Tag Archives: eddie colla

Twilight’s Last Gleaming – Print series release

5 print set

5- 11×14 inch (28 x 36cm)

Archival pigment print on 300 gr Moab Entrada Rag Matte Fine Art Paper

edition size 50

Signed and numbered

Available HERE

It had become increasingly important to me, to make a piece about 2020. Why? That’s a tricky question. Maybe as proof, simply that I was here or perhaps, as some self imposed obligation I feel. An arcane idea that because I chose to be an artist it is my responsibility to add my perspective to things of cultural and historical significance. To chime in, as it were. That’s reportage though; witness and record, and it was of little interest to me. It seemed pointless, gratuitous even. After all, what could I add to the analysis of political pundits, scientists, activists, and a cacophony of opinionated social media users? “Nothing.” I thought.

My defeatist, uninspired answer actually angered me. It became a mirror of what the past 10 months had done to me. An unflattering mirror, far removed from who I thought I was. Like the aging man who steps out of the shower one morning and sees himself, not his idea of himself, nor a memory of himself, his current self. Unadorned. As if 15 years of aging had slowly crept up on him unnoticed and then all at once presented themselves in a chorus of diminishing returns. Just as age will steal your youth, this year had stolen my faith, perhaps even my voice. I had nothing to add to the conversation.

Sometime in November I began searching through my hard drive for an image I had misplaced. I don’t remember what image, and it isn’t important. What is significant is what happened as I searched. Image after image I began to see things I had made, in some cases over a decade ago, that reflected what I was reading and seeing in the news everyday. Two thousand and twenty was a year that disoriented even the most even keeled of us. Many of our assumptions about the world were called into question, and yet, for anyone paying attention it was all quite predictable. Inevitable even. There, on my hard drive, were images that I had made between 2009 and 2018 that felt like they were about exactly what was happening.

Images are not static things, they change, as we change. Chances are if you haven’t looked at something for a few years or a decade, when you see it again it will be with fresh eyes. The world will have changed, you will have changed and thus your perception will have changed. This, I found interesting.

Upon recollecting how these images started for me, I remember researching possible causes of apocalyptic events. It was 2011 and Hugh Leeman, D Young V, and I, had agreed to do an exhibit in Los Angeles scheduled for 2012. 2012 was predicted by the Mayans to be the end of the world. Hugh, D, and I, thought that would be an interesting theme; the world after. We created an installation titled: “Epilogue”. What’s significant here is the research. The most common theory I came across regarding apocalyptic events wasn’t a comet smashing into earth or a multi-national nuclear war. It was something quieter, invisible almost, it was an airborne respiratory virus with a high level of transmission. When the initial reports from Wuhan started making there way to the New York Times, after New years Day 2020, I distinctly remember my reaction. Fuck.

In May, when George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, I would be lying to tell you I was shocked. Angry? Yes. Despondent? Absolutely. Surprised? How could I be. We live in a country where it is necessary to have a group called Black Lives Matter. Was that not among the truths we hold to be self-evident? Racism in the united states is a disease that has been left untreated for 400 years to fester. We keep treating it like the flu, in that, we think a few minor remedies will lessen the symptoms in the short term and it will eventually self resolve. It won’t. Racism is the actual plague of this nation and presents an existential threat. Until we as a nation, reconcile that, deal with it and address it, our full potential will never be realized.

In my adult life, from Rodney King to George Floyd I have witnessed a steady increase in both frequency and severity of police violence against African Americans. The civil unrest that follows are not simply predictable, they are necessary. Demonstrations of outrage are necessary. They represent the frayed cords that are the remaining ties to our best aspirations as a nation. Their absence would be the final breath of the great experiment, and it’s concluding failure. From 2015 til today the nation has had a race-baiting candidate and then president at the helm of the Republican party. Race baiting politicians only win votes in a racist nation. Donald Trump is the empirical proof that we live in a racist nation, (for anyone who actually had doubts). His racism is no more real than his tan, or his hair, or his marriage. It is mostly for appearances, and the appearance of racism only appeals to a racist constituency. To a man like Trump, racism is American currency and currency is power.

