Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 2, 2017
Winnie Won Yin Wong Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 320 pp.; 27 color ills.; 45 b/w ills. Paper $38.00 (9780226024899)

Unknowingly, many of us have likely come into contact with some of the primary products of China’s Dafen village: handmade oil paintings, which resemble Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888) and other “masterworks,” that hang in hotels, restaurants, and homes, and are sold online and in souvenir shops, galleries, and chain stores around the world. Located in Shenzhen, a megacity across from Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China’s first Special Economic Zone, Dafen has heretofore been known mostly to outsiders—if at all—through sensationalist news coverage. Winnie Won Yin Wong’s Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade not only overturns accounts of Dafen as a factory full of exploited assembly-line painters, which she successfully reveals as strategically crafted fictions, but also unsettles contemporary art’s unspoken hierarchies and topples modernist and postmodernist assumptions about originality, authenticity, and authorship. Under Wong’s scrutiny, artist-bosses steering Dafen’s painting production, conceptual art projects utilizing Dafen painters, and Chinese state-sponsored television programs and art exhibitions promoting Dafen’s creative industry are all revealed as operating under “the universalist belief in the alienation of labor in copying, and the individualizing power of creativity” (10). Through a brilliant ethnographic study of Dafen’s painting trade, Wong exposes the valorization of creativity as rooted in the longstanding romantic upholding of craft over mass production, and the lingering modernist myth of artistic originality.

The introduction begins with an analysis of the 2004 government-sponsored Dafen Copying Competition, in which the best copyists of Ilya Repin’s Portrait of Vladimir Stasov (1883) were awarded cash prizes and the opportunity to obtain a coveted Shenzhen hukou (urban household registration). Wong then describes a concurrent, higher-profile competition, in which 1,100 Dafen painters created their own original paintings, as demonstrative of the official emphasis on “original creation” (yuanchuang) over “copying” (linmo). Extending the implications of Dafen’s painting competitions into modern and contemporary art discourse, Wong convincingly argues that this privileging of originality and creativity parallels the chief values of Western modernist art, which still resonate in contemporary conceptual art, despite the latter’s claims of deconstructing authorship. Wong looks to The Benjamin Project (2007–9), for which the German art duo Empfangshalle and video artist Thomas Adebahr hired Dafen painters to paint the text of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” She critiques the artists’ claims to have “inverted Benjamin’s thesis, i.e., that the aura of the work of art withers in the age of mechanical reproduction,” as based, like all of the conceptual art projects discussed in the book, on simplistic perceptions of “Dafen painters as alienated Chinese copyists of original Western masterpieces,” who the artists could engage “in newly conceptual fashion” (11). The introduction inevitably turns to Marcel Duchamp (and his last painting Tu m’, from 1918, painted in part by a professional sign painter), whose Dada “readymades” threw into question artistic authorship long before postmodernism codified the death of the author. Duchampian strategies haunt all of the conceptual artworks Wong critiques, including Liu Ding’s Products made for the 2005 Guangzhou Triennial (chapter 1), in which Liu orchestrated a performance-installation of thirteen Dafen painters hired to paint multiple versions of a single landscape through “integrative assembly lines” (72–73); Sascha Pohle’s 2010 Reframing the Artist (chapter 2), in which Pohle directed Dafen painters to reenact artists as depicted in American and European films, such as Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956); and Christian Jankowski’s 2008 China Painters (chapter 5), featuring paintings by Dafen painters created in response to the question “What work of art would you most like to see exhibited in the new Dafen Museum of Art?” (193)

Throughout the book, Wong presents conceptualism as the modus operandi of the global contemporary artist and continually implies that the conceptual artist’s claim to authorlessness is a cocky pretense. This stance is best supported by chapter 5’s opening, “Global Conceptualism,” which reviews Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s, an exhibition organized by the Queens Museum of Art, New York, in 1999. Here, I would have welcomed Wong’s analysis of conceptualism as a constructed art-historical genre, perhaps through a comparative reading of the curator Ann Goldstein’s watershed Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, exhibition, 1965–1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art. I also wish Wong had described conceptual artists and artworks with as much juicy detail as she used to explicate the roles played by Dafen’s artist-bosses in chapter 1, state-produced television programs in chapter 3, and the work and life of the Van Gogh painting specialist Zhao Xiaoyang in chapter 4. Aside from conceptual artists, what about globally recognized contemporary painters who hire Dafen painters, such as Kehinde Wiley and Wang Guangyi—if the rumors are true?

