On Saturday, November 22, MoMA presents the one-day studio course Creative Appropriation with Artist Michael Mandiberg. Below, the artist discusses his work and some of the issues around appropriation.
Much of my work appropriates other images, text, and objects. Appropriation is a way to experiment with images and objects by shifting the context around them, and reframe their meaning in the process. An image has a certain meaning, given its place in popular culture, the news, etc., but when it is reworked or remixed in an artwork it takes on a new meaning, challenging the exact nature of how images are produced and disseminated in a commercial context. The artist’s challenge is to marry just the right image with the perfect move that recontextualizes the image and, in turn, changes its meaning. Some of these moves include framing, repetition, enlargement, translation across mediums, and accumulation. MoMA’s collection is rich with examples of appropriation—just look at Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel—as is the Sturtevant: Double Trouble exhibition.
In my 2001 work AfterSherrieLevine.com, I reproduced Sherrie Levine’s reproductions of Walker Evans’s famed photographs of an impoverished American family during the Great Depression. Levine’s 1979 works called into question how these photographs in themselves appropriated a social problem, assigning it an aesthetic value and, in turn, a marketability. Levine’s appropriation is also a commentary on male dominance over historical narratives and the art-historical canon.
On AfterSherrieLevine.com, I uploaded high-resolution scans of the same set of images that Sherrie Levine photographed, from the same edition of Evans’s First and Last catalogue that Levine worked from. Next to these print-ready images I provided a certificate of authenticity for each image. This certificate could be printed and signed by whoever chose to print the image, and included directions on how to frame the image so that it would fulfill the requirements of the certificate. Whereas a certificate of authenticity is conventionally used to preserve the economic value of an art object through a limited edition, here the certificate is used to create an art object that accrues cultural value by negotiating art history and theory, yet which has little or no economic value. Through these images’ availability on the Internet, I was asking questions about how we interact with and create new value systems for images in the digital realm. I was, essentially, open-sourcing the images, returning them to the public domain.
In 2005, I traveled to China for a research trip to the Dafen Painting Village in Shenzhen. Artists working in the painting factories in Dafen primarily create paintings based on photographs or replicas of paintings on commission. Sixteen years after the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, I commissioned artists from Dafen to create paintings of the iconic “Tank Man” image of a student boldly facing a line of armored tanks, an image that became an international symbol of the fight for individual liberty as well as peaceful protest against a repressive government. I learned that under Chinese censorship, this image was virtually unknown, and inaccessible even through a deep Internet search. Of the dozen requests I sent, most were returned with a price and the universal salutation, “It is a pleasure to do business with you.” A few painters suggested I just leave the man and the lamppost out, often for unclear reasons: political or aesthetic? Only one person refused to paint the image.
The paintings are titled with snippets from the painting factories’ responses to my request. The various reinterpretations that resulted show the possibilities for image manipulation and recontextualization. Even when the image may not be recognized as a symbol of defiance, its imagery becomes powerful enough to suggest it. These paintings trace both the political and cultural repression surrounding this image, as well as the transformation of China into a global factory concerned only with the bottom line. The paintings raise questions like: Who has authorship over the content of a painting if it is a reproduction? How does the meaning of an image change through the process of its replication? How can the act of recontextualization inform the social and political contexts for which images are deemed appropriate in the public sphere? For me, these paintings became a quiet memorial, and an attempt to reseed this image of strength in the face of threats to humanity, tyranny, and the freedom of information.
Join me for my artist-led class on Creative Appropriation on November 22. We’ll focus on the exhibition Sturtevant: Double Trouble, explore key examples of appropriation and found art from MoMA’s collection, and look at examples of digital appropriation. Then I will challenge the participants to make their own appropriations from found digital materials by reducing or accumulating, contextualizing or decontextualizing, screenshots and animated .gifs.