In the summer of 1997, I was on a bus with the Backstreet Boys driving around Oklahoma City. I was on a magazine assignment to photograph them. Nick Carter and A.J. McLean wanted to go to the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building. This was the building Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed on April 19, 1995, killing 168 fellow American citizens. The victims ranged in age from 3 months to 73 years old. 19 were children and 3 were pregnant women. The bombing was the first I had heard of militia groups, or the phrase domestic terrorism. The building had been demolished 2 years earlier. Now there was simply a chain linked fence around the area. On that fence people had posted photos, memorials, teddy bears… Back on the bus everyone was quiet. I’ve thought back to that moment over the years. I don’t know what the backstreet boys were thinking, I, however felt like the concept of war was forever changed. We were the enemy. Ourselves. Some alienated, damaged part of our collective, lacking the vocabulary to express their disaffection. Like some of the least persuasive people I’ve ever met, they had found the language of force. Force completely strips a gesture of it’s meaning. There is only meaning in choice and free will. There is only respect, love, and compassion in choices. Because choices are the things we want to be, not the things we need to be.

This was a new era. This was the national equivalent of an auto immune disorder. The body of our nation had begun to attack itself. So in May of 2020, when armed militia stormed the state building in Lansing Michigan, or in October when the Wolverine watchmen, a group that had met with McVeigh prior to the Oklahoma city bombing, had been charge with a plot to kidnap the Governor of Michigan one could hardly be surprised.

Only weeks earlier President Trump had intentionally encouraged and emboldened these groups when he tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.” To me the word liberate sets off an alarm when I hear it leave a leader’s lips. More often than not what it calls for, in actionable terms, is the antithesis of liberation. It is sometimes simply a call to quell dissent. Painting oneself as the defender of freedom and the opposition as an existential threat to freedom itself. Other times it is the self righteous and indignant facade that attempts to hide a nefarious plan. In this case it was the left hand of the magician pointing and waving a handkerchief while the right hand went unnoticed.

The specter of autocratic rule resides in the collective unconscious of all free people. This is what makes it potentially, such a dangerous tool. It enlists everyone. On the one side are those convinced that those in power are defending against our demise. On the other side are those convinced this nationalist movement is in fact the very thing it purports to be defending against; over-reaching autocratic rule. These scenarios present this curious contradiction. They divide people by allegiance and at the same time they engage the entire population, mostly in panic. That’s when the shit show begins. Dr. King said that “a riot is the language of the unheard” and that rings true. Let’s also consider how “riot” is simply a fear inducing word choice for freedom of assembly. It is not dissimilar to the way the word “socialism”, in this country, has become synonymous with communism. So while this president had decided that social distancing and mask wearing were an erosion of your constitutional rights, rather then a temporary public health measure. Fast forward to June 1st at Lafayette Square in Washington D.C., where the same man, decided to clear peaceful protestors, exercising their 1st amendment rights, by use of force and chemical weapons. What ensued was called a riot. If it weren’t so devastating and dangerous it would almost be comical how often American police physically attack peaceful demonstrators, and when those demonstrators act in self defense they call it a riot. All the more heinous was the reason for clearing the square. The most profane president in our history wanted a picture of himself in front of a building he’d never been to (a church) holding a book he’d never read (the bible).

There are people who believe that a president who has ruled primarily through executive order, sidestepping the process of political discourse, is the defender of your civil liberties. Mostly because he has said so. There are also many people who believe the United States is the greatest nation in the world, mostly because it has claimed to be. There are also the rest of us, which on most days, account for a majority. Some believe you can simply fire rubber bullets and tear gas dissent into submission, without retribution. That seems unlikely. When I see a person, who has been beaten by police, in the absence of recourse, toss a molotov cocktail at the same police, I understand that. That is not a difficult dynamic to comprehend. I don’t necessarily condone it, but I am not surprised by it either. When I see people who are refused their rights and refused representation and they turn up day after day and demand those rights and demand representation, I can only applaud them. Freedom is a funny wheel. Once it has rolled forward It requires 10 times the force to roll backwards. Anyone who aspires to that sort of reversal had better come prepared to reconsider. I suspect we will come out of this year with our democracy dented and scraped but mostly in tact. I would attribute that, not to it’s durability entirely, but more to the sheer incompetence on the part of this administration. A better prepared, more experienced group of autocrats may have made more headway.