Theory and philosophy, mostly European, is woven throughout the book. These references are often illuminating, such as chapter 1’s discussion of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1797 forewarning of a “great painting factory” as especially relevant to Dafen’s mythology. Chapters 1 and 2 both begin with epigraphs by European writers (Goethe and Pierre Bourdieu respectively), though they might have started instead with quotes from Dafen’s bosses, propagandists, or painters (as in the case of chapter 4, which begins with step-by-step instructions on “HOW TO PAINT VAN GOGH’S SUNFLOWERS”). I would have preferred reading longer statements by the figures Wong interviewed and spent extensive time with, versus the eighteenth- to twentieth-century philosophers she quotes. For instance, I wanted to hear more from Yin Xunzhi, the “ghost” artist who appears in both Jankowski’s China Painters and the documentary photographer Michael Wolf’s Dafen-based photo series, China Copy Artists or Real Fake Art (2006). Given that Jankowski stated, “Yin was the only painter he met in Dafen village who engaged with him ‘as an artist’” (198–99), I would have also valued Wong’s take on what exactly made Yin an artist in Jankowski’s eyes; was it Yin’s approach to art making? His personality? Attitude? That discussion might further support Wong’s cynical but persuasive assertion that “the contemporary artist might best be defined as a figure who only dabbles in disciplines like filmmaking and delegates work to others, all the while honing his social skills as an artist” (112).

Wong makes some oversights in regards to contemporary art discourse. For instance, in chapter 1’s brief discussion of trendy artworks utilizing low-status individuals in “living installations,” Wong mentions Santiago Sierra’s Persons Paid to Have Their Hair Dyed Blonde for the 2001 Venice Biennale and Claire Bishop’s critique of such projects (73). In fact, Bishop has championed Sierra (against other “relational” artists) for his aesthetics of antagonism (Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” OCTOBER 110 [Fall 2004]: 51–79). Before chapter 2’s discussion of John Baldessari’s Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell (1966–68), famously painted by a hired sign painter, Wong identifies the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) as “the preeminent American conceptual art academy” (92). While Baldessari was a prominent faculty member, CalArts is much more than the conceptual art academy, maintaining, for instance, a major dedication to performing arts. But these are small points, which hardly diminish Wong’s fascinating, deeply analyzed accounts.

Van Gogh on Demand asks big questions of art, but leaves as implied the disciplinary issues raised by Wong’s cutting-edge (dare I say creative?) research. The author’s interdisciplinary methodology spans art history, cultural anthropology, and critical theory. When Wong purports to wear the art-historian hat, her methods are enticingly iconoclastic, especially in the direct acknowledgement of engaging in activities that many art historians practice but few openly acknowledge and some even pooh-pooh (e.g., serving as middleman between artists, collectors, and curators). Against the stale “deader the better” adage, Wong’s research involved interviewing and conducting studio and home visits with dozens of living artists and serving as an assistant to artists appearing throughout the book. Wong’s status as a participant observer is clearly reported in some cases (e.g., as an apprentice of the Van Gogh painting specialist discussed in chapter 4, and as a curatorial consultant and conceptualizer of Convection, the 2010 Dafen Museum of Art exhibition analyzed in the conclusion). At other times, her role is more mysterious. Wong seems to have closely interacted with the conceptual artists she critiques; she mentions touring the Dafen Museum show with Jankowski, whose exhibited work, China Painters, is discussed at length in chapter 5, and one wonders if she was the “key local informant” of the ad hoc team supporting Pohle’s Reframing the Artist described in chapter 2 (82). Wong need not explicate all of these relationships, but I find her descriptions most thrilling when she does, as in the case of her experience learning to paint Van Gogh’s Sunflowers from Zhao Xiaoyang, which provides the book’s strongest instance of personalizing Dafen’s painting trade.

Chapter 3, “True Art and True Love in the Model Bohemia,” is emblematic of the book’s multimedia coverage, providing a rich breadth sorely lacking in conventional art histories. Before a captivating analysis of two Chinese television programs propagandizing Dafen as a creative cultural center, the chapter investigates the conscious establishment of Beijing’s East Village as a cosmopolitan, avant-garde art center and the production methods of contemporary Chinese performance artist/international art star Zhang Huan, who once worked as a commercial oil painter. Wong’s fluid movement between—and equally sophisticated discussions of—contemporary art, the social contexts of post-socialist urban China, popular culture, and state-controlled media pose a provocative model (or gao to use the word of Dafen) for art-historical research and viewing art amid globalization.

I once had a conversation with a prominent artist/art historian who argued that artists could no longer be creative, but researchers could; Wong’s book seems to support this point. Van Gogh on Demand triumphs precisely through its creative research, even as Wong’s case studies persistently undermine creativity. The epilogue appears as a winking acknowledgement of creative scholarship, or at least authorial authenticity, as Wong ends with an anecdote of one of her Dafen research subjects offering to write her book for her. Writing about Dafen village and its relationship to originality, the would-be ghostwriter concludes, “was, after all, ‘Not so easy’” (231). Wong’s vivid display of the many facets of her presumed position as researcher/ethnographer/art historian illuminates, as Van Gogh on Demand does for the Dafen painter, the scholar’s often misunderstood labor.

Jenny Lin
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, University of Oregon