Copying and creativity: UMMA exhibit explores Asian tradition of artistic imitation
With the handsome "Copies and Invention in East Asia," the University of Michigan Museum of Art reaches into its impressive Asian collection to explore the eastern duplicative tradition that's been around since antiquity.
The show is up through Jan. 5.
It's an intriguing concept -- what in the west might be considered illegitimate or artistic plagiarism, in Korea, China and Japan often amounts to an exercise in perfectly respectable homage.
"Copying is the mother of creation," wrote the 20th-century Japanese literary critic Hideo Kobayashi in an intriguing observation you're unlikely to hear from a European or American. "It is the only true mother."
As the introductory panel explains, the show presents "copying, borrowing and appropriating as acts of imaginative interpretation, challenging our understanding of originality."
Indeed, copying simply emphasizes the "artistic value placed on the authority of the past in the arts of China," as Cary Y. Liu, curator of Asian art at the Princeton Art Museum noted for a similar exhibition in 2001.
Examples of this practice in "Copies and Invention" are wide-ranging, from miniature sets of lookalike household items buried with the dead to give comfort in the afterlife, to 20th-century Korean artist Chul Hyun Ahn's use of light and mirrors to create infinitely repetitive geometry.
Quite sensibly, UMMA Curator of Asian Art Natsu Oyobe, who organized the show, has hung Ahn's spellbinding "Two Circles" so that it faces the corridor outside the exhibition. Just see if you can walk by this luminous, ever-changing image, without being sucked in.
In some respects, this cultural tendency to replicate almost amounts to a form of industrial production. A good example is "One of the Hyakumanto (one million pagodas)" from the 8th century commissioned by the Empress Koken in 764.
Endless numbers of roughly identical pagodas were created, each housing a copy of a sacred Buddhist text, and distributed to temples across Japan. As the accompanying label notes, "It was an important example of mass production" -- and at a remarkably early date, at that.
Another, more familiar form of copying, involves ink rubbings of relief stones -- a bit like rubbings taken from gravestones in the west.
The linear "Rubbings of relief stones, Shrine Two of Wu Liang Mortuary," all housed in their own small gallery, are quite elegant in their black-and-white starkness.
The shrines honoring the Wu family were created in the first couple centuries of the last millennium. Since deserted, these tomb rubbings preserve the images as they originally appeared almost 900 years ago - a useful photocopy, if you will.
'Copies and Invention in East Asia'
Through Jan. 5
University of Michigan Museum of Art, 525 S. State, Ann Arbor
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat; noon-5 p.m. Sun.
Free (suggested $10 donation)