Master Mould and Copy Room


There is no solution because there is no problem (anymore)

Hans Maria DE WOLF

Master Mould & Copy Room tells the story of how some fundamental elements in the art world such as the artist – understood as a MASTER – the product of his work, the artwork – understood as ORIGINAL – the interference with his pupils (who might try to kill the master) and the fortune of the master within the future (will he be remembered?) hold together. 

The exhibition also deals with the human desire to COPY those venerated objects of the Master in many ways, an activity that in the Western tradition is understood in a very different way than in the Chinese.

It tells this story from a Western point of view, addressed towards a merely Chinese audience.  If the exhibition does so, it is because within two or three years the same story of the master and his mould will be addressed again, but then from a Chinese perspective and for a merely Western audience in Belgium. 

Over the last decades the debate concerning the master, his work and the value of the copies of his work has been poisoned at both sides by preconceptions and the ignorance of the tradition of the other. At the bottom line many Europeans consider their continent as the mother of all good ideas and China as a large copy factory. 

However, the more the curatorial team and the artists got involved with the issue, the more we lost the purpose of the conflict.  We found out that recent Avant-garde generations in the West transcended largely this problem, which inspired us for a subtitle, freely quoted after Marcel Duchamp.1

In fact, Master Mould and Copy Room aims to celebrate the disappearance of a conflict as an act of liberation. At the same time we conceived the exhibition as the first part of an intellectual and aesthetic bridge between both continents that will remain open from now on, even if we do not have the slightest idea how the Chinese version of the exhibition project will look like.


Even if the title of the project Master Mould and Copy Room might not be comprehended all at once, this title covers all the curatorial intentions in the most perfect way.  However as a consequence of the fact that Mandarin and English are based on so different linguistic systems and logics, our original title proved to be almost impossible to be translated in a meaningful way.  Rather then to confuse our audience in Beijing we decided to choose a Chinese title that, al be it in a slightly provocative way, is addressing similar ideas.

Let us first consider the elements of the English title before looking into the under laying connections and meanings.

Already the word MASTER might become a source of misunderstanding and confusion between the Eastern and the Western traditions in the visual arts. In Europe the word MASTER relates (among other possible definitions) to the sum of qualities and experiences accumulated by the artist who has reached his highest level of artistic excellence and therefore is praised by his peers.  Most importantly the ultimate proof for having attained this “state of the arts” is intimately related with the notion of the ORIGINAL.2

The main character of mastership lays in the recognition by his environment, that the artists has made consistent contributions to the renewal of his medium in particular and to the visual arts as a whole.  In the West, mastership goes hand in hand with the notion of the Avant-garde, suggesting that it might take some time before the innovations brought forward by the master, will be understood and comprehended by a larger audience, thus entering the canon (the sum of all the innovations over a certain period of time).3   

Moreover, within the Western tradition, this main characteristic of the MASTER - that lays in his capacity of engendering the NEW - is also closely related with the notion of GENIOUS.  Both terms hold each other in a refined balance. Whereas the MASTER needs the concept of GENIOUS in order to underline a special status that sets him apart as the producer of what did not exist before within his world, the essential meaning of the word GENIOUS on the other hand, is crucially needed within this mindset, because it guarantees that the ORIGINAL (the product of the master) is by definition unique and therefor inviolable.  Within this tradition, to copy such an artwork, would be considered a violation of the special status of the artwork, and therefor a crime.  Not so in China.4

The Chinese tradition always understood the product of painting as closely related to writing – in traditional mandarin both expressions are moreover partly designated by the same characters – and its results were just as whatever written text in literature subject of ongoing interpretations that were not seldom noticed in the margins of the scroll.  Art works were not necessarily considered as a finished product representing the will of a MASTER and in that sense one can start to understand the idea that the practice of the copy (in itself an interpretation) can be considered as the highest possible compliment in regard to the original.5

In the Western tradition, the word MASTER however, can also be understood in a very different, a much more material way.  Within the medium of sculpture for instance (but not only there) artists and technicians will call a MASTER the initial plaster form conceived by the artist in order to allow the production of a MOULD that will give birth to one or more identical bronze sculptures.

