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Two artists from London, Phil Thompson and Sebastian Acker, are in the process of making a film and a book about the current phenomenon of Chinese construction companies building entire replicas of Western towns. Some towns are complete replicas, whereas others pick and choose landmarks in order to create a fictional landscape. The production of these towns has been met with a mixed reaction from residents of the original places and the world’s press.
Over November and December last year Thompson and Acker visited China and documented several sites associated with copying. These included Thames Town (a replica of an English town), the Dafen Oil Painting Village (where masterpieces are copied on a mass scale), several miniature model worlds, and Halstatt See (a replica of the beautiful Austrian UNESCO town of Hallstatt). Having filmed three Eiffel Towers, two Tower Bridges, the Manhattan skyline twice and many other fake architectural versions the artists are now visiting the ‘original’ sites.
They are spending May travelling around the UK, then on to Paris and Austria. During this time they will interview many local politicians and residents. They conducted similar interviews in China, as well as interviewing the artist Ai Weiwei. All this research will be brought together within a film and book. The former will explore these towns visually with a voice-over narration discussing the socio-economic conditions that have led to this trend. The latter will be used to publish interviews and travel accounts.
Describing why these towns may be becoming popular now, the artists have stated:
The cultural landscape of China has undergone unprecedented change over the past 50 years. The transition from Maoist rule to modern day China has involved the relaxation of many laws, which has enabled China, and some of its population, to become very wealthy, very quickly. This, coupled with a huge influx of people into the urban environment, means that a huge amount of new housing needs to be built. The sudden ascension of millions of Chinese into middle- and upper-class lives means that they want a way to showcase their new found wealth. However, given China’s recent history it does not have a societal model for prosperity. So they have turned to the West for ways in which to display their new found fortunes. This adoption of Western styles may be an attempt to pick up an already established ready-made social attitude.
Both Acker and Thompson recently graduated from the Masters course at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, where they impressed their tutors with their plans to investigate the phenomena of copy towns within China. The pair were awarded the Duveen Travel Scholarship, a monetary prize reserved for artists who want to travel in order to make a body of work.
As well as filming the copied architecture, the artists want to engage with the local communities and get their opinions on the copies. When plans were announced that the copies were going to be produced, the media reported that many people were upset that their homes might be reproduced. Over time these feelings seem to have mellowed into the general view that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Although the artists are hoping to learn a lot on their trip, they are also hoping that the residents will be very keen to see the footage they collected in China, and that this reciprocal exchange could lead to some fascinating conversations about copy towns in general.
An Indiegogo campaign is currently running at http://igg.me/at/ackerthompson/x/3068607