There is a sweeping trend in brand consumerism, rising from China and spreading throughout the rest of the world, that you’ve certainly already come in contact with: Shanzhai, the culture of counterfeiting products, predominantly consumer electronics. While the term roughly translates to “mountain stronghold,” it is also applied to the secluded and uncontrolled mass-fabrication of fake goods in order to sell them for rock-bottom prices on the domestic and, increasingly, world market. But behold, this is not another article written to teach you how to spot knock-off sneakers offered by shady online shops. Instead, it is about how economic impudence has become a form of culture and, moreover, art.
To state the obvious first: Shanzhai is bound to last. For a long time, at least. The industry of counterfeit products already makes up a significant portion of the Chinese and Asian economies. In 2008, the market share for Shanzhai phones in China was estimated to be 20% according to local market research firm CCID Consulting. However, this is likely only the tip of the iceberg. A shady business such as Shanzhai will never be measured to its full extent but its impact can already be felt. It has expanded from consumer electronics to fashion and luxury goods, while fake Apple and Ikea stores have opened throughout the country. European cities like Paris and Venice have even been replicated to minute details.
The Chinese government isn’t exactly what you would call happy with this growing market sector but it isn’t doing much to stop it either. Being promoted by the centuries-old Chinese idea that copying is just another form of acknowledging and cherishing another’s efforts, it is much more than proud devotion, it is a substantial industry. With prices for smart phones as low as 元300 ($50), Shanzhai is the country’s unofficial solution for bringing consumerism and a sense of luxury to the masses.
However, Shanzhai is already so prevalent that while its cultural impact might not be measurable yet, it is already perceptible. It is my understanding that Shanzhai has become such a pervasive cultural phenomenon to the extent that it now reflects on itself, and has become self-critical and self-referential: some knock-offs are so blatantly fake – “Naik” shirts, “adadas” and “Calvim Klain” shoes, as well as Dolce & Banana, Anmani and Parada stores – that one has to wonder if it’s just impertinent counterfeiting, clever trademark juggling or some sort of art.
It’s impossible to decide on this without asking the customers – maybe they aren’t even aware. But that’s not the question here because what is more interesting is how artists respond to Shanzhai and how they involve it in their work.
Most of them simply start collecting and exhibiting these items in their shows. Simple readymades-turned-artworks, made possible by the act of showing. Being exhibits in a museum-like display, their value as art is determined by pointing out their immanent features, worked out by presenting them together with similar, but also quite different objects of the same kind.
One of these shows, the merit of which was to introduce the broader public to Shanzhai in art, was last year’s exhibition at Berlin’s Tanya Leighton gallery by Oliver Laric, titled “Be water my friend.” Reflecting on the relationship of the original and the copy in various contemporary contexts, the show assembled several readymades found in Asia, some of which were textbook examples of Shanzhai, while others originated from different backgrounds. Laric exhibited, among others, a Shanzhai phone, a 3D-printed replica of a Virgin Mary statue and even a Victorian chair, a fine example of how the West once emulated Eastern design. The artist also collected several adaptations of Sun Tzu’s famous writings, The Art of War, the same author who coined the phrase: “all warfare is based on deception.”
While Laric’s show was certainly a great introduction into the often surprising realm of Shanzhai, some artists take it a step further. Just as Laric, many of them are part of the post-Internet wave that’s steadily been growing in cities such as New York and Berlin. Their shared interest in contemporary aesthetics in times of cheap online ads, photoshopped magazine imagery, brightly-colored GIFs and silly memes led some of them to scrutinize not only images, but also product consumerism.
As is often the case in art, highly ambivalent subjects such as this are best faced with pungent sarcasm in order to turn the tables and hold a mirror up to the conditions that became mundane. A fine example of such poignant art is Parker Ito’s ongoing series “The Most Infamous Girl in the History of the Internet,” which utilizes the mechanisms of Shanzhai to point out the insignificance of a single picture once it’s omnipresent.