Much of my work is about alienation and disconnection. Specifically the type that happens when people feel threatened by their immediate surroundings. 14 years ago I was talked into going to see a movie starring Al Gore. Not exactly known for his charisma, Al Gore was a tough sell. If my memory serves me, I was trying to appease a girlfriend and agreed to go see “an inconvenient truth”. I walked out of that theatre with the knowledge of a new (to me) concept; Climate change. Climate change and the existential crisis it represents would become a big part of the global conversation over the following decade. That film would be a source that inspired me to begin using surgical masks in my images, a barrier between our own physiology and the outside world. The need to protect ourselves from the natural world around us brought me back to that day on the bus with the Backstreet boys, again, we had become our own worst enemy. Like those men from Michigan, the environment had become hostile towards us, and threatened our physical well being. The chickens were coming home to roost in both scenarios and again my reaction was the same as it was to the news coming out of Wuhan in January 2020. “Fuck”.

2020 saw a record breaking season of destruction both in the form of wildfires in the west and hurricanes in the east. Unsurprisingly, it was a consequence Al Gore had describe 14 years ago. Who, I wondered, was surprised? In March of 2020 I had a dream. In the dream the pandemic had paralyzed the world and Hurricanes battered the east coast as wildfires tore through California. I woke up with my heart pounding. I thought “Shit. What if it all starts to unravel simultaneously?’ The dream wasn’t a fear dream, like when I am trapped on a scaffold outside the 38th floor of a building and my fear of heights is in full swing. Rather it is what I call a “consequence” dream. To me these dreams are the result of some ignored or postponed anxiety. Maybe one morning you notice a suspicious mole on your shoulder. You think, “hmm, maybe I should get that checked out” but you don’t, you forget about it. 2 years later you have a dream that you’re in a doctor’s office being diagnosed with skin cancer and the doctor is asking why you didn’t have this checked out sooner. These dreams are an acknowledgement of negligence. For me, 2020 has been a consequence dream, the predictable outcome of negligence, without the respite of waking.

The piece I created is called: “The Twilight’s last Gleaming”. It is a series of 5 images I made between 2009 and 2018. That they were made prior to 2020 was necessary to demonstrate that this past year was not an apparition but a predictable consequence of negligence. It was important to me that the number of images be an odd number. There needed to be room for, not only a left and a right, but also a center. Each print contains a single word from the second line of the star spangled banner (our national anthem). What, so, proudly, we, hailed. Words that were written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 as he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships in the battle of Baltimore. Key was speculating on the outcome of a battle, as was I with the piece. What would remain, and what would fall. Surely there was a point during this year where most of us questioned whether we would return to normalcy, or whether we would perish. Whether we thought, “was this the twilight’s last gleaming?’

The images I chose are arranged sequentially with the word “Proudly” in the center. The center image is the most neutral, acting more as a document than an ideology. To the viewers left the ideology becomes more politically left. To the viewers right, the image becomes more politically right. While I am an atheist, I consider myself culturally catholic. Any claim that this doesn’t inform my work would be inauthentic and any to attempt to erase it would be futile. While, above I describe a political arrangement of images there is a concurrent religious arrangement in which, the woman in the center acts as a proxy for God and conversely, the images at her right hand represent the favor of God. The left hand represents the judgement of God, as in Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement” fresco from the Sistine Chapel. I view this language as mythology or allegory and while I do not suspect a second coming of Christ, certainly, 2020 was a reckoning.

