One of the participants in Zhenhan Hao's "Imitation" project drew his own bedroom in the style of Van Gogh, an artist he imitates endlessly for clients who want cheap copies of the Post-Impressionist's work. (all images copyright Zhenhan Hao and used with permission)

One of the participants in Zhenhan Hao’s “Imitation” project drew his own bedroom in the style of Van Gogh, an artist he imitates endlessly for clients who want copies of the Post-Impressionist’s work. (all images copyright Zhenhan Hao and used with permission)

Zhenhan Hao’s “Imitation” project turns the tables on the Chinese artisans who normally create endless copies of art and crafts for global consumers. The China-born and London-based artist commissioned roughly a dozen artisans to create works that reflect their lives.

One artisan creates a painting of his own bedroom in the style of Van Gogh's "Bedroom in Arles" (1888). It is obviously not a slavish copy. (top image via Wikipedia, bottom images via Zhenhan Hao) (click to enlarge)

One artisan creates a painting of his own bedroom in the style of Van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles” (1888). It is obvious that this is no slavish copy. (top image via Wikipedia, bottom image via Zhenhan Hao) (click to enlarge)

For “Imitation,” he approached a shoe maker, who is normally tasked with imitating popular brands, to create a new pair that incorporates different design elements into something original. Working with the ceramic makers of Jingdezheng Village, which is famous for ceramic imitation ware, he asked the artisans to recreate pots using their imagination and asked them to decorate the objects with the materials of their daily life. He also commissioned paintings from the artisans of Dafen Village, which is renowned for its oil painting copies, and asked them to “reveal themselves in their paintings with the style they are familiar with.” The results, particularly of the paintings, are quite revealing, and they bring up the question of where the boundaries between artisan and artist lie and the role of creativity and, well, imitation.

I spoke to Zhenhan about the project to better understand his perspective on the differences between Chinese creativity and its Western variation he has encountered in the UK.

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A Rene Magritte specialist paints himself.

A Rene Magritte specialist paints himself.

Hrag Vartanian: First, where were you born? Where were you raised? Are you from London? How did you end up interested in Chinese imitators?

Zhenhan Hao: I was born and raised in Hei Long Jiang province, China. I studied industrial design for about four years in Beijing and I found myself tired of looking for and/or creating new design trends. Instead, I have been fascinated with something most designers hate, something ‘anti-design.’

The direct trigger for this project was the absurd story of ‘fake egg’ in China. I was shocked and amazed by the fact that a fake egg can be produced by using artificial materials, man-made chicken eggs sold as genuine eggs. Since then, I have focused my research on the topic of imitation and its relationship with the education system.


An imitation painter paints his studio in the style of 18th-century French artist Pierre Subleyras.

HV: What do you think the relationship between imitation and creativity is? That seems to be a focus of your project.

ZH: I think imitation and creativity are inseparable. We can hardly create anything one hundred percent original without directly or indirectly imitating existing practices. However, using imitation as a learning method or as a purpose makes a huge difference. My interventions aim to hack the process of singular imitating and copying process into a subconsciously creative process.

HV: You talk about “imitation creativity” embedded in the Chinese education system, but can you explain what that is? I’m not sure I understand what you mean in the Chinese context. How do you think that impacts a Chinese person’s relationship to creativity differently, if at all?

ZH: I use ‘imitating creativity’ to describe the character of the traditional imitation-based learning method. Strictly following the tradition with respect, this learning method is particularly good for inheritance and development. So people create amazing culture without breaking down the tradition as a purpose. Creating something new is not a must in this context, so it involves more personalities in the process of creating.

A De Chirico take on one artist's life.

A Giorgio de Chirico take on one artisan’s studio in Dafen Village, China.

HV: How did the people you commissioned to create the works feel about their tasks?

