Arts feature

Why confront the ugly lie of Islamic State with a tacky fake?

In an age of advanced technologies, copying might not be a deviant variant, but the essential thing. But does that mean the beauty of Palmyra can be reproduced by robots?

28 May 2016

9:00 AM

28 May 2016

9:00 AM

There is fakery in the air. And maybe the French are done with deconstruction. A drone operated by a French archaeology consultant called Iconem has been languidly circling Palmyra, feeding back data about the rubble with a view to reconstructing the ruins and giving the finger to Daesh. Cocteau said he lies to tell the truth. Iconem flies to tell the truth.

In April, an exhibition called The Missing: Rebuilding the Past opened in New York which examined ‘creative means to protest preventable loss’. It was timed to coincide with the temporary erection of a frankly underwhelming two thirds-scale replica of the Palmyra Arch in Trafalgar Square, London. It goes to Times Square, New York, in September.

And opening today at the Venice Biennale is the V&A’s A World of Fragile Parts (until 27 November), which looks at how new technologies of scanning and additive manufacturing can help preserve — or give new life to — buildings and artefacts threatened or destroyed by environmental decay, the depredations of tourism or the nihilistic vandalism of fundamentalist whack-jobs.

They say that in our post-postmodern condition, nothing is new and everything is just a version of something else. And the V&A certainly has form in this quizzical arena: its stupendous 19th-century Cast Courts are a masterclass in cultural appropriation, imperial patronage and shameless repro. But when Victorian adventurers built wooden shuttering, poured plaster of Paris around Santiago’s Portico della Gloria and shipped the result back to Kensington, they did not ask the questions about purpose and authenticity we need to ask today.

There is a distinction between fake, copy and forgery, although sometimes that distinction is blurred, especially so with advanced technology. Certainly, advanced reproductive techniques have made real the theoretical musings of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Here, Benjamin wondered what actually constituted the value of a ‘work of art’. Was it a design that could be indefinitely and inexpensively reproduced, or was it something mystical that resided in the unique materials and surface effects of the original? Which is to say, is the beauty of the Palmyra Arch rooted in pitiably broken site-specific desert rubble, or can it be reproduced by data-driven robots in Italy and sent to London, New York and on to Dubai?

The enormous reproductive ability of industry has made ideas of copying central to art and design culture. The copy might not be a deviant variant, but the essential thing. What is mass-production if not the copying of an original design? The architect Philip Johnson said that he liked minimalism because it was ‘easy to copy’. Then there is Warhol with his knowing and clever exploitation of commercial print processes. And (Elaine) Sturtevant with her knowing and clever exploitation of Warhol himself.

Sturtevant, who insisted on her surname alone, as if she were a branded product, began copying Warhol in 1965. Getting in on the joke, Warhol even gave her one of his original silkscreen flatbed stencils to work with. And when asked how he made his pictures, Warhol said, ‘Ask Sturtevant.’ Meanwhile, Richard Prince began copying other people’s photographs in 1975. Thirty years later, at Christie’s in New York, his ‘Untitled Cowboy’ became the first photograph to sell for more than $1 million. Assumptions about authorship were violently disrupted.

Then there is the artist J.S.G. Boggs, who liked to make meticulous drawings of $100 bills and present them as payment in restaurants, further monetising his art by demanding change. Quite correctly, Boggs pointed out that ‘real’ money is itself a source of mystification since, in terms of liquidity, most banks are fraudulent. The authorities tolerated Boggs’s pranks until he switched his reproduction technique from drawing to a colour laser printer and the Philadelphia police busted him, although one’s bound to say that there is snobbery in this distinction. Old-fashioned drawing made Boggs an artist, newfangled lasers made him a counterfeiter.

Beneath all of this is an idea about authenticity, perhaps the most fugitive of notions. Nicky Haslam, who once dyed his pubic hair purple, quite correctly says, ‘The very idea of authenticity is a sham.’ Our responses are layered: copies aim to reproduce, but fakes aim to deceive. But sometimes, copies are superior to the original: Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who helped craft our understanding of the neoclassical — the ‘neo’ is important here — declared the Apollo Belvedere to be the ‘highest ideal of art’. And maybe he was correct, although he was also a little deceived: the statue Winckelmann admired was a Roman copy in marble of what had been a Greek bronze original. We can call it a re-edition.

