In art an original is the exciting first form coming from the very hand of a particular artist. This original is somehow infused with the distinctive essence of that artist and it is coveted for its uniqueness while copies, no matter how close to the original, fall down on both these counts. Challenging these notions an exhibition by Mohammad Zeeshan, titled Original Copy of Original Copy of Copy Originals hosted by Sanat Initiative at Art Dubai, sparks debate on conventional opinion versus current viewer/buyer psychology surrounding originality.
Presenting three versions of each work — the original, the first copy and the second copy, with slight variations in each piece — the artist questioned: what defines an original piece of art? And a first copy? And a second copy? How does all this affect the value of a piece of art? How do ideas about ‘original’ and ‘copy’ affect buyers? What does a buyer ultimately want and why?
In a 1936 essay, cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote about how modes of technological reproduction were going to impact independent aesthetic experiences. Benjamin was writing about many processes such as etching, engraving and Greek founding and stamping, but his focus was mainly on the advent of photography and film in the early 20th century and on the distinction between the authentic original and its “copy.” He used the word “aura” to describe a set of features that justified an “origin.” The reproduced image, he argued, has no aura. It has been removed from its location within time and space. Reproducing images, he argued, was going to fundamentally change how people engaged with art.
An exhibition of Muhammad Zeeshan’s signature imagery of motifs reflects the subcontinent’s multicultural heritage
The anxiety that surrounded Benjamin’s writing on the loss of aura as a result of reproduction in 1935 is not dissimilar to the modern and postmodern debates around deliberate production and avid purchase of prints and multiples. It is perhaps Andy Warhol’s use of silkscreens that offered the most rigorous challenge to traditional definitions of originality. Warhol explored intrinsic multiplicity in the repetitive use of screens in his silkscreen paintings that he began to produce in 1962. He produced a series of works containing ongoing repetition of an image within single works. One of his most renowned examples is his ‘Marilyn Diptych’ (1962) which was based on a publicity photograph from the 1953 film Niagara. Warhol’s paintings of this time are excellent examples of multiple copies without an original. His method allowed for variations within the prints so that no two works were identical. Certainly, there is no aura surrounding the second or third print, but today public reaction to multiples is relative to how the contemporary viewer sensibility has evolved over the years.
In the West, during the ’80s and ’90s, dismantling the fiction of originality was a recurring theme, in which contemporary art and audiences are already sensitised to this occurrence. The ’80s was the iconic decade when artwork became a commodity and the artist, a brand. Today the originality and authenticity of the primary source ceases to be imperative in postmodernist art. Instead it is the recycled message which is constructed upon the unconscious memories and perceptions from the past that gives command to new perceptions and new perspectives of originality.
As an exhibition, Original Copy of Original Copy of Copy Originals falls within this postmodern structure. It is Zeeshan’s individual art expression and his reputation as an artist that propels this show. From an early start as a cinema board painter in Mirpurkhas to graduation from the National College of Arts (NCA), he is ranked among the top-tier mavericks that spearheaded the contemporary miniature revolution. Armed with a BFA in miniature painting from the NCA, his career incline has always been on the postmodern curve. Having garnered considerable international attention through art fairs, gallery and museum shows, his oeuvre now includes video, collage, drawing, installation and laser-cut and gouache on wasli, but his hallmark is still his delicate attention to detail and an ability to execute fine line work. His role as curator and educator adds to the multiplicity already inherent in him. When viewed through this prism his art takes on a brand-like quality and any product he produces, be it seconds and thirds of prints, becomes a Muhammad Zeeshan creation.
This exhibition is an assortment of subjects that characterise Zeeshan’s vast oeuvre. It represents his signature imagery of motifs and representations reflecting the multicultural heritage of the subcontinent. The marketable commodity aura associated with this art would sit well at Art Dubai because Dubai city is a successful trading hub and the fair reflects that business philosophy as well.
“Original Copy of Original Copy of Copy Originals” was exhibited at Art Dubai from March 21 to March 24, 2018
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 29th, 2018