ZH: A few of them felt quite excited and happy to take this commission. While some of them demanded more information from me, others refused to make anything without precise blueprints. I expanded the brief a bit more every time I met them so they evolve the process every time, they subconsciously put more creativity and their own stories time by time.

HV: How much of “them” is in the work, and are they anything like you imagined?

ZH: There are different levels of their involvement; the commission for oil painting section demands more personal engagement from those artisan imitators. The content of all the oil paintings as achieved represents multiple faces of their own life. The commissions for ceramic, however, demand less from their personal life.

I can hardly imagine what they will do before they finish the work. I built a relationship with them and put trust into this relationship. Many people surprised me with their works. I am quite touched by their primitive but improvisational creativity.


An imitation artisan paints his studio in the style of Balthus.

HV: How did you feel you impacted the lives of those you commissioned? You talk about “expanding” their imitation creativity but what do you mean?

ZH: Those short-period interventions have limited impact on those artisan imitators in terms of their entire life and the system of the whole industry. One people can change a little but all of us together will make a difference. This project aims to have wider impact on the public. Like sowing seeds, I provoke discussions and alternative possibilities with my active research and interventions.

‘Expanding’ is my methodology: it demands of those involved to learn something new with the knowledge they have already known or are familiar with.

HV: You also tried to bring the Chinese model of imitation creativity to the UK, yes? How do you gauge the success of that experiment? How did the people in the UK react to it?

ZH: Yes, I tried to introduce the imitation culture of China to the UK in a form of drawing a perfect circle workshop. This workshop also serves as a performance to show how those painters and ceramic craftsmen learnt their skills.

I gauge the success with the level of participators’ involvement. It was a special experience for them to learn something seemingly absurd under Chinese discipline. Those participators from different countries were more willingly to share their own learning cultures and methods.

HV: Were there any surprises with this project?

ZH: Those artisan imitators surprised me many times. I think the bedroom in Van Gogh’s style surprised me the most. I love the detail in the painting copied from the famous Van Gogh’s original hung on his wall. You can actually see the profound influence of this painting on his life.

A Giorgio Morandi coypist renders the objects in his studio in the Italian Modernist's style.

A Giorgio Morandi coypist renders the objects in his studio in the Italian Modernist’s style.

HV: What are the advantages and disadvantages of the various types of “creativity” in your mind?

ZH: The character of creativity in Chinese context is more about inheritance and development of art and cultural tradition. In western countries creativity is more about challenging and breaking up tradition. For example, there wasn’t any period in the Chinese art history similar to the Dadaism opposing the art and cultural tradition at that time.

A detail of the Morandi-influences studio paintings.

A detail of the Morandi-influenced studio paintings

HV: What do you feel like you’ve learned from this project?

ZH: It’s funny that I think I have learnt to be a curator. Artisan imitators are an art piece and I created this situation to show their common experience and knowledge under a concept of imitation.

HV: I was wondering why you never included the names of the artisans in your project. Did any of them reveal themselves to also be working artists, or did they only view themselves as artisans?

ZH: In order to be honest and true to reality, I intended to find those people who work as a craftsman instead of an artist. That’s why I call them artisan imitators. While the works they produced were quite primitive, I’m particularly touched by their unpretentious style.

As for their names, there’s a cultural difference. In China, when people go to those ‘artisan imitators,’ you usually just call them ‘master’ or with their surname such as Master Wang or Master Lee. They don’t introduce themselves individually as who they are as they would rather know what they can do for you. So, in this context, following the norm as a ‘client’ or ‘customer’ interested in their work, I never asked their names but only called them Master.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

2 replies on “Commissioning Creativity from China’s ‘Artisan Imitators’”

  1. This is a really fascinating illustration of the different values wrt art in the East and West. On the one hand, imitation and the anonymity of the creator has long been respected in places like China, whereas the centrality of the individual holds sway in the West. I think we sometimes forget that a long period of imitation is necessary in order to break new ground…How many art students have had to copy a master work at some point? Thanks for this!

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