The expert eye can often be fooled. In 1896, amid much clamour, the Louvre acquired the Tiara of Saitaphernes, a 3rd-century bc Scythian notable. It was soon found to be the work of one Israel Rouchomovsky of Odessa, a chancer who became a celebrity. But another faker, Hans van Meegeren, went to jail for his atrocious Vermeers. We look at van Meegeren’s ‘Christ at Emmaus’ today and are boggled by the fact that the credible art historian Abraham Bredius could write about the hideous picture, a gaudy travesty of the still and quiet Vermeer, so enthusiastically in the Burlington Magazine of 1937.

This was because Bredius was experiencing that phenomenon of taste being influenced by the cognitive part of the brain: he was told the painting was a Vermeer, so he adapted his judgments accordingly. The same phenomenon affects the wine trade where, at the top end, fakery is rife. Modern technology means labels can easily be reproduced: it’s not a culture that is policed. Thus, Sotheby’s wine expert Serena Sutcliffe estimated that perhaps 20 per cent of major private wine collections were fake bottles: if you have paid Pétrus prices for what’s in fact an Australian alcoholic fruit bomb, the cognitive parts of your brain will certainly be inclined to point your thinking in a certain direction.

Recent legislation means that designs of furniture and such are protected by a similar sort of copyright to that which protects literature. There will be no more unlicensed ‘Bauhaus’ chairs nor any Charles Eames knock-offs, although this is at odds with the original democratic design mentality. Whatever; the Chinese are beyond the reach of the law. You can buy a car called a Hongda, and Land Rover is concerned that if it reveals its new Defender too soon, copies will be available in China before exports begin from Solihull. And a fake Goldman Sachs was recently discovered in a Chinese province.

In the 19th century, the French Académie des Beaux-Arts thought copying was the second most important artistic discipline after life-drawing. It said nothing of ‘creativity’, which then counted for little. In American museums, there’s now a debate about how far restoration of modern paintings should go. The colour has bled from your Rothko: do you take it back to the original, falsifying the facts, or enjoy its state of contemporary decay?

Viollet-le-Duc’s architectural restorations (including Notre-Dame) were powered by his imagination. He did not seek to restore an original, but to use it as a starting point for an imaginative fantasy about the Middle Ages. Similarly, Thorvaldsen’s overenthusiastic ‘restoration’ of the Aegina marbles in the 1820s approached the condition of forgery. They were de-restored in the 1960s. If you’re looking for ‘truth’, the history of art is not a good place to start.

When it comes to the Palmyra Arch — what exactly are we restoring? There is no single, fixed, constant version of the past. It is always being rediscovered and that rediscovery is a creative adventure at least as speculative as dreams about the future. And often as wrong-headed.

Of course, every sentient being deplores the brainless destruction of the picturesque ruins described by the Comte de Volney and adored by Rose Macaulay, but patient restoration of Palmyra is as futile as correctly remembering an evaporating dream. Certainly, it’s gratifying to nullify the destructive work of Daesh’s explosives with drones and 3D printing and complex resins, but why confront the ugly lie of Islamic State with a tacky fake? There’s a nobility in ruins that technically perfect copies can never rediscover. Palmyra is a universal idea, not an archaeological site in the Syrian desert. The deplorable new ruins add to Palmyra’s meaning, a message written in the sand.

