The art of imitation


‘A bizarre, déjà vu knock-off haven’: Artists selling cut-price bootlegs of expensive works, using scrap materials, at the Frieze Art Fair sold out

IMITATION, SOME say, is the sincerest form of flattery.Just try telling that to an art dealer at Europe’s biggest contemporary art fair after a replica of a client’s painting has sold for peanuts.

Galway-based artist Jim Ricks was a key participant in a project at last week’s Frieze Art Fair in London that pushed the above cliche to its limit.

Amid the hullabaloo in Regent’s Park – the assembled art world aristocracy, the browsing billionaires, the elephantine sculptures, the wheeling and the dealing – Ricks and two other artists laboured to create cut-price versions of work for sale at the fair, armed with basic art supplies and unwanted scrap material.

Call it a statement on the unstable monetary value of art in 2009 if you like, but after a final day, everything-must-go liquidation sale, Copystand had sold out.

Copystand was envisaged by San Francisco-based artist Stephanie Syjuco. Her idea to “bootleg” works from the fair’s catalogue was sanctioned by Frieze Projects, a non-commercial wing of the larger event.

Copystand artists were given access to Frieze from the first day of hanging. After sneakily photographing work that interested them, they encamped in an open stall that was part-workshop, part-exhibition space.

Frieze amasses the biggest names in art under one roof, with prices that are notoriously exorbitant. While a Louise Bourgeois sculpture sold for $3.5 million, Syjuco charged no more than £500 for her rip-offs. As such, Copystand became a “bizarre, déjà vu knock-off haven”, Ricks says.

The Copystand art was cheap and it was cheeky, but not everyone was amused. These are tense times for those who buy and sell art. Last year was a black one for art dealers and gallerists, as the art market froze in the wake of global economic collapse.

And, though there is evidence of a rejuvenated market, few stalls at Frieze will have experienced the perfect sales record of Copystand.

Reaction to such blatant counterfeiting ranged from “cool disinterest to general enthusiasm”, Ricks says.

He did receive an unexpected visit from representatives of David Shrigley from the Copenhagen-based Galleri Nicolai Wallner as he was in the process of replication. They photographed Ricks’ work, bemused to learn how easy it was to clone the £4,000 original.

Meanwhile, Gavin Brown, a New York-based gallerist, having originally described his response to a Rirkrit Tiravanija replica by Ricks as “flat” in the Guardian, said his feelings on the project had “flatlined”, post-Frieze.

Copystand co-collaborator Claudia Djabbari made a gift of her copied miniature sculptures to some gallerists in order to assuage their concern.

Ricks made 15 pieces over the five days of the fair, copying “iconic” art that he either loved or hated. He used construction paper instead of metal to clone a Jim Lambie sculpture and swapped gold plating for paint to duplicate a Jürgen Drescher cardboard box work. Thousands of euro were often cut off the price of the art in the process.

Syjuco likened Copystand to visual karaoke, which is apt as Frieze-goers were soon approaching her with requests for pieces they’d like copied.

But Copystand was not merely an exercise in Warholian brazenness. The art Syjuco’s team produced also had an interpretive element, like a cover version of a popular song.

Ricks’ version of Tiravanija’s The Days of this Society is Numbered,for instance, became a subtle critique of Ireland after the boom. Tiravanija painted the alarmed title of the piece over pages from the New York Times, but Ricks shifted the context of the piece by intentionally using The Irish Timesas his backdrop.

“Part of the project was really about taking ownership of the pieces, making them your own. It’s adding a new layer,” Ricks says.

Tiravanija is renowned for his relational work and, ironically, some viewers mistook Ricks’ knock-off for an original. It sold almost as soon as it was hung for £399. (Tiravanija’s original version was, meanwhile, selling for $90,000.)

Despite the steep prices for much of the art outside of Copystand, many dealers left Frieze quietly satisfied. The fair opened to talk of 20 to 30 per cent markdowns on prices, but by the end, most sounded positive that order had been restored in the market.

“Listen, by no means was this the fair of 2006 or 2007, but it was many times better than 2008 and overall felt very good,” says Javier Peres, who runs the Peres Projects galleries in Los Angeles and Berlin. He added that artwork priced in the €50,000 range sold briskly, but he could not sell anything over €150,000.

Ricks, who came to Ireland just over four years ago to do a Master’s in Fine Art at the Burren College of Art and is former chairman of 126, Galway’s sole artist-led exhibition space, was certainly pleased. As an artist working largely in a non-commercial capacity, Ricks earned more at Frieze than he ever had from five days of work.

“I’ve never before been able to say that I had a lunch in the labourer’s tent of chips and vegetables and a dinner of caviar, champagne, truffles, gold flakes on cake and petits foursin the same day,” Ricks says.

Everything is relative in the art world.