Artistic appropriation is nothing new. Nor, for that matter, is talking about artistic appropriation. Anything that can possibly be said about the subject of creative copyright feels as though it has been said a hundred times before. (The irony, of course, is entirely appropriate.)
But Oliver Laric — a Berlin-based Austrian artist who has, for a few years now, made a small side career out of art that grapples with the theme of artistic theft — somehow manages to make the whole thing interesting again.
That’s because Laric is looking at the subject of intellectual property from many angles. On view in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s Black Box theater, Laric’s video “Versions” questions the very idea of fakery vs. originality, along with the notions of parody, creative homage, bootlegging, recycling, decay and repair, uniqueness, authorship, multiple editions and the multiverse, a concept as rooted in quantum physics as it is in science fiction (or, for that matter, philosophy). It’s a head trip — more meditative than argumentative — but well worth the journey.
“Versions” is actually two parts of a larger ongoing video-art project. Made in 2010 and 2012, the two works are screened on opposite walls here, in alternating sections of a few minutes each. You watch a bit of one video, then turn around as another one begins behind you, before turning back to watch the screen you started on, and so on. Shown in a continuous loop, the 15-minute program has no beginning or end. It’s easy — and not entirely unpleasant — to get lost in the ping-and-pong effect of the images.
You’ll see a cavalcade of still pictures and video, often featuring side-by-side comparisons of two related things. Drawings from Japanese manga about basketball players, for example, are paired with photographs of NBA athletes that the comics seem, quite unequivocally, to have been copied from. At other times, there are examples of figurative sculpture from classical antiquity, with a single pose replicated over and over in different sculptures.
The narration — by a woman whose British-accented voice deliberately mimics the stilted, computer-generated diction of a GPS device — offers up a series of thematically related sound bites. The snippets range from those repeated so often as to have become banal (“There is no there there”) to the poetic (“The hyphen is a silence made audible, that marked or unmarked space that both binds and divides”). Culled from sources both lowbrow and highbrow, the statements are never identified by author, although some — e.g., “It’s the real thing” — will certainly be familiar.
What’s most intriguing about “Versions” is the difficulty it presents in identifying a single point of view. There is no clear disparagement of copying; rather, Laric’s work seems to embrace the idea that imitation — in addition to being the sincerest form of flattery — has been around as long as invention. A case in point, presented without identification, like everything else in Laric’s video, is the Ise Shrine, a well-known tourist attraction in Japan. The iconic temple, in accordance with Shinto tradition, has been rebuilt, from scratch, every 20 years since its construction in the year 690. Though revered as historic, it is never more than two decades old.
The Hirshhorn is a particularly apt venue for “Versions.” Watching it, I couldn’t help but recall one of my favorite works from the museum’s collection: Martial Raysse’s “Made in Japan” (which consists of a photocopy of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s “Odalisque” from the Louvre, only with plastic flies glued to the subject’s naked rump). Laric’s video also features photos of Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture “Burghers of Calais,” a dozen casts of which exist around the world, including one at the Hirshhorn.
How is digital piracy of the kind we see with increasing frequency different from Raysse’s fair use (as satire) or Rodin’s authorized reproductions of his own art? “Versions” muddies the waters in a fascinating way. It’s not for those seeking answers but for those willing to entertain more questions.
One of the most uncanny side-by-side comparisons in “Versions” features short, animated sequences from two Disney movies: “The Jungle Book” (1967) and “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” (1977). In the later film, Christopher Robin is shown mirroring the movements of “The Jungle Book’s” Mowgli to a T as they each throw a pebble and climb a tree.
There’s nothing nefarious or accidental about the copycat choreography. To save money, Disney, like many animation studios, often reworked scenes from earlier films through a process in which stock footage of action could be traced, frame by frame. Called rotoscoping, the technique was invented all the way back in 1915.
— Michael O'Sullivan