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Is it plagiarism or is it ‘shanzhai’?

Yayoi Kusama and Random International are latest victims of China’s copycats

by Lisa Movius  |  4 November 2015
Is it plagiarism or is it ‘shanzhai’?
Random International’s Rain Room at Shanghai’s Yuz Museum in 2015: an unwelcome Chinese imitation popped up in a nearby shopping mall, pre-empting the Asian debut of the original installation. Image courtesy of Random International
In China the word “shanzhai”, which literally means mountain bandits, now means a creative hack of an original. Shanzhai mobile phones, fashion, cars and even art can be some of the most interesting examples of creativity found in China—but this is not the same as shameless piracy. A day before Random International’s Rain Room made its Asia debut at the Yuz Museum Shanghai on 29 August, a gaudy knock-off Rain Show opened in a downtown Shanghai luxury mall. That installation ran only for a week, but in malls in Shanghai and Beijing there are permanent “star rooms” resembling Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room.

The Shanghai Star Art Gallery opened its star room in April 2014, a month after Kusama’s blockbuster exhibition, A Dream I Dreamed, closed at the nearby Shanghai MoCA. When the Beijing Star Art Gallery opened that August, it featured another star room. The Japanese artist’s studio, which was unaware of their existence until contacted by The Art Newspaper, was considering its options as we went to press.

Different design concept?

“We are perfectly legal because we have received our own patent,” claims Liu Shenghui, the manager of Star Art Galleries. Liu says that the star rooms’ “design concept” is different because they feature different kinds of lights, and more of them, than Kusama’s work of art and they do not include a pool of water and viewing platform. Liu describes the installations as “funhouse mirrors”.

Star Art Galleries’ patent speaks to the particular difficulty of protecting artistic intellectual property in China. The southern Chinese town of Dafen has built an industry around painting reproductions of Western masterpieces and Chinese contemporary favourites, and most Chinese cities have similar centres making and selling fake paintings. Unauthorised copies of Zhan Wang’s silver scholar rocks dot sculpture parks and hotel lobbies, for example. Shanghai’s Power Station of Art’s current exhibition, Copyleft, focuses on copying versus appropriation and shanzhai in Chinese contemporary art (until 15 November).

In 2013, Zaha Hadid’s pebble-shaped design for Beijing’s Wangjing Soho was replicated, ahead of the original’s completion, in Chongqing. Recently, the oil town of Karamay in Xinjiang Province erected a statue that is almost identical to Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago. The British artist was shocked, calling it “blatant plagiarism”.

Keep it secret

Hannes Koch, one of Rain Room’s creators, found the phony Rain Show “hilarious”. He says: “You need to have a bit more of a forward-looking approach to it, and not just to whine about it, because I don’t think you can stop it, you just have to work with knock-offs in China.” Koch says that Random International had joked about the copycat Hadid building before coming to China. “We were, like, let’s keep all the images of the pump room super secret, so we can at least hope to not have a Rain Room copied before this one.”

Rain Show was installed in a tent at the Jing’an Kerry Centre from 28 August to 6 September. The tent bore the logo of Vogue China’s Fashion’s Night Out, an annual shopping event. A spokeswoman for Vogue China said the company’s logo was used without authorisation, constituting another layer of piracy.  

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