There is a considerable amount of porcelain held in major Dutch museums, brought back to Holland by the VOC during the colonial times. These collections consist of Chine de Commande, either souvenirs/trophies or everyday utensils that later acquired value as cultural relics, and most of them are now displayed for the public as ‘remarkable’ artifacts that narrate both a ‘history’ and an exotic culture.
Museums are the site where knowledge is filtered, consolidated and produced through a rigid regime of taxonomy, classification, esthetic and ideological investment and inculcation of the public. They occupy a central position in the assembly line of the production of knowledge and hence are specific locations of aesthetic power. The museological object and its representations effectively shape and domesticate our gaze in the invariably claustrophobic settings of natural history museums, historical museums, ethnological museums and museums of art.
Although, in a Lacanian sense, there is no existence that is not fetishistic, the museological object reflects an intense cultural fetishism deeply embedded in our cultural life. I am not speaking of fetishism in a sense that one grows fond of an object, rather the misrecognition of, and the gap between, what is perceived and what is there of an object. That leads us to the questions of an object’s value: the use value, the exchange value and the symbolic value, which can be equated with fetishistic value. Jean Baudrillard stated in his ‘Value’s Last Tango’, that ‘value becomes dissociated from its contents and begins to function alone, according to its very form’. According to Baudrillard an object’s circulation alone is enough to create a social horizon of value, and the ghostly presence of the phantom value will only be greater, even when its reference point is lost. These analyses are vital to our understanding of how an art object becomes a fetishistic object of exorbitant economic value, and how an ordinary object enters the order of museological things.
Authorial uniqueness is an invention of modern Western culture, not so much that an author is the unique creator in a human sense, but as the unique right to claim ownership of cultural products. The history of author’s rights moved from the king to the printer to the publisher, then from the publisher to the author. Copyright is now expected to protect the commercial interest of the author, which in turn guarantees the maximum profit for the market. Copyright and the commodification of cultural products, which are part of the logic of late capitalism, joined hand in hand, sustain the myth of authorial uniqueness.
What about the right to copy, so long as we regard all cultural products being the second nature of humanity, as ready-made?
What about our fundamental assumption that there is an inexorable distinction between the authentic and the counterfeit, the real and the fake? Aren’t they reversible and relative, once our signification system is breached? That is to say, just like money, the moment we stop assigning banknotes a representational value, the concept of authentic versus counterfeit becomes an irrelevance. That means, to reverse the logic, that the counterfeit disturbs the signifying system.
In this project I will research porcelain brought back by the VOC in the collection of one of the major museums in Holland. The research is a mining process in which the tolerance of the museological structure is put to a test. The research will include probing into historical meanings, cultural meanings, the ways the collection is managed, preserved and maintained, both culturally and technically, all of which will be used as part of the final installation. I will then commission a porcelain manufacturer in China to make a counterfeit version of the entire collection, in strict accordance to the technical specifications of the collection. Since the firing process naturally decreases clay moulds, the reproduction is 10% smaller than the original, thus the title ‘10% Shrinkage’. The original will be copied eight times and the each subsequent copy will be molded from the previous one in the chain. As a result the copies shrink eight times and take the form of a serial diminishing. The entire cycle, from mining the museum holdings, collecting the relevant data, the orders to supply, ends with the return of the fake – the shrunken objects. Here, reproduction is deliberately conceptualized as the counterfeit, so as to toy with the notions of authenticity and uniqueness. Ironically, these collections are largely missing true authors; either they are unrecorded or long since forgotten, so ‘ghost authors’ are projected to fill the authorless void. That is to say, the signifying system of cultural relics produces ‘imagined authors’, which is ‘a people’ or ‘a culture’. Another irony is that, in relative terms, the true authors are those who will make the shrunken counterfeit, given that, for over four-hundred years or so, the division of labor and work conditions in the Chinese porcelain industry has seen scarcely any change, and that centuries ago China de Commande were made by those whose offspring now carried on to make the shrunken counterfeit. This is the oscillating moment within the dialectic of the real and the fake.
(There are two reason that I want my counterfeits to focus on porcelain brought back by the VOC. First of all, the VOC was the first multinational firm that monopolized trades in the colonial Far East and therefore conditioned the cultural understanding alongside the flow of goods. After all, the VOC introduced the general public of ‘China’ as an image reified on the trophies or goods they brought back home. In that way an exotic culture came to be known by the masses; it is therefore not far fetched to state that the VOC’s mono-flow of goods created its own popular version of Orientalism, beyond the domain of academics. Second, the cross-border trade of these early days is clearly a historical precedence for the multi-national expansion of later years, as well as today’s globalization. Both points reflect the intricate relations between the past and the present: the reference to the VOC in this project evokes a sense of temporal return, in contrast to the spatial return of the counterfeit.)
The fake antiques will be installed in the dilapidated space of Museum De Lakenhal in Scheltema, along with the textual materials that denote meanings and interpretations of the original. The installation will mimic the technique and logic of a typical museum presentation.
Beyond the museum’s walls, outside the cozy familiarity of museal power structure, the Shrunken Objects narrate an alternative history, culture and their own identities, simultaneously as the fake and the real.
Ni Haifeng, February, 2007