JK-1 Salvage Can Release

JK-1 Salvage can

Mixed media on hand painted empty aerosol cans.

Edition of 10 – Signed and numbered on the bottom of can

Certificate of Authenticity included

Avaiable HERE

Some things can’t be undone

A while back I was asked to make some art on a piece of currency for an exhibit. I agreed and the organizer sent me what I think was an old Russian banknote.
On an impulse I decided to burn the money. Because I thought that said something about my relationship to money.

Of course after burning the money I had to figure out how to make a new piece out of it. 

So I made a crude stencil of the very elaborate print on the face of the note based on a photo of the bill. Then using glue and the ashes of the burned money I glue the ashes back to a piece of canvas the same size as the note.

There was a corner of the note left unburned and I glued it to the canvas and wrote on it “some things can’t be undone”


I suppose I was trying to say something about the finality of certain decisions and also the liberation of that sort of finality. There is something wonderful about decisions that can not be reversed. The futility of an attempt to do so can be a valuable lesson to live by. The destruction of one thing can force the creation of something new. I think this is how life often evolves.
Cheers

“Phoenix” Limited Edition Print

Goes on Sale Monday November 16th, at 9am PST HERE

“Phoenix”

11×14 inches (28x36cm)

Archival pigment print on 300 gr Moab Entrada Rag Matte Fine Art Paper

edition size 50

Signed and numbered

I made this piece originally on a rainy October night in Paris, on Rue de Forge Royale across the street from a gallery called Le cabinet d’amateur. Me and Droos and Nite Owl were wandering around putting pieces up. I threw this paster up and it started raining pretty hard, so we went and grabbed a drink down the street at some little bar. Inside the bar were a bunch of guys from Oakland watching the Raiders game on the TV. Small world I guess. We had a few and I went back and added the black and white drips. I think the rain actually helped. It was a good night and probably one of my favorite pieces from that trip.

