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Around the galleries

Passing it on - the art of Chinese whispers

— January 2015

Associated media

30 anonymous Chinese artists, variations on Warhol's Campbells Soup can (Wonton soup variety)

What happens when an artist copies another artist who copies another artist... Louis Byrne went to the Fine Arts Society to find out

‘How's the Red?’ I asked, expecting the attendant wine-waiter to spot my oblique reference to the People's Republic of China. He didn't! Maybe it was just too oblique. Or maybe it was because this gripping exhibition of the work of Rob and Nick Carter has, on the face of it, little to do with China other than being called ‘Chinese Whispers’. The phrase itself is risky; it’s now considered offensive and indeed racist, referring to the incomprehensibility of the Chinese language to those Western merchants keen to exploit China's eastern seaboard from the late 18th century.

Of course, to most of us it refers to the innocent children's party game where you quietly pass a message from one to another, then laugh loudly at the final muddled result. And there is humour in the outcome of the Carter's experiment with this mischievous premise. They commissioned artists in workshops in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, to produce copies of works from the oeuvre of Pop artist Andy Warhol. Each copy was then used by the next artist to produce yet another copy. As each successive artist produced their own copy, gradual changes occurred, resulting in a sequence of transitions that departed from the original with greater and greater variation. The majority of the works consist of 36 drawings, all individually framed, all monochrome, and all up for sale.

Using Warhol is itself interesting. Inevitably the choice of image is either a popular modern icon such as a Campbell's Soup can (Wonton soup in this instance!), a Coca Cola cap or a Five Dollar Bill; or a contemporary personality such as David Hockney or Paul McCartney. The latter's eventual reduction to a two dimensional blotch I found particularly satisfying!  Yet the whole experience is ultimately satisfying, entertaining and educational. Looking at art should never be a passive encounter, and as an exercise in looking at pictures a visit to Bond Street's Fine Arts Society to see this short running exhibition would be well worth it on this count alone.

The star of the show is the Last Supper. This mammoth spread of 50 variations occupies a wall space worthy of Picasso's Guernica. Seeking out the almost imperceptible differences from image to image draws you across the floor in a kind of dance, left to right then left to right again, unable to avoid glancing further into the sequence to see the level of abstraction that the final artists will ultimately reach. Here lay what I felt was the greatest contribution from the Chinese experience. China has for centuries valued the art of calligraphy, and more and more calligraphic flourishes appear in each Last Supper until at last at the centre of the final few copies appears the Chinese character for 'Woman'.

I suspect it’s here that the female contribution to the material production of these pictures may end: China has a long history of anonymous yet male art producers and none of the contributors to the Carter's project are identified as either male or female. Similarly the images are overtly masculine: motorbikes and cars, popular male celebrities, even Superman and the Playboy Bunny!

I'd hoped for some reference to Warhol's own visit to China in the 1980s and his magnificent portrait of Mao Zedong, whose inclusion would have brought about a sublime series of multiple reproductions by modern Chinese artists. I also wondered about artistic honesty; the Carter's are apparently interested in the notion of truth; each succeeding artist is mandated to produce 'the best possible copy'. I remember playing Chinese Whispers as a child and, I'll admit, as an adult too. Part of the fun was deliberately misrepresenting your neighbour's message...adding your own variation as you passed it on and enjoying the consequences. Even if this were the case with these artists, the results are still provocative, witty and occasionally disturbing: the Coca Cola cap worryingly retaining its integrity throughout its 35-step journey.

Rob and Nick Carter invited critical attention in 2013 with their curious exhibition titled ‘Transforming’, held at the same venue. Their perplexing copies of old oil paintings using modern visual technology, making Giorgione's Sleeping Venus wink back and Bosschaert's Dead Frog with Flies rot before your eyes, attracted interest at home and abroad. Pop up to the first floor and watch some of these in a three-hour loop should you have the time. Nevertheless if this exhibition shows a departure in 'technology and personal touch', as critic Sacha Craddock suggests, it must be welcomed as a successful one.


Louis Byrne
Open University, UK

Editor's notes

Chinese Whispers
Rob and Nick Carter
The Fine Arts Society: Contemporary
148 New Bond Street

Until 29 January 2015

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