Reading Winnie Wong
's new book on image production in Dafen village will likely change the way you think about copying, China, and the relationship between them. Based on fieldwork that included artist interviews, studio visits, and participant observation alongside local officials, bosses, interpreters, foreign artists, buyers, and traders, Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade
(University of Chicago Press, 2014) takes readers into the production of images in a village in Shenzhen. After establishing what we're talking about when we talk about "copying" and "copies" in this context, Wong guides us through a series of media and spaces that collectively upend several assumptions that are often brought to understanding Dafen and its painters specifically, and copying and creativity in China more broadly. Indeed, understanding what Dafen painters are not
is a crucial first step toward understanding what is
happening in their work and home lives. Dafen painters, we learn, are not "especially unfree victims" of global capitalism or of totalitarian communism in a way that prevents them from making original and creative art. (In fact, Wong challenges us to think again about what and where "creativity" is, and how and by whom it is produced as a value.) Dafen painters do not work on a typical mass assembly-line. And their paintings are not simply "forgeries" of Western masterpieces. After coming to understand this, we learn about the painters and their work by visiting their workshops, reading about their life trajectories and the different sorts of training they receive, exploring propagandistic TV dramas and documentaries about them, and peering into some of the ways that artists working outside of Dafen (in Beijing, in Germany, in Amsterdam, and beyond) have understood and engaged with Dafen painting practices. It is an arresting and masterfully argued study and should be required reading for anyone interested in labor, art, and/or the history of authenticity and copying in modern China.