The Road

A Tuesday, September 22, 2020. It arrived as a newspaper headline. 200,000 Americans had died of a preventable disease. We take note of large round numbers like these. They have impact. They are the notches on rulers and the lines on thermometers. I never really trust the psychology of numbers. They are treacherous, manipulative things, numbers. Why is 200,000 more significant than 198,534 or 203,568? Why does $5.99 feel like 5 dollars and not 6? Numbers are good at deceit because of their specificity.
There is something of seeming importance about thresholds. They represent a major change, when in fact that change is often minute or marginal. It’s a perception of change. I learned this a long time ago, standing with one foot in New Mexico and one foot in Arizona. They were the same, indistinguishable. Same earth, same view, same place. I had attached a definition to 2 virtually identical patches of land based on some arbitrary definition.
All it takes to cross into the realm of 200,000 deaths is for one more person to die. Who was it? Did they ever wonder if they would be the one that ushered in 200,000? It’s a small change but a numerical threshold. Dissimilar to May when we had reached 100,000 dead. That threshold seemed, in some ways more heartbreaking and certainly more shocking. In the 4 months since, I had changed. I had acclimated to this magnitude of death. While 100,000 deaths seemed unthinkable last Spring, 200,000 seems not surprising this Fall. Perhaps it even feels expected. I had gotten used to it, it had become normal.
Six months ago the idea of 1200 or 800 or 2000 fellow citizens dying daily seemed like domain of science fiction or war. This was neither. These tragic and horrific images appeared to belong to a bygone era. I had begun to believe in our false invulnerability. In a post modern world, in America, it was hard to imagine that kind of loss. We don’t have to imagine it anymore.
I wake up everyday, I look at the news and count the dead. I stopped reacting months ago. This disturbs me, because it makes me call into question who I think I am. Am I someone who counts the dead every morning while drinking coffee, disaffected? I wouldn’t have thought so. Perhaps I was wrong about me.
Those numbers though, they can play tricks on you. When 84 people had died in Wuhan, in many ways that seemed more real. I can visualize 84 people, I actually know 84 people. There is a equivalent substitution where I can relate the 84 people to a personal experience. I can remember being in a bar with around 84 people or a restaurant. I can remember faces and groups. When I can reference an experience, I can feel it.
200,000 people…what does that even mean? What does that look like? I have nothing to compare it to. It is an abstract number. One of the treacheries of numbers is that they can steal your humanity- perhaps not intentionally, but merely as a consequence. There is something vulgar about counting people, alive or dead. This has always bothered me. Counting is such a deficient way of marking existence that it is offensive. Large numbers become quite literally unimaginable. What does a million dollars look like? What do 330 million people look like? I don’t like things I can’t create a visual of in my mind.
I often do exercises to explain things to myself, to create a language I can understand. I once tried to calculate how many people were sitting in one mile of traffic on a 3 lane highway, because “traffic” seems like a vague notion. When I could reference it by the number of people idly sitting in their cars, wasting a certain amount of time, and relate that to thousands of people losing some piece from the bigger story of their lives, then, I can in some way understand it’s gravity.
I needed to explain these 200,000 people to myself.
So I created “The Road”. The Road is an imaginary place where I might approach feeling the impact of the past 6 months. I’ve measured it, done the math, and walked it in my mind over and over again. It’s an exercise in reversing the anesthetic effects of a pandemic.
At the start of the road there is a body, a victim of COVID-19. Next to that body is the next victim, side by side, and this goes on for 200,000 people. That’s the road. On average, every 22 inches there’s another body marking the absence of another life. It goes on like that for 69.4 miles. I close my eyes and try to walk it, carefully, considerately taking note of each face and each life. I never finish. I imagine finishing, but I never actually make it. I can’t. By my best estimate it would take me about 23 hours to walk that 69.4 mile road. With each step appears another face, another body, another set of ideas and plans and desires that abruptly ended. No explanation, no consolation- a life that simply ceased to be. That’s a long road to walk, even in my imagination. Every step of that 69.4 mile walk, presents a life, and memories that disappeared like smoke in a breeze. Every face unique, every story unique. Never to be repeated in quite the same way.
There’s this stone that sits on my chest when I imagine the road. A weight that swells into a panic, and a crescendo of helpless remorse and ineffectuality. For all we have lost, of each other and of ourselves, the finality of it is insurmountable. Yet, life goes on, often ridiculously.
This same Tuesday, the world was abuzz about the future of Tik Tok. The president spit blame across his podium, Jeff Bezos increased or decreased his net worth by some percentage. Those were headlines. Of course there were numbers also. 800 and some odd people. They were alone, tended by strangers, healthcare workers, cloaked in masks and shields and hazmat suites. Almost unrecognizable as fellow humans. I’d like to believe they could see each other’s eyes. I’d like to believe they could recognize each other’s humanity, if only for that fleeting moment. I’d like to believe 800 something people didn’t simply leave this world, completely alone, separated as pariahs. I’d like to believe that.
You might be considering, at this point, why I even do this seemingly morbid exercise. Why I even attempt to walk the road. I don’t have a specific answer. I confess, it feels futile and I feel utterly helpless in all this. It’s not something I am proud of, but it’s honest. I simply don’t know what to do. I walk the road as best I can, in honor, and at the very least, in recognition of this immeasurable loss. They say you truly die when the last person who holds a thought of you dies…
Perhaps, I walked the road to remember the life of someone I never met, in the hope that one day someone will walk the road for me.

After forsaking you, they will call you hero in their speeches

This release drops Thursday Oct. 15th at 9am PST.

Here:https://www.1xrun.com/collections/forsake/

In the Spring of this year, when there were massive PPE shortages among frontline COVID workers, I started contacting friends in China, Hong Kong and Cambodia to see if I could buy masks and supplies to donate to some of the hardest hit areas. While the United States government dragged its feet, unable to offer even basic protection to health care and other essential workers, I, as an ordinary citizen, was able to purchase around 1000 masks and distribute them to hospitals in need. It wasn’t particularly difficult, this administration simply lacked the will to protect the very people who were keeping us safe and risking their own well being. I spoke with hospital workers at the time who were reusing disposable masks for 4-5 days of 12 hour shifts. The very people who risked their own health everyday to keep us safe could not even be provided with the most basic items to allow them to perform their work safely.

