Berlin-based German multi-media artist Christian Jankowski on why he’s elevating art from China’s biggest copy village to the auction house.
Christian Jankowski is known for his performative interactions with what he calls the “non-art world”, dealing with psychology, ritual, lifestyle and mass-produced, luxury commodities in his work. At the 2011 London Frieze art fair he displayed The Finest Art on Water, a luxury speedboat available for £60m as a boat and £70m if bought as an artwork. Represented in Berlin by Contemporary Fine Arts, in 2016 he curated the European Biennial Manifesta in Switzerland, the first artist to do so. In what may seem a departure from previous work, Jankowski is presenting a set of paintings at auction house Grisebach in Charlottenburg this May. The scenes depicted are taken from photos he found online in which people have re-enacted famous paintings by artists including Degas, Dix, Durer, Hockney and Goya. He commissioned the oil paintings themselves from professional “copy painters” in China.
How did you develop the concept for Neue Malerei?
A prototype was Chinese Whisper, a commission I made for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. On the internet I found 10 images of people re-enacting the 10 Van Gogh self-portraits in the museum’s collection, some were film stills, there was even a waxwork. Also via the internet, I ordered copy paintings of these images from Chinese copy painters. These were then displayed next to the originals in the museum.
How did you find the copy painters?
I was made aware of them in 2007, when I was doing a show in Hong Kong. I read a newspaper article about this “copy village”, Dafen in Shenzen. It was a rural farming village until the 1980s when copy painters started setting up there. I was very interested, so I went there and saw a big construction site in the village, for a new art museum. I met the architect, who told me that he didn’t know what kind of art he was building the museum for, which I found even more interesting. So I asked the painters all around the village if they were in charge of that museum, what painting would they put on display? In the meantime, I took photographs of the construction site and always left an empty wall in the centre of the image. I gave these to the copy painters, who painted the scene and added the painting of their choice to the empty wall. Eventually a curator at the museum in Dafen invited me to bring the paintings back there to be displayed in the finished museum. They were placed on the very same walls. I had an immediate friendship with one of the painters, Yin, and we kept in contact. I spoke to him about Neue Malerei and he brought together other copy painters and managed the project for me in China. I was in constant conversation with the copy painters, giving them feedback as the works progressed. With Chinese Whisper I felt that people looked down on the copy painters, whereas in this project I wanted to identify them [in the catalogue] and align myself with them.
What do the copy painters usually paint?
Repeated copies of masterpieces by artists like Rembrandt and Van Gogh for hotels, supermarket chains and also private commissions like wedding photographs.
Are you making a conceptual statement by displaying and selling the works in an auction house? Who do you hope will buy the works?
It’s an interesting context to view something, more so than a gallery. I hope museums buy them, so that more people can see them, like the original works that inspired them.
Christian Jankowski – Neue Malerei Through May 12 Grisebach, Charlottenburg