Winnie Wong is an art historian interested in fakes, forgeries, and questions of authorship. Her book, Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade is about the town of Dafen, which has been portrayed by Chinese and Western media as the epicenter of “fake art” in China. Van Gogh on Demand offers a surprising portrait of Dafen and its connection to the world of contemporary fine art.
She answered our questions about her book by email.
I’d like to start first by asking: How did Dafen first come across your radar? And when did you first visit the place?
I first heard about Dafen village through the New York Times front page article from 2005, but it presented such a cliche about China that I wasn’t very interested at all. But then I got a grant from the Social Science Research Council to do some preliminary research in Shenzhen, and when I went to visit the first for the first time in the summer of 2006, with the ethnographer Mary Ann O’Donnell and art historian Gu Yi, I was completely amazed by our first conversation with a Dafen painter. He asked us to compare Dafen village to Paris, and later told us that he believed Dafen village was nicer than Paris because their Mona Lisas were better! I thought that his comments held in it so many unexpected gems and ideas. Since then I have spent six years studying Dafen village, living in Shenzhen for a lot of that time, and I have found that almost every conversation I have had with the painters were just as illuminating and refreshing.
You mention that you initially went to Dafen with the ethnographer Mary Ann O’Donnell. I found it interesting that though you work in the field of art theory and criticism, you also used ethnographic methods in your research, working alongside the painters and dealers of Dafen. Is this unusual in the field of art theory?
There are a few reasons why I think ethnographic methods can really enrich the study of contemporary art. The first is that some of the most interesting artists working today are engaged with social phenomenon in very intricate ways. Many of them adopt the strategies of ethnographers, researchers, anthropologists, and engage with sites, communities, markets and a variety of social contexts.To take their work seriously, I think it’s important to engage with those very social realities they are engaged with too, and ethnographic methods can illuminate a great deal about the direction of contemporary art today. Van Gogh on Demand is as much a book about contemporary artists who engaged with Dafen Village — including Chinese artists like Liu Ding, Leung Meeping, and Song Dong–as it is about the painters of Dafen themselves. So in many ways, Van Gogh on Demand is actually ethnography of the encounter between those two art worlds: Dafen village, and global contemporary art.
The second reason why ethnographic methods was really important to this book is because Dafen village is situated in the city of Shenzhen. Shenzhen is one of the most fascinating and important cities in China, but its history is very young and it is constantly changing. The ethnographer Mary Ann O’Donnell, who has been an independent ethnographer of Shenzhen for more than 18 years, has taught me a lot about how to understand how complex Shenzhen is, and how much it is built by different individuals from all over China. As one scholar of Shenzhen, Jonathan Bach, said, Shenzhen is the “exception to the exception.” At the moment, I think ethnography is the best way of capturing that complexity.
When was the last time you were in Dafen? What’s it like these days? Is it as lively as ever?
I havn’t been there since October of 2012. But throughout my research, what the painters and bosses of Dafen always told me was that Dafen village is never as lively as in the past. This reminds me of what artists have always said about Greenwich Village, the East Village, Soho….for artists, bohemia is always in the past.
One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the one where you discover that Michael Wolf, a German photographer, had staged some of the photos he took of Dafen artists, photos that he had presented as documentary. Did you ever get a clear response from him, or from the gallerists who presented the work, about this? Does Wolf still claim those photos are documentary?
Yes, this is one of the most difficult questions I encountered while researching my book. In the chapter that discusses of Michael Wolf’s Dafen village project, I want to highlight the complex and hybrid position that documentary photography is situated in today. On the one hand, it is born out of photojournalism, which has specific journalistic ethics and protocols, even though the problem of “truth” in photography should always be understood as a complex matter. On the other hand, documentary photography is closely related to conceptual and performance art, which often uses photography in its presentation and exhibition, but makes less explicit or institutionalized truth-claims. I understand Michael Wolf’s Dafen village photographs to be situated perfectly in between these two positions. Readers should ask themselves, is it photojournalism? Is it conceptual art? And as with the painters of Dafen, how much of it depends on the artist/photographer’s self-presentation? Should we accept all artists’ statements and claims as a kind of performance art?
Were you always interested in questions about fakes, forgeries, and imitation? Or did that interest begin after you went to Dafen?
Yes, my research has largely been on fakes, forgeries, imitation and appropriation, whether in art or popular culture. By looking at the things deemed “fake” we can learn a lot about what’s counted as original and creative.
Winnie Wong’s Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade is available through Amazon.