (Bianco Lasa) by Reena Spaulings (2018). On the ceiling: Speech Bubbles (gold) (2009) by Philippe Pareno.

What happens when something is taken out of context — a Barneys New York shop window (Margaret Lee’s Having It Both Ways), or the image of a tyre from a Michelin ad? Or marble surfboards? Thought bubbles from comics rendered as gold balloons? Or words repeated over and over again? Or when a Chinese woman sings an artist’s grandmother’s song in Icelandic?

power toilets
Power Toilets/Council Of The European Union (2018) by Superflex.
pink blue
pink-blue (2017) by Kapwani Kiwanga

Religion will have you believe that there is only one creator, and that everything else is just variation on a theme. If variations then are what pass off as original, then copying, as the exhibition proposes, is simply a reflection of global culture, a statement that originality can be attained through repetition, and that originals themselves can be preserved through copies.

front page The New Work Tim

The front page of The New Work Times

nonose knows2
NoNoseKnows (2017) by Mika Rottenberg

I once visited the Note Press, where India’s currency is printed, and saw stacks of uncut bills piled like bundles of newspapers. It was a moment of unreality, one where repetition, quantity, and context engendered a feeling of lack of value, where money once again became just paper; NoNoseKnows makes a similar point about pearls. The Artist Is Present threads that thought throughout. That leaves one question: how does Gucci view knock-offs after this?

Photographs: Courtesy of the artist (Untitled, NoNoseKnows), Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Jérôme Poggi, Paris/Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town/ Tanja Wagner Gallery, Berlin (pink-blue), Courtesy of Gucci (The New Work Times), Courtesy of the artist and designed in collaboration with NEZU AYMO architects (Power Toilets/Council Of The European Union), The Artist is Present, Shanghai 2018 Exhibition View (Copy From The Rhoda Kellogg International Children’s Art Collection 1-11, Big Chief, Miguel, Irene And Johnnie, Confusion, Having It Both Ways, Over And Over Again, Untitled, Mollusk (Nero Velato), Mollusk (Bianco Lasa), Speech Bubbles)

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