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  • Marathon-Youth

    The history of art is also the history of repair and restoration. Some examples include
    -The Roman Pieta of Michelangelo. Some madman took a hammer to the Pieta back in the 1960’s damaging her nose. It took a world of experts to repair that masterpiece.
    -“David” of Michelangelo. That statue suffered damage when its arm broke off while it was still in the Piazza. Michelangelo repaired it.
    -The ongoing repair and restoration of medieval paintings. that is a full time profession.
    Other examples include
    -Borobudur. That massive Buddhist Temple in Indonesia was literally taken apart and reassembled by the French.
    -Angkor Vat and Angkor Thom. The world’s largest religious building had to be rescued from dense forests and (again) restored to some of its original glory.
    -Pagan. That city in Myanmar of 20 miles of Buddhist Pagodas was rescued from dense Jungle and restored.
    -Parthenon. That central Greek Temple in Athens was rescued from a Muslim Sultanate and restored. The “Algine” marbles now remains in the British Museum. The adjoining temple that has “Caryatids” of Grecian women has been replaced with copies while the originals are in a museum.

    Yes we can rescue and repair what ISIS has damaged. The list above is only from the 20th century and does not include restoration work done by many civilizations for thousands of years.

  • Demolishing national cultural treasures is an integral part of a wider war doctrine – whatever helps to demoralised the “enemy” will be used. Uncounted “collateral” death of civilian population and destruction of civilian infrastructure including. Unfortunately suppression of the will power of the military opponents did not leave the war conflicts when open genocide of locals to grab their land stopped being an officially decleared aim of wars. Nagasaki and Dresden were bombed for that reason, so was Belgrade and Bagdade with Babilon. The ugly side of bombing and selling off Babylon during Iraq war was never covered by news properly.

    Bad guys do that, and “food” guys do that too. and when some strange guys do not do wars the same way, instead walking their wars by foot losening own soldiers lives to save other nations’ historical treasures and civilians, the “good” guys put their names to dirt by the ugly myths. These myths are also a big part of the “breaking the moral” tactics.

    Until the none military public stop being so widely unaware about the differences between good and bad ways to do the wars, nothing is going to change, I am afraid.

    • andylowings

      I feel there is some sense trying to come out here..but reading it three times left me still confused.

      • post_x_it

        It might help to know what language she wrote it in before she put it through Google Translate.

        • It might help to know that using “she” in presence of a person is bad manners in every culture and in every language. white supremacy preservation theme parks excluding, obviously.

  • Clare

    It needn’t be tacky if sensitively done. And leaving it in ruins is exactly what ISIS want.

    • Sargon the bone crusher

      Clare, that is not a sensible comment. You can do better.

      • paul dean

        Does that mean that Ypres should not have been rebuilt?

        • post_x_it

          Or Dresden, Hamburg, Warsaw….

          • paul dean

            London Coventry Liverpool Portsmouth Southampton.

          • post_x_it

            How much of these cities was rebuilt to look exactly as it did before the bombing (as was done with the ones I mentioned)?
            I was under the impression that the British approach was quite the opposite – to replace bombed-out Victorian terraces with brutalist concrete. But I’m happy to stand corrected.

          • paul dean

            Does not matter what approach. It is the way to fight evil.

          • Exactly the point I was making earlier. Nazis used military tactics of cultural and literate genocide where destroying cultural and civilian objects of enemy is part of the plan to lower the enemy moral. British and Americans used exactly the same tactics, in Dresden and Hiroshima. Modern NATO never dropped that tactics it bombing Belgrade, Bagdade, Babylon, Lybia, Syria, etc. then we got some strange Russians with 20 million dead after doing the ww2 by foot (clearly because they got no planes and no culture). The truth about ww2 and Cold War blatant lies about it, may just show us how approach to wars could be different. Cultivation of collective guilt concept with “all” Jews, Germans, Muslims, Russians, etc .. are….” is a natural back up for the cultural genocidal war tactics. When each nation is seen as a complex mix of good and bad and all cultural heritage is seen as joint treasure of all earthnations, one gets very inventive in how wars could be conducted in alternative way. And some trained military people die for buildings. Like thousands Russian soldiers died for buildings in Prague, which only few Czechs are prepared to tell you nowadays, while 70 % of Japanese youth think that were Russians who dropped nuke on them. None genocidal ways of conducting wars exist, but it means letting your own boys die for building built by another culture to lift the spirit of another nation. That can only be done if you fight for the best in all of humanity to win people over from within by buity, may be hundreds years after you died for that. That universal good never wins in real life, but some “idiots” never stop hoping.

