‘China’s Van Goghs’ Documentary Explores the Industrial Scale of Art in the Village that Paints Thousands of Replicas
In the late 1980s, the village of Dafen in Shenzhen, China—home to a few hundred people—was set on an industrial course that would utterly transform the area. Over the past three decades in what is known as the “world’s art factory,” manufacturers have produced thousands of replicas of well-known paintings by Western masters like Vincent Van Gogh, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Edgar Degas. In a full-length documentary from Perspective, filmmakers render an intimate portrait of life in Dafen.
China’s Van Goghs follows painter Zhao Xiaoyong, along with family and friends, through typical days at work. Immense rolls of canvas are unloaded from a truck, a line of people add details to raw canvases tacked to the wall, and rows of paintings line-dry above their heads. “We paint, eat, and sleep—all in this studio,” Zhao says, sharing that before he began painting, he had never heard of Van Gogh. Now, he oversees the production of hundreds of paintings each month, for which photographs or small prints are used as references.
Entrepreneurial trade painter Huang Jiang established the village’s art industry in 1989 after moving his business to the mainland hamlet from his native Hong Kong. Dafen is characterized by an an assembly line process that has historically relied on cheap migrant labor, where local workers were trained to paint in oil. As the manufacture of copies of paintings by Western masters expanded, so did the village. Dafen is now home to more than 10,000 residents and has become a cultural center of Shenzhen, but the relationship between yì shù jiā (artists) and huà jiā (painters or art workers) is uniquely nuanced.
Zhao grapples with the difference between the two, and an opportunity to fly to Amsterdam with his family to visit the Van Gogh Museum and meet a long-time client provides many unexpected revelations, including finding his paintings in a tourist stand and learning that the profit margin is around ten times his compensation to make the works. After a trip to Arles, France, to the hospital where Van Gogh was briefly in residence, and his burial site in Auvers-sur-Oise, Zhao returns home and reflects on the visit with mixed emotions. He and his colleagues discuss feeling a connection to Van Gogh and a profound link with the work.
The documentary plumbs universal, provocative questions of originality and significance. Zhao recounts museum staff asking if he made his own work, and he explains “Do you know how much pressure I felt? I was shocked. I don’t even have a single piece of my own. I’ve just been copying, copying… To change from a painter to an artist, to whatever it is, is very difficult.” A friend posits that labels like “artist” and “worker” aren’t useful, and Zhao continues with a question that many creators will find familiar, “Have I become an artist? Do I have anything that deserves appreciation?”
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Chinese artist Li Songsong (previously) obscures portraits and wider landscapes with thick dabs of oil paint. His textured, impasto works are based on found photographs or imagined scenes, and each conveys a narrative tied to ordinary moments or a broader shared history. Varying the extent of distortion in every piece, Songsong tells Colossal that interrogating personal identity is at the center of his practice. The “cultural and historical aspects are related to China, and the language and expressions are my own,” he explains.
Songsong’s recent works include a tender scene with an officer and his dog, a portrait of a hopeful pilot, and a panoramic shot featuring a crowd with hundreds of anonymous faces. The richly layered pieces speak to the haziness and fragmentary nature of memories and stories, especially those interpreted from a distance, and come into focus when viewed farther back with a squint.
Based in Beijing, Songsong is currently working on a new series of works, which you can follow on his site.
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A Mirrored Ceiling and Gleaming Tile Floor Turn This Chinese Bookstore into an Immersive M.C. Escher-Style Illusion
X+Living is known for its deceptively designed Zhongshuge bookstores that mimic M.C. Escher woodcuts and trippy infinite spaces. The latest iteration is this dreamy location in Chengdu featuring bold archways, a reflective tile floor that makes the display tables appear like floating boats, and a mirror embedded in the ceiling to create a seemingly endless loop of stairways and shelving. Completed in 2020, Dujiangyan Zhongshuge has a cafe on the first floor, along with a children’s area occupied by a bamboo forest and pandas climbing the bookcases. In the rest of the two-story space, the uppermost shelves lining the winding walkways are covered in a decorative print, adding to the illusion of countless volumes and ensuring all 80,000 available titles are within a customer’s reach.
See more of the Zhongshuge locations, in addition to the Shanghai-based studio’s cinemas, family parks, and retail spaces, on its site.
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Traveling from his home in Tokyo to cities and small villages across Asia, Ryosuke Kosuge is adept at spotting the textures and patterns that occupy local life, whether through the rocky formations surrounding Heaven’s Gate Mountain in Zhangjiajie, an array of birdcages created by a woman in Guizhou, or the wires crisscrossing a market in Nanning. His arresting images approach everyday moments from a place of curiosity and display the beauty and wonder inherent in both natural and urban environments. The photographer, who works as RK, tells Colossal that he chooses destinations based on the specific mood he hopes to convey, although sometimes those decisions are spurred by a personal desire to experience local customs and cuisine.
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CHICAGO—Containing a massive paper wave, a tower of leftover fat, and a tiger-skin rug of 500,000 cigarettes, The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China encompasses 48 works from 26 contemporary Chinese artists in an exhibition on view now in Chicago. Focused on the materiality of seemingly every day objects, the exhibition prompted artists to explore how substances like tobacco, plastics, and Coca-Cola could be fashioned anew. “Taken together, the works introduce a broader framework for understanding global contemporary art, which I call ‘Material Art’ or caizhi yishu, where material—rather than image or style—is the paramount vehicle of aesthetic, political, and emotional expression,” said co-curator Wu Hung.
The Allure of Matter is an extension of a trend artists in China began in the 1980s as they experimented and “exploded fireworks into paintings, felted hair into gleaming flags, stretched pantyhose into monochromatic artworks, deconstructed old doors and windows to make sculptures, and even skillfully molded porcelain into gleaming black flames,” a statement about the exhibition says.
Today, artists involved in the project, like Ai Weiwei (previously), Hu Xiaoyuan, and Cai Guo-Qiang (previously), are engaging with that provocative tradition through their multi-media works that often fill entire rooms, like gu wenda‘s human hair structure that is suspended from the ceiling. “Their monumental works represent a multifaceted phenomenon that inspires us to ask big questions about our relationship to the everyday material world around us as well as the interrelationship between Chinese art and broader trends in contemporary art globally,” co-curator Orianna Cacchione said.
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Animator Siqi Song explores the deeply personal implications of China’s One Child Policy in her powerful animated short, SISTER. The film uses felt stop-motion animation to tell the story of a family that conceived two children during the years—1979 to 2015—that the Chinese government controlled the number of children families could raise. An adult man, the film’s protagonist, looks back on his youth and the complicated family dynamics among siblings and parents.
“Growing up with my brother has been a privilege and a bittersweet experience for me,” Song explains. She shares that, being an exception to the rule, she has been the subject of many questions from friends about the experience of growing up with a sibling. “I also want to tell the stories of my friends, who would’ve had a different life if their siblings were born,” says Song. “This film is dedicated to this group memory.”
The Los Angeles-based director and animator has worked on several of her own highly lauded shorts, as well as on the feature film Missing Link. Watch more of Song’s films on her website (where she also shares behind-the-scenes shots), and follow along with new projects on Instagram. (via Short of the Week)
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