This print “Forsake” is in response to that experience. “After forsaking you, they will call you hero in their speeches” is written across each image. It’s indicative of the sanctimonious gestures of this administration and politicians in general. While the essential workers were little more than an afterthought, their efforts are co-opted as public relations campaigns for leaders who failed to lead.

1Xrun and myself will use 100% of the purchase price of these to procure PPE and distribute it this coming Fall. Many in the medical field have suspected there may be a second wave of COVID this Fall. If I have learned anything from the Spring, it is not to assume this administration has any sort of plan or is even moderately prepared for this. Together, 1xrun and myself would like to be out in front of this and help. Should there be a second wave, the funds from the sale of this work will have created a small stockpile of PPE that we can quickly distribute to the facilities that need them most. That is the very least we can offer in appreciation of the relentless efforts of frontline workers.

By purchasing this print you are actually purchasing PPE to keep these workers safe and helping us stay prepared for the coming months.

Eddie Colla

Buy it here: https://www.1xrun.com/collections/forsake/

About the Print: There are 2 different versions of this print.

The first is a 16×20 inch giclee. Signed and numbered- edition of 50

The second are hand painted multiples 18×24 signed and numbered-Edition of 10

The HPMs are acetone transfer prints finished and stained with tinted shellac each is a unique piece.

4th of July 2020

Stars and bars
festering scars
there’s plenty to prove who we are
for independence
to a referendum on our descendants
monkeys waving flags
and the rest of us wanna end this shit.
Old glory, same story, don’t worry
flag unfurled and held so high
just look at the height of it
so high we’ve lost sight of it
ain’t really the fabric of the nation we see
just a 2 dollar sticker or 2 for three
Stick it on your truck
and fuck unity
Or take to the street and topple fake heroes
Risking infection
for a new direction
but fuck if we’ll do it for your
re-election
laws that invade a woman’s right to choose
but not a cops right to bruise
or abuse
or murder without motive
suspended with pay
light a votive
everyday
say your prayers and put them on shelves
The lord helps those who help themselves
tear gassing masses and forsaking the dead
to pose with a book you never read
at a church you’ve never been to
a code of decency you’ll never bend to
propaganda at its’ worst
C’mon now stand and quote a verse
silence….

Wisdom is harder than violence
and promises are easy
when you try less
and the less you do the less is expected
and the more people die
the more we accept it
leaders make promises for statues being erected
and everyday another 50,000 are infected
Let’s just cover our faces
try to erase this
make dedications to all the nameless and faceless
The red white and blue
black and blue
black and white too
Like none of us knew…
we have the nation we settled for
not less, not more
they never built the wall but they stopped immigration
turning the enviable into an plague ridden nation
a leper colony lead by a wanna be
a bloated messiah
an abomination
A nation of Pariahs and liars
now here we are trapped inside
our consequences
these invisible fences
bluster is cheap
but ignorance is expensive

The 2020 Republican National Convention

Reflecting on the past 3 1/2 years I proposed a montage that I felt told the story and the history quite well. Some found it too opinionated. It’s hard to convey the depth of a historically catastrophic administration in 3 minutes.

Personally, I think I nailed it.