In fact, as soon as the MOULD has been engendered by the MASTER, a duplication process becomes possible leading to the production of a number of identical objects, that eventually will (or will not) obtain the nomination of an ART WORK in its full right.  Theoretically this duplication process can go on as long as the mould remains fit enough to engender a new copy, however faced with the technical possibility of endless multiplication, Western artists choose to prevail to the best of their knowledge, the notion of the UNIQUE (linked to the notion of genious) by limiting the production of the MOULD (in the case of bronze sculpture) to 8 casts, that will all be equally considered as EDITIONS of the mould AND as originals. 

The procedure will be completed with the destruction of the mould after the production of the last edition.  This particular, deeply iconoclastic intervention aims to offer a legal ground to each of the editions in delivering the proof of IDENTITY as part of a creative process that connects them all to the notion of the UNIQUE. 

However, as soon as this convention is accepted – as a mechanism that allows regulating the value of the originals – an ambiguity comes into being that has penetrated the whole issue ever since.  In an attempt to get rid of exactly this ambiguity, that prevented in particular the medium of photography – medium of endless reproduction by excellence – to be considered as part of high culture for ages, the Canadian photographer Jeff Wall took a radical decision concerning the production process of his work.  Considering his monumental cibachrome pictures as part of the same debate that surrounds Western “tableau” painting, the artist decided that for each of them the creative process would definitively come to an end, in the moment that the first print was successfully realized in his studio. Of most of his pictures only one or two prints exist. (Multiples Duchamp) So far the MASTER and his MOULD as separated elements in the title.6


A whole different realm of meaning appears if we bring the two first words of the title, MASTER and MOULD in combination.  We then reach a field of tension that surrounds the relations between the MASTER – who holds the treasure of knowledge and expertise – and his pupil.  This relation as well is filled with ambiguity. How and under which conditions will the MASTER be ready to hand over his expertise to a younger generation?  Will he be sensitive for alternative lectures of his world, or will he keep a close eye on how his pupils develop?  Will he insist to charge the work of the next generation with his marks, in an attempt to guarantee his place in history and forcing his surroundings into a MOULD of his own making, or will he accept the fact that with time the pupil will emancipate and obtain the title of MASTER in his own right?  As a matter of fact in the Western tradition his MASTERS MOULD is not necessary a model that can guarantee a smooth transition.  Most often the destruction of the MASTER and/or his MOULD might become the only possible condition for a new generations to prevail. 

It will be one of the central concerns of the exhibition to visualize and to comment on behalf of a Chinese audience the fact that those traditional notions that seem to be fundamental for the construction of the idea of Western art, have been deeply questioned by the latest generations of visual artists, and that some of them were literally overturned. 

On the other hand, this project will also offer the occasion to a Western public – when the exhibition will come to Brussels in 2016 - to understand that the given of the “visual arts” is a game that can no longer be played according to some rules and agreements we developed and implemented ever since the early renaissance in Europe.  We have to wake up to the fact that in a globalized world other urgencies occur and other players, referring to other traditions and relating to other historical forms of consciousness, will bring in their views and opinions.

If we just take a superficial look at this fast moving global reality, including dozens of new dynamic art worlds developing and emancipating quickly within huge metropolitan area’s that were never associated with the visual arts before, one will understand that this project is situated in the core of impressive transmutation processes that will leave nobody undisturbed. And of course we can understand that it needs some mental courage to open up oneself for this new reality and that Europeans might feel unsecured and even intimidated in the light of this brave new world. It is nevertheless no option to pretend that we can still stick with the old rules or to put our head in the sand.7

The bottom line of our project is surrounded by this new reality.  It is a widely spread out opinion all over Europe that the old continent has engendered almost all the crucial idea’s and inventions that made our modern times possible. China on the other hand is deeply mistrusted for not respecting the rights and privileges that the owners of the original idea’s claim to have the right to.  We don’t want to get involved in legal and economical disputes engendered by those issues, however on a philosophical level this confrontation between Europe and China becomes highly interesting.  It is this fundamental debate the exhibition is addressing.

