Shaping Authorship

Sep 2018

Written by Letty Cole, edited by Saff Williams

It started with a group WhatsApp message; an image of the latest Tate exhibition poster, then another of the large-scale banners which frame the entrance of the museum. The poster artwork for the Tate’s new exhibition Shape of Light [1] featured our own work Equilibrium (2016) [2] in a photograph taken by London artist, Anthony Cairns [3]. The exhibition explores the relationship between photography and abstract art over the course of a hundred years, investigating the myriad influences and collaborations between the two art forms. On display is a broad spectrum of work, spanning everything from Man Ray and his fellow pioneers, to of-the-moment contemporary work. One of these featured artists is Anthony Cairns, who captures this intersection between the abstract and the photographic in his explorations of cities after dark. His harnessing of unconventional techniques (electronic ink, anyone?) results in ghostly, blurred plays on light and dark. Through his lens, our multi-bulbed light installation is transformed into an otherworldly orb that seems to fly through space. Ironically, a more literal take on our subjects of Equilibrium.

Whilst we were happy to have our work reimagined by another artist, the realisation that a piece by our studio had been prominently featured in an exhibition without us knowing felt a little surreal. We felt prompted to open up the conversation, and discuss the complex notions of borrowing and copying, inspiration and plagiarism, authorship and appropriation; ideas which feel more relevant now than ever.

The concept of appropriation, of taking one thing and repurposing it, was first seen in Picasso and Braque’s forays into collage [4], where various materials were mixed and matched to create their Cubist images. Dadaism and Pop Art soon followed, until Warhol’s legacy as a master of appropriation was firmly cemented. In his most famous works, like his Marilyn Monroe and Campbell Soup series [5], his use of existing images was validated by the new way in which he presented them, and the commentary on celebrity and commercialism that they made. The ‘ready-mades’ of Marcel Duchamp and his peers, most famously the white ceramic urinal titled Fountain [6] and satirically signed by the fake artist, R. Mutt, came as more challenging examples of appropriation. Duchamp’s work rejected aesthetic value completely, and instead asked the conceptual question, ‘what is art?’.

In the case of Fountain, it is the fact that he took the borrowed object out of context, and raised a philosophical debate using it, which transformed its original meaning. Crucially, it is this transformation of meaning which lies at the centre of plagiarism laws today. The question purported by Duchamp, ‘what is art?’, has made it increasingly easy for artists to use and modify the work of others all under the name of ‘art’. In the famously controversial case of 2013, Richard Prince was sued for his appropriation of another artist’s photographs [7], before the court ruled ‘fair use’ on the basis of his transformation of the images into artworks with new meanings and effects.

This is just one tip of many icebergs: the issue of appropriation is rife in the music and fashion industries, and, of course, in racial politics. Increasingly originality and authenticity are being challenged by the mass commodification of the modern world, and our ability to access infinite information at the click of a button. It has become nearly impossible for an artist to be the creator of an entirely new idea.

However, borrowing from others is not always a bad, or even a controversial thing. When the infamous art critic, Jerry Saltz, went on a Twitter rant last year, he outlined the necessity of taking and reusing artistic work. He wrote ‘Artists use materials. Images are materials…Anyone can take ANYTHING from me. YOU can publish MY work as YOURS; make $ from it; change it. Artists use materials. Writing is material.’ [8] At first, this argument sounds radical, until we remember that poor quality art (that is, art that does not add anything interesting to its sources) will be recognised as such, and will fail to garner respect.

In The Death of the Author [9], Roland Barthes describes how the idea that the author (or artist) is a creative genius, an inventor, is a relatively modern concept. Instead, like societies before our time, we could think of the author or artist as a performer: someone we can celebrate for their narrative flair, without thinking of them as a discoverer of new stories. When it comes to art, maybe it is not the content itself, but the way in which we present it (or perform it) which is most important. If this is the case, creativity is not lost. Instead it lies rather in the conception of original ideas, in new ways to make, interpret and reimagine them.

Walter Benjamin famously wrote about ‘aura’ [10]; an artwork’s unique ‘presence in time and space’, which ensures that the original form of the work has a value that cannot be transferred to reproductions. Our work Equilibrium will always retain its own ‘aura’, which has been shaped by the hours of careful design, planning, and construction that went into it, and the overall effect of the hundreds of glowing bulbs and copper rods that suspend these orbs of light in mid-air. The full force of the work can only be experienced in person. Therefore, whilst Anthony Cairn’s photograph is unable to reproduce any of Equilibrium’s own aura, instead his work has its own unique effect.

It is only when you consider that everything that we say, and even think, is inevitably influenced by many, many different sources, that we realise that this supposed loss of originality is not such a daunting thought. Our world is rich with inspiration; let’s not deny it, but instead work to harness it with collaboration and integrity.

‘Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art’ is open at the Tate Modern until 14 October 2018.

Acrylicize’s ‘Equilibrium’, 2016, can be found at Lacon House, London.

[1] Tate Modern, ‘Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art’, London, 2 May – 14 October 2018

[2] Acrylicize, Equilibrium (2016), copper rods, acrylic, LED

[3] Anthony Cairns, LDN5_051 (2017), silver gelatin print on aluminium

[4] Examples: Pablo Picasso, Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper (1913), printed papers and ink on paper; Georges Braque, Bouteille et instruments de musique, crayon (c.1910), charcoal and white chalk on collaged paper and corrugated cardboard

[5] Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych (1962), acrylic paint on canvas; Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), Synthetic polymer paint on thirty-two canvases

[6] Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917), Porcelain

[7] Cariou v. Prince, 714 F. 3d 694 (2d Cir. 2013) 

[8] https://www.instagram.com/p/BW1AtP6gRxi/?taken-by=jerrysaltz

[9] Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author, 1967

[10] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936