Register to vote

https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote

Get answers

https://www.vote.org/

https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/how-to-vote-2020/

Conception Vs Reception

I’ve been asked why I chose to make the above piece regarding racism. I didn’t exactly. I made a piece called “The Residue of Arrogance” which was mostly about my growing discontent with the United States and my choice to spend most of my time abroad. That decision had a lot to do with the direction in which my country has moved post 9/11. Certainly racism plays a role in those objections, but it was a much broader view of many consequences.
The thing that I find most interesting about the piece is what it has shown me. Many people have concluded that the piece is about racism. I imagine it has to do with my choice of using an African American model. Had I used a white model, I assume people’s reading of it would be different. However, based on people’s reactions, it is entirely clear how most people view the United States. Juxtapose an American Flag and an African American and the conclusion many people will make is that it is, of course, about racism. That’s how connected the image of the United States is to racism, it’s something people assume. What I was trying to convey was an erosion of freedoms and self censorship in a post 9/11 America. However, even in 2017 (which is when I made the original piece) the simple addition of a different skin color leads many people to assume an entirely different meaning. So, in it’s conception it wasn’t focused on racism, but in it’s reception it has become very much about race. This is how the piece talks back to me about it’s context.
As an artist, you begin to see the complexity of representation. In my mind the figure in the piece was simply an individual, an American. Yet because the figure is African American, to many people, the “individual” becomes a representation of an entire race of people. Isn’t that exactly what racism is? When people’s individual identity is eclipsed by their race?

Mural from Kings Spray festival with Streetarttoday in 2017

The Dafen Experiment

  As an artist I have always been fascinated with knockoffs. In the 90’s I would peruse the stalls of Canal Street in lower Manhattan sifting through piles of fake Rolexes in search of the best watch $10 could buy. In the 2000’s I would stock up on knockoff Calvin Klein underwear in Hong Kong for $2 a pair versus the genuine article at $22 a pair. In many cases I liked the knockoffs better. For example, real Calvin Klein underwear came only in a few select colors. The knockoffs, however, came in every color you could imagine. The fake Rolexes were available with these cool flex wristbands that Rolex never made. My fascination was with how often knockoffs also evolve. Copying is not just copying, it is also the doorway to creating.

    In 2018 I spent two months at Jardin Orange, an artist residency in Shenzhen, China. Shenzhen is China’s Silicon Valley, and most likely where your iPhone or laptop were manufactured. It’s been at the center of the ongoing battle over intellectual property theft between the U.S. and China for the past couple decades.

    In the 70’s, Shenzhen was little more than a fishing village. Then in 1979, it became one of five special economic zones in China, their first experiments with market capitalism. By the early 2000’s it was manufacturing 90% of the world’s electronics. Today, it is an international hub of tech innovation. It’s difficult to comprehend a city that has transformed itself at breakneck speed for the past four decades. Part of my job as an artist is to attempt to understand the places I travel to, and bring that understanding into my work, but Shenzhen was surreal to me. I am from Oakland, CA. I watched for 24 years as the eastern span of the Bay Bridge was replaced after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake – 24 years to replace half a bridge! In that time, Shenzhen had gone from a city of 647,000 to a city of 10,873,000 residents. By 2020, Shenzhen based companies like Huawei were outselling iPhone, and positioned to dominate 5G technology. Tencent had become not only the world’s largest video game company, but one of the largest social media platforms. Just 10 years ago, Shenzhen was more infamous for it’s “Shanzhai”, or counterfeit electronics; cheap knockoffs aimed at markets that could not afford the Western originals.

   Shenzhen is also home to “Dafen Village”. Dafen is a painting village. An urban village, or neighborhood, in the middle of the city. It is the place where, at one point, an estimated 60% of the world’s oil paintings were being painted. Hundreds of shops, usually with 2-3 painters working, line the labyrinth of the small streets. Painters overflow into alley ways, stalls, and onto the sidewalks. The surrounding streets have art supplies, framing, and canvas stretching services. It is a biosphere for painting.

    Much of what you see strolling Dafen are copies. Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Monet, Picasso – even Keith Haring and Warhol copies sit alongside Chinese favorites Yue Minjun and Chen Wenling. Another big part of what you see is what I call lobby art. The art you see at hotels and office buildings; generic landscapes, florals, abstracts, elephants etc. The art you never notice, because it’s designed to be completely unobtrusive. It only exists because it stands out even less then a completely bare wall. Lastly, there are custom portraits. Wandering through Dafen, you’ll see 40 painters a day staring at cell phone screens, painting wedding and family portraits. I was amazed at how efficient and accurate many of then were. Considering many of them have probably painted 10 hours a day for the past 15 years, it would stand to reason. Painting there seems to be treated more as skilled labor and a source of income than it is as art. The painters range in talent from pretty awful to damn near masterful. The painters at Dafen are like the “Shanzhai” of art. Creating inexpensive knockoffs for a market with more limited budgets.

