From London, Macao is a long way to go to visit Venice. But it seemed like the right place to start a journey into the heart of architecture, design and copying. Here, on an artificial strip of land between Macao's north and south islands is the second-generation version of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation's Venetian hotel-casino concept.
The last time I was in real Venice, a friend simultaneously vacationing in the Vegas Venetian emailed me a picture of Vegas' St Mark's Square. As I stood in the original, my feet soaking in authentic flood and the rain falling from the night sky, the synchronicity of the two of us in the same place at the same time but separated by thousands of miles was both heartbreakingly intimate and also alienating.
Here in the Venetian Macao, I look up at its painted sky, a replica of a replica that recalls both Canaletto and postcard skies, and it's giving me a queasy feeling. The sky is frozen, the clouds static, the ceiling's shallow curve lit from deep reveals as though it were permanently dawn. But for all its artifice, it is studded with a grid of sprinklers, like the crosshairs on NASA's photos of the Moon landing. Like the Moon, this is a space that is distinct from earthly conditions, a place with its own atmosphere and time. And that queasy feeling is exactly why I came halfway round the world – to experience the disorienting sensation of normative ideas of authenticity unravelling.
I'm really here because of a hunch, expressed with far greater erudition by historian Stanislaus von Moos: "According to Filippo Marinetti, the author of the Futurist Manifesto (1909), gondolas are no more than 'rocking chairs for idiots'. One hundred years later, we must acknowledge that rather than being its opposite, the passatismo castigated by Marinetti is a powerful aspect of modernity." And, with that in mind, it's no surprise when a Venetian gondolier, while pumping the pedals that are propelling us, drops her Italian accent and tells us that she's from Essex.
That moment – riding in a fake gondola with a pretend Italian, on a canal that is supported above a huge gambling hall, surrounded by an approximation of Venice full of luxury retail on an artificial strip of land in an outpost of pure capitalism in China, in a confluence of engineering, design, political ideology and economics – seems to be an authentic expression of 21st-century culture. All this historical nostalgia seems, as von Moos suggests, a way to experience real modernity. No wonder I feel queasy.
A visit to Aedas, the Venetian Macao's Hong Kong-based architect, gives some insight to the historico-futurism involved in making this vast megastructure. They say that they used just three books on Venice as references and had no time to visit the city. All the complex layers of history and the effects of time that characterise Venetian gothic were modularised into a kit of parts reassembled to create a sense of difference. The architects tell us how Chinese craftsmen were trained to specialise in particular Venetian skills. But it's obvious that this is no scholarly remake.
But then, it's not the Venetian Macao's accuracy that I'm here to see, it is the way that it reveals von Moos' "powerful aspects of modernity": the Rialto Bridge remade, at what seems like a larger scale, over the road leading to the grand entrance; the parts where Venetian styling runs out and the big blank industrial structure starts; and the print-outs of Titians that are applied to the ceiling with lights cut into them.
On one of the Venetian Macao's retail promenades is a hoarding for a shop fit-out, showing an advert for a luxury watch brand. It's an image that reveals the full complexity of the hotel's historical-geographical-cultural collapse. A sophisticated European guy – the designer Alfredo Häberli – leans on a wall in the Barcelona Pavilion (which, remember, is already a reconstruction). The advert bends around a corner to follow the plan, making the 2D image feel more 3D (as well as warping the pictorial space of the Barcelona Pavilion with a diagonal, contradicting Mies' rectilinearity). The image is sliced to accommodate the real fake Venetian columns (columns that are rhetorical, non-structural). The scale and position of the photographic Barcelona Pavilion and the Venetian columns is close enough to set up a kind of oscillation between the two – as though they are operating as part of the same space.
Post-Macao, I head back to Hong Kong where I am greeted by more adverts. These ones say "Shop for Real: With the No Fakes sign you can be confident of getting genuine goods". The promised "realness" of genuine goods, though, is a complex issue. This poster talks to us as consumers, assuming that it is the genuine-ness of products and brands that we desire. The popularity of fake Rolexes, knock-off handbags and so on suggests that we are somewhat ambivalent. For the owners of brands though, fakes are a serious issue affecting their intellectual property rights.
credit Contrasts Gallery
Intellectual property laws protect the intangible assets of creative work by creating what amounts to intellectual capital. They are a means of privatising specific bodies of knowledge. This, it is argued, incentivises innovation by creating a monopoly that allows only the owner to exploit an invention.
