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LaisSEZ-faire with a red twist

In the age of special economic zones (SEZs), plagiarism, nay reproduction, is a million-dollar revolution. Rahul Karmakar writes.

india Updated: Jun 13, 2008 23:02 IST

Art, said post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, is either plagiarism or revolution. He probably lived in the wrong era.

In the age of special economic zones, plagiarism, nay reproduction, is a million-dollar revolution. Ma Zheng, having painted his umpteenth Tahitian Women on the Beach, one of the French artist’s Polynesia-inspired masterpieces, won’t tell you that. Neither will Haijun at the adjoining studio-cum-paintings store, who’s turned copying Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers into a fine art. You have to feel it at Da Fen, the oil painting village in Shenzhen, the 28-year-old metropolis, 35 km north of Hong Kong.

Shenzhen is China’s SEZ showpiece. It was a laidback fishing village in the southern province of Guangdong before Chinese reformist leader Deng Xiaoping chose it for his communism-meets-capitalism experiment in 1980. It did not take long for Shenzhen to strike gold, notching up FDIs of over $30 million to become one of China’s most vibrant cities and the global model of ‘laisSEZ-faire’, albeit with a Red twist. This 2020 sq km landscaped boomtown on the South China Sea coast is also a testimony to Deng’s judgment of sites.

Huang over Deng

Shenzhen just can’t have enough of Deng. The paramount leader’s portrait looms over almost every square, and his framed face is intrinsic to most interiors. The height of hero-worship is perhaps his near-life size image shaking hands with a sculpted Margaret Thatcher atop the 69-floor Diwang Building, the city’s tallest. But this omnipresent reformer takes a backseat at Da Fen, a 4 sq km urban village in the Buji neighbourhood of Longgang, largest of Shenzhen’s six districts.

Some 5,000 artists, their dependents and distributors in Da Fen swear by Huang Jiang. They are eager to tell you how Huang, a Hong Kong-based artist, arrived here in 1989, rented residential buildings and hired hands to imitate, create, collect and export oil paintings. And why not! Da Fen today boasts of an art-powered industry worth $100 annually and growing. Some 650 studios in at least 15 blocks churn out 60 per cent of the world’s paintings to bombard over 600 galleries in Europe, Oceania and the Americas with picture-perfect copies of the masters. “We also sell traditional paintings, calligraphy, crafts, sculptures, picture frames and colours,” points out a village committee official.

These days, Huang spends most of his time in Hong Kong. But every brushstroke in Da Fen tells his story, of how he helped identify and fuel a global art market to transform a modest suburb into China’s “cultural industry model base”.

Going for a song

Only 80 Renminbis (RMB), Ma said after he unrolled the mass-reproduced van Goghs of conventional size. Sunflowers, the most sought-after, was on top of the heap followed by two more copies. All had van Gogh’s distinctive use of bold colours down to his signature. “RMB 100 if you want any of these framed,” he added.

Too much for a fake, the haggler within reasoned. How about RMB 30? Ma appeared shocked. “No, no, no discount!” he said firmly. “Okay, no buy,” I replied. “Give 70?” I sniffed a bargain, but stuck to my figure. Ma finally settled for RMB 50 for Sunflowers minus the frame. The Dutch master’s ghost must have squirmed and cursed until Haijun offered a package — Sunflowers with a 12x8 Gauguin — for RMB 5 less.

Concrete art

To the south and southeast of Da Fen are Shenzhen’s ‘fab four’ districts of Yantian, Luoho, Futian and Nanshan that comprise the SEZ. The city planners must have heeded ancient Greek dramatist Aristophanes’ refrain — “Let each man exercise the art he knows” — to let architects run amok. Almost every year, a “nonconformist”

skyscraper creates a vertical record. The 439-metre Kingley Finance Tower, to be completed by 2010, would be dwarfed by at least three other ‘supertalls’ by 2015. All are being made at a frantic pace, often referred to as Shenzhen Speed, a term coined after an expansive floor of the International Trade Building was built in three days in 1980.

The skyscrapers of Shenzhen are not the only examples of the Chinese obsession with size. The ‘City Built Overnight’ boasts of some massive theme parks. If the Window of the World park has an Eiffel Tower and an ancient Greek amphitheatre, the Splendid China park packages the entire country in sharp contrast to the surrounding concrete constructions. Not far away is the 216-hole Mission Hills Golf Club, the world’s largest putting green that Annika Sorenstam had designed. Then there’s Huanggang Port, Asia’s largest.

The Van Goghs, Gauguins, Goyas, Audobons, da Vincis, Manets, Chagalls, Picassos, Dalis and Michaelangelos adorn almost all of these superstructures.

Artistic imitation on concrete originality?