State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Is imitation sincere? Really?

The phrase ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ dates to the 18th century but the original phrase was actually ‘imitation is a kind of artless flattery’. However the original idea comes from a biography of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius who felt that humans should resemble or imitate Gods not flatter them.

Personally I just get annoyed if someone imitates me or borrows my ideas for their purposes. This is because I miss the point; it isn’t a declaration of ill will but perhaps a misguided, misunderstood form of honouring. In any case I admit to not being very evolved. When someone “rips me off” I don’t want to act mature about it. For the most part I want to go on FB and shame them. I don’t – I’ve had enough therapy to know that kind of action doesn’t help any situation.

I recently introduced the film Manufactured Landsapes by Edward Burtynsky. Originally I really liked this film mostly due to Peter Mettler’s cinematography. I’m not a Burtynsky fan, too decorative for me. But I love Mettler’s films and I think he is a wonderful visual artist. In any case this film has not held up well over time, time being just six years. The film talks about our responsibility in resource use. It is a global film however it mostly centers on China and their enormous economic growth over the last decade. So, as you can imagine, if you haven’t seen the film, there are loads of sad looking factory workers, people picking through gigantic piles of metal and sad old people taking their homes apart brick by brick to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. Watching it now it seems ever so slightly racist.

During the discussion after the film, much of which needed extensive prompting because ultimately the film is a huge downer, a woman wondered what we thought of this new architectural trend in China people are dubbing dupli-techture. Presently there are hundreds of developments going up or being finished of buildings and towns which are exact replicas of European architecture. There is a Chinese Venice, a Chinese Eiffel Tower, a Chinese Alpine village and a Chinese Milan plaza. According to author Bianca Bosker this trend is very real and very serious in China, taken up by only the best architects.

Venice? Nope, China.
Venice? Nope, China.

Luckily when this woman asked this question I was not only familiar with the trend but I had also listened to a podcast featuring Bosker on CBC’s Q. Regardless of how I stated it, that the Chinese see these buildings and towns as homage to the greatness of the west, people in this discussion were kind of freaked out by it. The immediate reaction to an Eiffel Tower on a Chinese boulevard is negative and shock. Why?

I was lucky enough this spring to spend a weekend in our nation’s Capital at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier. The first thing the ipad tour mentions is that it is built in the style of castles in the Loire valley in France. I can only think that French visitors in the early part of the 20th century felt slightly appalled at it when they first arrived. There is however no mention of this anywhere, in fact it was considered one of the more beautiful hotels in all of North America when it was built. That the owner went down with the Titanic and all the inside furnishings with him added greatly to its European ties.

So, why are some people irked by the Chinese copying European architecture with perhaps more zeal? There is an Eiffel Tower in Vegas and everyone loves that. Frankly the one in Vegas is far more vulgar, surrounded by behemoth millionaire hotels and fountains while the one in China is actually on a busy boulevard not unlike the real one.

Does imitation inspire a kind of disgust? As mentioned I can certainly relate. For some reason copying something and making it your own seems far more dignified than just direct copying. The Chinese architects spent years in Europe studying every brick that went into a bridge in Venice. Their imitation is almost obsessively attentive and meticulous. Is this the problem? Perhaps. Or are we all just a little bit racist like the film?

I find it hard to tell actually. Everyday I read about how China is buying up resources all over the world and that they are going to put a dam onto every single river in their country regardless of neighbouring country’s needs. That people in China are now vacationing in places with clean air as opposed to standard destinations like Paris-London-Rome. Every mention laced with a kind of fear usually reserved for extraterrestrial invasion from a B-movie. China’s economic growth is on such a scale that we all have a hard time comprehending what this will all mean for the rest of us. I’m not unsympathetic to people’s hesitation.

But I think this architectural mimicry is fascinating because China already has some of the world’s most impressive architecture. Everyone in the North America engages regularly in Chinese traditions and culture, from martial arts and food to math and pottery. I think this trend is foremost just that; it could dissipate as China adjusts to being modern and urban. Until then however the country seems to be imitating what is best about us in the west as perhaps a link to their newness. When you think about it, it isn’t unlike most of our architecture in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I kind of like it and you could see it as sharing – an act that usually helps with fear, and it could be more than flattery, it could be an honour.

Pic from The Atlantic website

State of the Arts returns May 30

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