  • Sargon the bone crusher

    The picture looks like the dream of Slough in the mind of John Betjeman.
    Come, friendly ISIS……………

    • Slough is a British temple of coherence. When Berkshire white supremacism get into my guts I go to Slough, just to watch people. I moved to Burnham 15 years ago from posh Ascot after I was told by Windsow & Maidenhead council that my top 5% in math and science but Russian born kid “will never study” in local comprehensive. Various white people in Ascot told me stories about horrible life next to coloured people across m4. But kids need schools and we moved. There were no planes over my head ever five minutes anymore. And wew neighbours brought new flowers complementing my accent thinking for some reason I am French. Parents of my son school mates valued garden dirt under my hail and playied little politics inviting me to BBQs to get me dating their friends to split them from “never seen without make up” local hairdressers. You know when you are loved for what you are. Their “bloody foreigner” is like sweet honey to my ears, when “I do not like immigrants, but..” produced by the rest of Berkshire is like meeting a cave man face to face in a jungle. Slough is an iceland of true values in an ocean of British snobism. It is in my heart for ever and I will write my poems about the treasures of human best which Slough hides in its depth for these who search for it. When you need real, go to Slough. People there got so much of it, they can comfort the whole world.

      • Sargon the bone crusher

        Anette, you sound a very nice person. I will visit Slough with different eyes in the future. Thank you.

        • It is hard to see what is the best in your own nation. A great Russian poet said – “something big can only be seen from a distance”. Brits are so proud and so into a search what is great about them, yet they never see their real treasures. Like any other nation really. Russians including. Only moving away can I see how obsessed Russians are with keeping their conscience alive in spite of the “wisdom” of Maslow pyramid, which the rest of the world long accepted as universal “human nature”. Well, it is, except – it does not work on Russians.

          • Sargon the bone crusher

            Thank you.

  • AdrianM

    The cradle of civilisation… only within the lexicon of human history, and that’s not saying much. Leave it alone, and see it as a work in progress.

  • andylowings

    There was no mention of Khalid Al Asaad in London for the display. For me, it came across as a hi-tech business opportunity masquerading as concern for Syria.

  • jeremy Morfey

    The replicas that are rebuilt are themselves an historic statement. They bear their own history, and should be seen in that context – the ancient building was destroyed, but to create it in its image is to make a modern statement.

    Two replicas come immediately to mind: The Old City / New City of Warsaw was rebuilt from 18th century plans that somehow survived the devastation, and were recreated faithfully over the next 35 years. I went there in 1979. What impressed me was that this was a modern city, not an ancient one – that was lost, but the design of it and the layout of it was delightful. It was Poland saying that Hitler could raze Warsaw to the ground, but the Poles would build it up again.

    The other is the bridge at Mostar in Bosnia, destroyed in 1993 and rebuilt after the war and opened by Prince Charles in 2004. The Ottoman era bridge was blown up, but the replica was its own statement that nobody had the right to stop by force the neighbourly and harmonious meeting of Christian and Muslim on either side of a river.

    When the temples at Palmyra are rebuilt, as they should be, we should consider with great respect why they are there – to honour the pre-Islamic heritage of Syria, and to provide a record of it in a beautiful setting. Ok, the temple to Baal is made by modern hands, but what better tribute to Baal than for this temple to be remade millennia after the original. Making it cheap printed out of resin rather ruins the tribute. it should be constructed by craftsmen out of stone, it should faithfully reproduce the imagery of the original and, perhaps most importantly, there should be an indication of its modern significance, of its destruction and its rebuilding.

    • paul dean

      Excellent well thought out reply. As they say ‘never let the buggers grind you down’ always rise above the evil doers .

  • enoch arden

    Architecture is a visual art. It is what you see. The rest is purely academic. We copy Greek statues. Why not the buildings?

    Fake is not an adequate term in this context because it refers to the market of artefacts. But for us who aren’t involved in these speculations it doesn’t matter if a statue is a copy if the copy is so good that only experts can see the difference.