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In China, you can now visit the Eiffel Tower, grab fish and chips in an old English town, and even see the Manhattan skyline, all in replica form. The Chinese appetite for “copy towns” — developments that duplicate in detail buildings and sometimes whole towns from the West — is the focus of an ongoing documentation project by London artists Phil Thompson and Sebastian Acker.
Back in November and December of last year, they journeyed through the Chinese doppelgängers, from Hallstatt See, a clone of the Austrian UNESCO town of Hallstatt, down to its serene lake, to the remains of Wonderland, a Disneyworld-like amusement park where the abandoned remains of a facsimile of Cinderella’s Castle are surrounded by land now reclaimed by farmers. They’re using an Indiegogo campaign to help fund travels to the original sites in France, the UK, and other areas of Europe in order to create a dialogue through a book, film, and future exhibition between the original and the reflection.
Acker said there have been similar developments in Japan and other places, but it’s in China where it’s really a phenomenon: “There are many reasons. There is a newly-affluent middle class looking for models to showcase their newly found fortunes, and it seems like Mao’s classless society doesn’t provide many models for this. Also, the copy is seen very differently in Eastern philosophy, there is a long tradition of copying, and it’s not necessarily seen as inferior to the original like in Western culture.”
Both Acker and Thompson are recent Master’s grads of the Slade School of Fine Art in London and did much of the China-based work on a travel scholarship. They were initially inspired by the copying of Hallstatt, first reported by Der Spiegel, but found the popularity of copying went much deeper, to places like Dafen Oil Painting Village where iconic paintings from Renoir, Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Rothko, and other high dollar artists are mass produced and sold cheaply. They also saw Thames Town, something of a collage of old English locales, and witnessed not one, but two, Tower Bridges.
The adventurous artists even decided to stop by Beijing and talk to an artist who has made copying and authenticity an ongoing theme in his work — Ai Weiwei — by just knocking on his door, which Acker said was “easily identifiable by the many CCTV cameras pointing at it.” Acker said that Ai Weiwei told them that “architecture speaks the language of computers now, and they have three keys: copy, paste, delete.”