In this series we connect the dots on work in Degree Show One. First up, and perhaps a little perversely, we look at the influence of the copy
Copying may seem like the antithesis to art school self-expression and exploration. An inflatable sculpture, for example, might not have the most obvious links to Renaissance sculpture, but Rolina Blok (MA Fine Art) invites the art of the past into her contemporary practice.
I’ve never been to Rome, a huge inflatable bust of Moses – after a Michelangelo sculpture – points to Blok’s traditional training in Romania. Combining life drawing, composition and art history, Blok’s education mirrored that of the last two centuries of art teaching, an education from a different age? “It most certainly is,” says Block “but it was very helpful. You learn a skill, you learn what was before you in order to understand what you’re trying to create today.”
Her Moses, all soft and billowy, takes its cues from a bust that Blok drew again and again for her examinations. “We had a cast of him and we used to call him ‘my lover’ because he had a beautiful face and horns. We had an intimate relationship,” the artist says with a smile. Blok knows this face so well because she studied it, her appropriation of Renaissance sculpture sits as part of a continual and important process that stretches across millennia.
Blok’s practice not only highlights that contemporary art, no matter how iconoclastic, sits within a chronology but also art’s power to reproduce itself, to be reborn. Blok’s work consumes the history of art through replica and reproduction. I’ve never been to Rome could be interpreted as a love letter to the city of originals: “I’ve never been to Rome and I’d like to go and see it. But it’s not happening so I have to make something so I can see it.”
Looking at Yaoyao Ding’s work (MA Photography), you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a national gallery. Her series of oil pastels are essentially still lives of paintings; Millais’s Ophelia in its opulent frame sits on a cream wall with the corner of its neighbour visible. Whereas Blok sites her work in a chronology of appropriation, Ding makes the more extreme point that there are no originals, only second hand images.
After graduating from China Academy of Art, Ding was asked to paint reproductions of Impressionist artworks for hotel and office interiors. To help make ends meet, she accepted the commissions. “I compromised a lot,” she says, “The price of the artwork depended on the size or the difficulty. Suddenly I became a labourer not an artist. My degree show work is a critique of that kind of system, that the artist is like a machine.”
Photographing paintings on her iPhone on pilgrimages to galleries, Ding chooses depictions of young women as though self-identifying with them: “I wonder if that’s why I choose them. It’s a mirror and I see myself in these works.”
While reproduction and appropriation are at the heart of both the art market and its satellites, the development of modern technology – from photography to digital modelling – brings the technical copy into the artist’s toolbox.
Juan Carlos Covelli Reyes (MA Photography) uses digital modelling as a metaphor for digital identity. “Everything we post on social media is an image,’ he says, ‘our identity is something that we’re curating – it’s the time of me, me, me.”
To reflect this egotism, Reyes creates 3D printed renders and models of his body. His imagery retains the glitches and imperfections from inputting the data, as well as integrated traditional plinths as a nod to a Lenin souvenir he bought on holiday in Russia. For Reyes, the souvenir provided a point of reference for the reproduction as valueless replica: “It becomes a reproducible unimportant thing. You can make it and remake it and remake it… I’m a photographer, the idea of the original doesn’t exist for me, that preciousness doesn’t exist. In photography, you can reproduce to the end.”
Whether reproducing, re-appropriating or replicating, it’s clear that the copy has a place in the experimental and expressive practices of contemporary art. Though fine art education has moved away from the repetitive mimetic traditions of drawing casts and copying Old Masters, copying remains part of the art school experience.
Elizabeth Wright, 3D Pathway Leader BA Fine Art, runs a project with second year students that investigates the various natures of the copy. Following museum visits and discussions, students engage with a two-day workshop. A grid is marked out on the studio floor, each student selects a word from a list: fake, reproduction, multiple etc. They then bring an object – from a knock-off Burberry hat to a stone hammer – that could represent that word, place it in the top grid and then the process begins of creating a version of that object, each student responding to the previous student’s contribution. Though each is an individual reply, the process creates a collective landscape with each line of the grid showing one object made in a different way and different time by a different person.
“What’s important is the students realise that they’re part of a teaching methodology and that they’ve already been introduced to notions of the copy through their education,” explains Wright, ‘It’s getting them to realise there’s an agency to copying.’ From the photocopier to 3D printing, students are encouraged to explore how reprographic technologies can be used critically within their practice.
Far from being in opposition to the fine art practice, the copy is a fundamental tool. The repeatable, the reproducible, the replica are all expressions of the homogeneity of modern life, ripe for recontextualising. After all, Wright says, “we’re all copyists.”