Original Copies: Philip Tinari on the Dafen Oil Painting Village

By Tinari, Philip | Artforum International, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Original Copies: Philip Tinari on the Dafen Oil Painting Village


Tinari, Philip, Artforum International


AS A CITY, SHENZHEN was almost literally painted into existence. In 1979, "Deng Xiaoping drew a circle"--or so goes the cliche immortalized in an early-'80s pop song--around a fishing village abutting Hong Kong, and proclaimed a zone of free markets for a China then beginning to awaken from its socialist reverie. Nearly thirty years later, it is a site of production on a most extraordinary scale, and the locus of a unique urban condition only possible in a place where the average resident is even younger than the fledgling city itself. Its factories turn out everything from pharmaceuticals to air conditioners; its designers invent the logos that will finally give their nation its own brands; its Window of the World theme park--where visitors amble among replicas of Angkor Wat, the Brasilia parliament building, and more than a hundred other famous tourist attractions--takes the Coney Island simulacra with which Rem Koolhaas began his late-'70s urban manifesto Delirious New York to previously unthinkable levels. And on the outskirts of this city of dreams lies the village of Dafen, a place where the notion of painting as production is pushed to its conceptual outer limits.

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The Dafen Oil Painting Village--its name, in accordance with official terminology, specifies "oil painting" in order to distinguish the art practiced here from "national painting," a term denoting more traditional Chinese methods--lies just north of what is called the second line, a quasi-border that once enforced a separation between the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone proper and its surrounding districts. To reach the village, one drives through a defunct checkpoint staffed by the occasional police officer standing amid the traffic islands watching the cars stream by. Having crossed this fake border, one enters Shenzhen's Longgang district, perhaps the single most productive locale in all of China, with a GDP said to outstrip those of entire northwestern provinces. After a journey of a few miles, Dafen suddenly appears to the left of an eight-lane highway. It is a village only in the sense that it is a distinct pocket in an urban fabric that radiates in all directions--a "village-in-the-city," as the architectural lingo would have it, but really just a dense warren of alleyways and six- and seven-story concrete buildings containing nothing but apartments and workshops dedicated to oil painting.

HERE, ART LINKS UP WITH THE MARKET. HERE, TALENT AND FORTUNE INTERCHANGE. So pronounces a banner gracing one of Dafen's thoroughfares with a logic all too familiar to the art world. The statement could certainly be adopted as the slogan of any major art fair, and is an apt descriptor of the state of affairs in China, where the convergence of art and market, and the conversion of works into capital based on valuations of "talent," have become the sine qua nons of a frenzied moment. At Dafen, in less than one quarter of a square mile, some seven hundred galleries and five thousand artists convert oils and canvas into oils on canvas, realizing commissions from around the world. Open storefront workshops are hung salon style with montages of images that mock traditional taste hierarchies with a vigor sublimated into routine. In a single stall, schlock seascapes bound for cruise-ship gift shops and beach-house living rooms might vie for space with portraits of George Bush, Osama bin Laden, and Hu Jintao. Also typically in the mix are copies of modernist standards by artists from Vincent van Gogh to Tamara de Lempicka; tiny icons of the "Five Friendlies," the cartoon mascots of the 2008 Beijing Olympics; and, increasingly, imitations of works by contemporary Chinese painters like Wang Guangyi and Yue Minjun culled from the pages of Hong Kong auction catalogues. Bulk orders for hundreds of generic landscapes, canonical images, and even made-to-order minimalism tailored to the color schemes of interior designers in South Florida are filled by the day. …

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