    I decided to do an experiment at Dafen Village to help me better understand Shenzhen as a city. I brought a poster I had designed to Dafen and hired a painter to copy it. It was a poster I had designed years ago, and as a street artist, I had wheat pasted on countless walls around the world.

I chose the poster for specific reasons; first, it had been created on a computer and had never actually been painted before. Secondly, it was mass produced on a web press, an inexpensive printing method generally used for newspapers. The evolution of knockoffs usually takes something of a relatively high quality and reproduces it in a cheaper or lower quality manner. My experiment was the opposite. I took a cheap mass produced poster and commissioned a hand-painted oil painting on canvas. The mere act of copying it in this manner would create something new.

    I chose a small painting stall at random from the hundreds of shops in Dafen. Inside was a man in his early 20’s. I showed him the poster I wanted copied. Let me preface this by explaining that I speak zero Mandarin, and these painters, for the most part, speak zero English. However, this was 2018 and technology had already solved this problem. WECHAT, the most popular texting app in China, has a built in translator, so here’s how it works: you walk into a shop and display your wechat QR code on your phone. The shop owner scans it, and you become “friends”– now you can talk. When you type the shop owner a message, they can read it in Chinese, and when they reply, you can read it in English. It’s an odd interaction. You’re standing 18 inches from someone, both looking at your phones texting back and forth. It may seem impersonal, but 20 years ago we would not be able to communicate at all and this entire experiment wouldn’t be possible. We agree on a price of $55 USD to make the painting. He tells me it’ll be done in about a week and he’ll text me. Five days later I get a message. The painter boastfully tells me he is finished and the effect is PERFECT! 

   It was better than expected for $55 and the cheap poster was now an oil painting on canvas. By copying the cheap poster, we had actually created something of greater value. The evolution needed to continue though. I walked about 2 blocks, picked another random shop and handed the shop owner my newly received painting along with my phone displaying my QR code. “Can you copy this?” I text. He nodded and quoted me a price. The second painter was now making a copy of a copy. I did this for 7 weeks, picking up each subsequent copy and turning it over to another painter. The third painter copied the second version, the fourth painter copied the third version, and so on. By the sixth painting, I had something very different than what I started with. Even when the goal was to produce a facsimile, we unavoidably, either through miscommunication, artistic license or bad technique, had moved far from the original.

    A friend in China warned me that if I took work to be copied at Dafen it was likely they would continue to copy it. That seemed unlikely to me. I responded, however, “Wouldn’t that be great? The image would continue to evolve and change in ways I would never have considered”. The artist in me appreciates the philosophy of the “Shanzhai” because within it exists the core understanding that imitation fosters innovation. Imitation is a cornerstone of learning, particularly to anyone who’s studied art. My time in Shenzhen forced me to examine these ideas both in art and in the discourse about intellectual property. At the core of both, there is merely an idea. Ideas should not be heirlooms tucked away and preserved or only occasionally observed. Ideas, should be more like children. Something we give the best of ourselves to and send out in the world to change and grow in ways we never imagined. When we look condescendingly upon the forger, or the counterfeit object as a desecration of the original, we are ignoring the possibility of evolution or innovation. We are ignoring that as individuals, or as a generation even, we have finite resources to cultivate an idea. For any idea to continue growing, whether it be cultural or technological, it will need to be taken up by the next individual or generation and fed a new source of perspectives, skill sets, and inspirations.

Shenzhen and it’s Shanzai philosophy are often debased by Western culture. Partially because, in my opinion, it audaciously stands as the apprentice positioned to surpass the master, in part, because it understands copying is the doorway to creating, if you choose to walk through it.

Eddie Colla