Intellectual property is a function of economic ideology. It connects acts of creativity to concepts of ownership, to divisions between public and private that are familiar to the material world. Arguments as to these laws' legitimacy, their extents and the ways in which they control knowledge, the balance they create between supporting vested interests and protecting the results of intellectual labour, continue.
That Hong Kong advert, apparently aimed at consumers, also reads as a statement of support for a central plank of capitalism. Over the last 20 years, China has been investing in establishing its own intellectual property infrastructure. The creation of this legal apparatus is a necessary part of China's economic transformation, a means of promoting privatised forms of innovation. Not that you'd necessarily notice this as you head to Shenzhen from Hong Kong and pass through Luo Hu Commercial City, a mall full of knock-offs and pirate goods. This is one of three sites that help cement Shenzhen's reputation as the home of copying.
The second is the suburb of Dafen, more famously known as the "Oil Painting Village". Small units with names like "Post Modern Studio" and "Wholesale Abstract Painting" churn out vast quantities of paintings – real oil on real canvas. Walls inside and out are hung with bewildering displays. On the street, an excellent version of Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps is flanked by two small topiaried bushes; on a wall an Obama-Mao-baby triptych hangs alongside a display of mops. Further on, there is a Vermeer-Van Gogh-golf course combo. Inside, stacks of famous images are arranged in piles, according to quality and price. Here the history of art, copies of Time magazine and the works of an amateur painting circle exist rendered by the same hand, in the same media – the same brush working indiscriminately across this strange slice through image culture.
There is a rumour that Dafen has itself become a fake, that the real painting is now done in a giant industrial shed somewhere less picturesque. However kitsch, culturally fascinating or technically proficient they may be, Dafen's paintings represent a classical idea of copies. We know, just as in the Venetian, that we are not in the presence of an original.
But over at Shenzhen's third centre of copying, the SEG Electronic Market, something quite different is happening. SEG is a giant electronics mall, ten storeys high. Its lower levels sell components, and as you go higher, these parts assemble into products. It is the home of KIRFs, an acronym that stands for Keeping It Real Fake. These are things that look familiar but are somehow odd at the same time. Things like an iPhone that appears to run like a Game Boy. Or one that you can plug multiple SIM cards into, with a mini keyboard that slides out, and that you can watch TV on. Or a MacBook branded with Microsoft logos and sporting a promiscuous array of ports and slots. Or products that have yet to be invented: an Apple netbook, for example. The whiffs of solder that come from some of the booths and the screens full of scrolling code suggest that more of these hybrid products are being cooked up right now. KIRFs play fast and loose with intellectual property rights. But they are also more than copies – often full of innovation that outstrips the genuine article.
At Shanghai's Contrasts Gallery, owner Pearl Lam has established what amounts to a design research centre investigating the idea of copying. Its designers' works incorporate tendencies whose roots seem to connect both Dafen and KIRFs. Here, there are projects like Fake Chair by Danful Yang, in which a chair is formed from pieces of other chairs and upholstered with patches of pirate branded material. Maarten Baas' Chinese Objects Object presents what looks like a precarious pile of traditional Chinese bric-a-brac remade into a monolithic and fastidious wood carving. His Plastic Chair In Wood sees a ubiquitous injection-moulded garden chair remade with beautiful traditional craft. Other pieces, such as those of WOKMedia and Scot Laughton, explore the relationship between image, material and techniques of production in ways that suggest that copying isn't the dead end of culture, but an unexpected starting point for originality.
Copying poses economic threats when it infringes legally defined assets. But acts of copying that are completely legal can prove disturbing to our moral conception of creativity. The myth of creativity is embodied in the figure of the original, heroic genius artist. Copying within creative practice – especially in architecture and design – is seen as degraded and immoral. Yet copying also plays a role in the history of architecture and its founding myths. Greek temples were stone versions of wooden structures, Romans copied Greeks, the Renaissance copied both and so on. Each time, the iteration of an appropriated language allowed something new to be said. The history of architecture recalls the aphorism Barbara Kruger cut-and-pasted on to an image of a breastfeeding baby: "We are obliged to steal language."
The cover version and the mash-up are the default settings of contemporary culture. From genetic clones to The X Factor, everything that has happened is just a click away from revival. Copying is equally embedded into design practice through the tools we use, where Cut, Copy and Paste form an implicit keystroke mantra. Copying as the basis for a design culture can connect us both to historical traditions and directly to the heart of modernity. More than this, it can allow us to operate critically in relation to design ideologies. How, why and who copies determines the nature of the output: it's not what you steal, it's the way that you steal it.
image credit Sam Jacob