You’re quite likely familiar with the picture of an attractive young student, Hannah Steller, whose stock photo gained unlikely fame when it was plastered all over the Internet, used as a friendly but meaningless eye-catcher on parked domains. It was then left for Ito to experiment with the hollowed-out image, further eviscerating the iconic picture by having it mass reproduced by Chinese painters. He contacted an online service that offers to oil paint any desired picture provided by the customer and had Steller’s picture reproduced many times. Some paintings are astonishingly true to the original, although most are hacks jobs and others are downright silly. Ito also adorned some of the paintings with cheesy scenery, had his name written in big, bold Mistral letters for even more kitsch, had Manga and cheap CGI versions created and many of them painted over with dilettante blurs of colors and brush strokes.
Essentially, Parker Ito applied a cheap reproduction method to an already distorted reproduction. He produced a copy of a copy of a copy in order to carry trash pop culture to extremes. It’s pop art in its most bitter sense, the Warholian legacy carried to such an extreme, that it’s toppling over its own logical consequences. The original picture lost its value, its meaning and also whatever dignity it held in the first place, was mass reproduced on literally contentless websites and then further disembowelled by Ito – which is even more cynical since the photographer didn’t earn much money with his work either. Hobby photographer Dustin Steller casually took his sister’s picture, uploaded it to a stock photo website where it was later acquired by domain reselling company Demand Media. Steller’s royalty was only about a few cents – however, his sister was not so thrilled about her odd stardom as an anonymous placeholder.
While other artists joined Ito in using the Chinese workforce to produce their art – most notably Danh Vo’s well received one-to-one copper recreation of the Statue of Liberty, We the People, only few do this for conceptual reasons and even fewer, such as Ito, to shape a critical statement on the loss of meaning through counterfeiting in contemporary popular culture. However, there are still some artists who are able to overcome this fundamental critique. By turning Shanzhai into art and then into a brand, they obliterate the differences betweehn them, thus creating an uncanny unease about the true nature of their products.
Cyril Duval’s and Babak Radboy’s work is certainly the most sophisticated, possibly the only noteworthy example of Shanzhai applied to art, applied to a product. Apart from being an artist, Radboy is also the creative director of Bidoun Magazine, while Duval has an impressive collection of Shanzhai products that he displays as readymades just as Laric does. Together, they make up Shanzhai Biennial, a peculiar project that nobody really knows much about with the exception of Duval and Radboy. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if this thing has escaped their grasp and they, too, no longer know what Shanzhai Biennial is. It could be art, it could be Shanzhai, it could be a brand that imitates Shanzhai or it could be art that imitates Shanzhai in order to become a brand that produces Shanzhai of artistic value. The only certainty to be found, is that it’s meant to be confusing. Radboy admitted that they’re goal is to encourage misunderstanding and rumor, so it’s probably best to focus on what Shanzhai Biennial actually does.
Just as every other Biennial, the artist duo conceives their pieces as separate editions forming a consistent examination of a central subject, in this case Shanzhai fashion meant to be exhibited in an artistic setting. For their first issue at Beijing Design Week, they created a set of heavily photoshopped studio photos in the same manner they’re produced as for advertisement and magazines. They created their very own fashion collection, including a cardigan adorned with the Apple logo and several knock-offs of Chanel, Céline, Armani, Calvin Klein and Maison Martin Margiela among others, and put it on an Asian model and had him exaggerate the pathos and poses typical for fashion photography. They plastered their booth at the Design Week with their imagery and even had a red carpet along with a photo wall lead to their stand. For their contribution of this year’s MoMA PS1 exhibition “EXPO1,” they created a sophisticated video work that featured another Chinese model who went on stage in a dress that imitated a shampoo bottle, just to sing a Mandarin version of Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Rendered as a classical stage performance, the video contrasted corny show scenes with presentations of the label-less shampoo bottle, while only a Chinese audience would notice that the quite touching singing performance was actually nonsense, Mandarin gibberish meant to fit the melody.
Both stagings were carefully designed to evoke the notion that they were advertisements for an upscale fashion brand. Radboy later explained that Shanzhai Biennial’s ultimate aim was to produce some of the items shown, so that these pieces were in fact meant to be advertisements and concept studies alike. He later declared that they would also try and sue people who bought their Shanzhai products and cut out their label, underlining that they were serious (or attempting to be perceived as serious) about being an ordinary brand that just happens to sell counterfeit products. As of now, none of these products are available for sale. We’re left to wait and see while viewers and critics question whether or not this is just another charade intended to further confuse about what is real, what is fake and what could possibly be both at the same time.