The year of artistic ‘appropriation’

The year of artistic ‘appropriation’

By ADITYA MANI JHA | | 29 August, 2015

Anish Kapoor is having a rough 2015 and things have gone conspicuously sideways these last few months. In June, his sculpture at the Palace of Versailles created a furore when a French newspaper published a report about it that quoted Kapoor as referring to his work as "The Queen's Vagina" (the sculpture is actually called Dirty Corners). Kapoor had barely finished disowning the interview when a group of vandals damaged the work using spray paint. Although the work was not damaged beyond repair, Kapoor was clearly rattled: his statements about France's "intolerance" and "anti-art attitude" did not help matters.

And now, earlier this month, it was reported that a sculpture in Karamay, a town in the Xinjiang region of China, bears a suspicious resemblance to Kapoor's renowned Cloud Gate (often called "The Bean"), a gigantic 33 by 66 by 42 ft work stainless steel public sculpture at Chicago's Millennium Park. The Karamay work is supposed to resemble an oil bubble, a nod towards Black Mountain, a nearby natural oil well. Comparative photographs of the two sculptures, however, indeed betray a striking similarity. Kapoor has threatened to sue the Karamay authorities, who have even refused to reveal the name of the artist behind the oil bubble sculpture, simply stating that the artist is Chinese.

Kapoor's ire is not unjustified. For some reason, 2015 seems to be the Year of the Plagiarist. Remember Rachel Dolezal? Dolezal was the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People's (NAACP) chapter in Spokane, Washington who found herself in the middle of a huge race controversy when her parents revealed that she was a white person passing for black (Dolezal claims that she "identifies" as a black person). Apparently, this wasn't the only thing that Dolezal was faking.

On her website, there are numerous artworks for sale (she studied art at Howard University). Among them is an acrylic painting called The Shape of Our Kind, a beautifully executed maritime scene with a price tag of $2,000. There's a ghostly ship moving through tumultuous waters, with bodies scattered everywhere in its wake. The problem is, art enthusiasts will recognise this scene as Slave Ships, an 1840 work by J.M.W. Turner, the British painter who is regarded as perhaps the greatest landscape artist of all time. Ironically, the artist Dolezal ripped off so blatantly was a lifelong abolitionist who was moved to create Slave Ships after reading The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade by Thomas Clarkson.

But as far as plagiarism rows go, Dolezal's has hardly been the most high-profile one this year. That honour goes to the designer of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics logo, Kenjiro Sano. The logo that Sano designed for Tokyo 2020 incorporates the stylised "T" of the emblem for the Théâtre de Liège in Belgium, designed by Olivier Debie, who alleged plagiarism on Twitter. Sano faces legal charges and hasn't offered any justification so far. One is reminded of the Beijing Games anthem, which sounded very similar to Let It Be from the movie Frozen.

Since plagiarism is, first and foremost, a legal matter, it is important to remember the thumb rule for intellectual property litigation in most countries around the world: if you want to be safe, you have to demonstrate how your work is significantly different from the plaintiff's. "Appropriation" is not only a valid approach in the art world, it is a historically significant movement that acts as a self-conscious pointer towards the history of painting itself.

The case of British artist Glenn Brown is an instructive one in this regard. Brown has, over the last decade or so, created a number of paintings that are essentially re-contrasted and cropped versions of science fiction covers. One of his works was an almost exact replica of artist Chris Foss's cover of Isaac Asimov's novel Stars Like Dust. Brown has also "appropriated" the covers of novels by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. In January 2014, the Foss replica sold for over $5 million and yet, Brown has never been successfully sued.

Brown has, over the last decade or so, created a number of paintings that are essentially re-contrasted and cropped versions of science fiction covers. One of his works was an almost exact replica of artist Chris Foss’s cover of Isaac Asimov’s novel Stars Like Dust.

In an interview with the online journal The Science Fictional, Brown defended his stance thus: "The Foss paintings never look like my versions of them. (...) The colours are altered, the cities were redrawn and I was always inventing things to increase their intensity right from the start. (...) I never want to lose that notion of appropriation—people say to me, sooner or later you'll stop copying other artists and you'll make work of your own, but it's never been my point to try to do that, because I never thought you ever could. The work is always going to be based on something, and I wanted to make the relationship with art history as obvious as possible."

Others haven't been as lucky as Brown, however. In January this year, renowned Belgian artist Luc Tuymans lost a plagiarism lawsuit regarding his painting A Belgian Politician. The lawsuit was filed by Katrijn Van Giel, a photographer for Belgian newspaper De Standaard. She claimed that the painting is based on a crop of a 2010 photograph she took of Belgian MP Jean-Marie Dedecke. Tuymans admitted to basing his painting on the photograph but argued that his work amounted to a parody. A court in Antwerp ruled otherwise, however: Tuymans was ordered to stop reproducing or exhibiting his work.

The contrasting fortunes of Brown and Tuymans prove that the lines are almost always very thin here: after all, the arguments that made the latter guilty did not suffice to make the former pay up. Struggling artists are probably better off without tracing an existing painting, even for the sake of appropriation. The courts may or may not understand art, but they've had a vice grip on commerce for a long time now.

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