With Modern Art, a Question of What's 'Original'

Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang spent months figuring out how to build the centerpiece of his American retrospective at New York's Guggenheim Museum this spring. He made drawings. He constructed models. Finally, a small army of assistants and a team of rock climbers under the artist's direction transformed the Guggenheim's famous rotunda into the site of an explosive tumble of nine cars decked out in blinking lights—an installation that Guggenheim director Thomas Krens says "may be the best artistic transformation of the Frank Lloyd Wright space we've ever seen."

But unbeknownst to the casual viewer, Cai's spectacle, "Inopportune: Stage One," isn't the real thing. It's a copy. The original is 3,000 miles away at the Seattle Art Museum. It's made of more or less the same parts—white automobiles and LED light rods—but it's oriented horizontally rather than vertically. The only clue for Guggenheim visitors that they weren't seeing the "original" was the small print on a wall label that labeled the piece an "exhibition copy."

But what exactly is an exhibition copy? If the artist oversaw its creation, why isn't it an original? The Cai exhibit, which drew huge crowds to the Guggenheim, raises questions that many museum goers have probably never considered. And when we're talking about contemporary art made from common or mass-produced materials, how do we know when a work of art is the "real thing"?

Cai's car piece may be the single most extravagant exhibition copy ever made. It came about because its owner, the Seattle Art Museum, didn't want to loan the flashy artwork, which is its lobby centerpiece. At that point, according to Guggenheim curator Alexandra Munroe, Cai came up with the solution of creating the copy.

There is very little consensus in the museum community about who has the authority to copy a work of art and what constitutes "good" reasons for doing so. Last October, the Tate Modern in London held a conference called "Inherent Vice: The Replica and its Implications in Modern Sculpture," which raised heated debates about just these issues. Most commonly the question comes up when a work of art degrades, and if the artist is alive, he or she gets the final say on what to do. (Think Damien Hirst's decaying shark in a tank of formaldehyde, which after a time needs a fresh carcass.)

But if an artist has died and an artwork has deteriorated beyond recognition, is it better to repair it, re-create it entirely or let it die? If it's re-created from scratch, should the replica and the deteriorated version be exhibited together, as co-representatives that add up to the most authentic possible whole?

Part of the reason for the endless nuance has to do with sculpture's historically complex relationship with replication. A painting has no mold, but a sculpture can be recast. In the 19th century, all the great American museums proudly displayed plaster casts of classical sculptures, thinking they'd never be able to get their hands on the originals and that copies were better than nothing. When originals became all-important, museums destroyed or stuffed away entire collections of copies.

Of course, artists are always ahead of the curve. While museums were ridding their showrooms of copies in the early 1900s, artists began to use mass-produced objects in sculpture, which turned the question of whether sculpture could be copied right on its head. (Think Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain," which was really a urinal.) Later, minimalists and postminimalists further upset assumptions. Bruce Nauman designed architectural installations that are fabricated by museum preparators wherever they're shown, and can be on display in up to three places at once; Felix Gonzalez-Torres set wrapped candies on the floor in a neat rectangle pattern that never loses its shape because the candies are continually replenished as visitors take them away. Owning a sculpture today can mean owning nothing but a piece of paper with instructions. And that's not even getting into site-specific interventions, land art and interactive performance sculptures. What counts is often no longer the object but the authorization of the artist.

Things get interesting when a live artist, in making a copy, seems to betray his own original intentions. Duchamp is a perfect test case for various scenarios. In the 1960s, when he authorized one of his dealers, Arturo Schwarz, to reissue handmade editions of his readymade, or found-object, sculptures from the 1910s, critics charged that handmade sculptures couldn't possibly be readymades. Today, most of the "readymades" you see in museums are fabricated editioned works, not rescued utilitarian objects.

Also in the '60s, Duchamp authorized artist Richard Hamilton to make a replica of his major, fragile "Large Glass" sculpture (which lives permanently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) for an exhibition at the Tate. That piece didn't disappear after the show—Duchamp signed it as an authorized copy, and it is now in the Tate's collection, listed under Duchamp.

This spring, the Tate also showed a "virtual copy" of one of Duchamp's greatest works, "Etant Donnes," which is also locked into position at the Philadelphia Museum. With the blessing of Duchamp's estate, the Tate recreated Duchamp's erotic peep-show entirely in projected, stereoscopic illusions. There's no physical work of art—and that's what curator Jennifer Mundy says makes it OK. "People are very clear about what they're seeing," she said. "They're not being offered a substitute work or a replica."

There is yet another major work on display this spring in reconstituted form, this one on the West Coast. In "California Video," up through June 8, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles re-created a 1976 installation by the artist collective Ant Farm. Consulting with the artists in what curator Glenn Phillips calls "a radical conservation project," the museum reconstructed the tacky '60s living room in which Ant Farm's video re-enactment of the assassination of JFK originally played, on a vintage TV. The new work has two dates, 1976 and 2008. When it comes down, all of the objects and instructions about how to install them will be archived and can be sold. Essentially, the original work of art has been reborn as a new piece.

Some artists see objects as interchangeable, and on the flip side, some of the most precious objects have actually been tampered with. The greatest Frankenstein's monsters in art, Phillips points out, are Renaissance or Old Master paintings. They appear to the untrained eye to be smooth, miraculous transmissions straight from their genius creators, but in truth, they've been touched up in the intervening centuries more times than a photograph of a contestant on "America's Next Top Model."

Which brings us back to Cai's cars. The Seattle Art Museum agreed to the Guggenheim's exhibition copy on the stipulation that when the copy is finished touring (after New York, it will appear in Beijing and Bilbao), it will return to Seattle, perhaps to be used as a potential tour copy. If there's no interest in touring it, Seattle may decide to dispose of the copy rather than pay the high cost of storing the double, said curator Michael Darling. It's generally accepted in the art world that exhibition copies have no market value and should not be sold to collectors or museums.

But if copies are sometimes allowed, why bother to ever ship originals for museum shows when you can just build your own facsimile? Guggenheim curator Munroe declared this idea "unthinkable." It certainly wouldn't be the first time an unthinkable thing happened in art.