British artist Phil Thompson has imagined a playful way to address issues of appropriation and ownership in the art world. The mind behind projects like "Getty Oil Paintings" and "Hallstatt, China" has taken to recreating the artworks he finds on Google Art Project -- an archive of over 45,000 works of art online.
Using the program, which functions much like the tech behemoth's other app, Google Street View, art admirers can traverse the halls of art museums from the confines of their own home, shifting the perspective at will. Except there's one hitch, or glitch, which Thompson's project "Copyrights" so cleverly points out. Because of legal restrictions, a number of the paintings have been censored; blurred like the faces of unsuspecting individuals caught off-guard by a roving Google car.
Thompson's project focuses not on the crystal clear images of uncensored artworks but instead on the blurry boxes that occupy a significant portion of Google Art's displays. In a stroke of comical genius, he sent screen shots of these particular images to Dafen Oil Painting Village in China, where the fuzzy aberrations were reappropriated by a group of professionals who will, pretty literally, reproduce just about anything.
We spoke to Thompson via email about his interesting project. Scroll down for the interview.
What about Google Art Project first caught your attention? Were you more intrigued by the artworks or by the manner in which they were displayed?
It was more the manner in which they were displayed. I am always interested by new online galleries and how they attempt to replicate (or not) the gallery space. The fact that the Google Art Project allows you to "walk" around these spaces was such a bizarre decision; in trying to make it seem more real they have just succeeded in highlighting the differences. It is a perfect example of the uncanny valley.
How did you develop the idea of sending Google Art Project's blurred images to a Dafen Oil Painting Village in China?
I had heard about the Dafen Painting Village a few weeks before the Google Art Project was launched. It seemed like the perfect way to turn these copies that only existed online into "originals." I wanted to reverse the process, turning the copy into an original and getting the Dafen painters to paint them made perfect sense as they normally only deal in painting replicas.
How much of this project is meant to be light-hearted and how much is meant to bring up an important issue in the art world -- appropriation?
The project is obviously slightly absurd, but I think the absurdity comes from the inclusion of these blurs in the Google Art Project –- I merely emphasise that fact. But by trying so hard to replicate the original experience I think Google has shown that the distinction between copy and original is increasingly becoming blurred. This issue is especially relevant with digital works, as many people believe the original and copy to be the same thing. However many of these works are intended to be viewed in specific ways and in certain formats.
In your other projects -- works like "Getty Oil Paintings" and "Hallstatt, China" -- you continue to explore themes of ownership and appropriation. Where do you personally fall on the issue? Can one artist really own an image?
I think nowadays that is a very difficult thing. The internet makes images freely available (whether they are protected or not). The two examples you mention are both debatable in their ownership anyway. The paintings documented by Getty are no longer protected under intellectual property law, and the town of Hallstatt has been copied in China due to the Chinese not having specific copyright laws on architecture. But overall I think the way in which people use images and text online, through reblogging, and copy and pasting, has led to different understandings of "ownership."
You seem to have a special fascination with Chinese labor. Why?
My interest in China lies with the fact that they have a different attitude to copying than the West. This can be seen in the Dafen Oil Painting Village, as well as in "shanzhai" culture and the trend of copy towns.
How do you see the future of appropriation in the arts changing? How can we expect new digital advancements -- like Google Art Project -- to affect this future?
The digital age has done a lot to blur the lines between original and copy. It can be argued that the distinction no longer exists with digital files. I think production and exhibition are now converging around the same digital formats -– many works are now made to be viewed online. Plus lots of artists are now very aware that their work will be disseminated and altered online -- artists now know that there is no final version of their work, instead it can spawn endless reproductions. Artists such as Artie Vierkant, Ben Schumacher and Oliver Laric deal with this issue very successfully within their work.
Finally, are you a fan of Google Art Project's desire to bring art to the people? Or, similarly, the endeavors of sites like Artsy?
I admire their attempt at attempting to democratise art and make it available to people no matter where they are geographically.
The fact that the Google Art Project sticks to existing physical gallery curations is both the best and worst thing about it. On the one hand it allows the users to know the location of the actual artwork so that they can visit it in person if they so desire, but on the other hand it limits the suggested readings of works to just one preset narrative. I am not as familiar with Artsy, but it seems to allow much more variations in experiences. I actually think that Tumblr is a great way of experiencing reproductions, it allows each user to curate their own page and mix content from every possible source, not just the arts.
Phil Thompson's solo show will open at XPO Gallery in Paris on November 21, 2013.