To the majority of Europeans that are still convinced that the premise stated above is correct, I would like to say: let me take you by the hand and lead you to Brussels Fine Arts Museum.  I will saw you some paintings of Pieter Breughel the younger that are almost exact copies of the wonderful originals conceived by his father.  Later I will bring you to Stockholm’s Fine arts academy.  There you will find an impressive collection of classical Roman sculptures, all plaster copies of course.

One could bring forward the question why all those classical forms, very often of naked man, that came into being in the warm south of Europe were so desired by people in the coldest north?  My answer would be: because the notion of the COPY is also a fundamental element of OUR cultural mechanisms and because the URGE to copy is very much related with the need to find out who exactly we are, that is to say to understand what are the elements of our cultural DNA.

Essentially every single COPY expresses its own private desire towards a mental notion of the ORIGINAL that can only be understood as an unreachable goal.8 Why would that insight be different in Beijing from Stockholm?

As a first and probably premature conclusion I would like to state that in those issues the confrontational model – WE against THEM / Europe against China – reveals to be the poorest one in that it will not help us at all to obtain a sharp perspective on all the elements that in the end will allow us to understand what really is at stake in this debate.9That is where the other key concept in the title: COPY ROOM will obtain all its relevance.


Western art history has witnessed the rise and sublime maturity of many MASTERS in the visual arts. In very few cases however our comprehension of the notion of the MASTER as a perfect crystallization of pure GENIOUS has been more stagedandaccepted than in the case of Albrecht Dürer, and we know of no other artists that would stress to such a degree the sublime nature of his talent that it brought him to paint his own portrait as if he was the Redeemer Jezus Christ himself. The Munich self portrait might be considered as the most extreme expression of the idea that the words MASTER and GENIOUS can at one point become interchangeable, it is however an other piece by Dürer that will withhold all our attention.10 

In a woodcut from 1525 we encounter the MASTER under a different angel. We meet him in his studio fully concentrated on the realization of a drawing. Many observations can be made and have been made in regard to this remarkable picture. Some will read it as the quintessential definition of what a MASTER in the arts is supposed to be.  Others will try to focus on the undeniable erotic dimensions the picture reveals.  What is important for us however, is simply the fact that this image came to us under the form of a woodcut.11

What this picture still communicates today is the insight that the MASTER wants to produce, to control and TO DISTRIBUTE himself, the image of who he believes he is, how his activity should be understood, and how all this relates to the history of art.  Welcome in Albrecht Dürer’s COPY ROOM.12

It is indeed a fascinating insight that the MASTER who stands apart as the most condensed incarnation of GENIOUS in Western art, also ran a little business in self promotion and this tendency of the COPY ROOM can be witnessed over and again in Western art including such major figures as Rubens, David, Manet and last but not least Any Warhol.13

Dürer’s woodcut is however also of interest to us for a very different reason.  Several comments on the print reveal the under laying erotic dimension. Now, if this is indeed an undeniable element within the construction of the image, the suggestion of weakness present in de female figure on the table is counter balanced hard as steel by the positioning of the artist, his concentration and self control.  Here is much more at stake then just a classical gender confrontation.  The MASTER presented here is a dominating one who expresses the strongest possible alliance with the rules of his art, rules that he wants to maintain and control at any price, since he knows that as long as they are respected, he will surpass all his peers.  Also for this idea the COPY ROOM of the MASTER serves as an excellent tool.

Here we reach an additional and crucial element in the exhibition concept. If it has been one of the impressive strengths of the Western tradition in art to develop and maintain STANDARDS of art for each different discipline, installed and controlled by the MASTERS themselves it has also been a strength of no lesser importance that this notion called: “the state of the art” always contained the germ of it’s own decline.14As soon as the dominating MASTER started to believe himself that he was in control over his world, the idea of the rebellious MASTER would arise and most often would also persevere over his rival’s position.  The destruction of the MOULD remains a recurrent theme.

There can’t be any doubt – as already Baudelaire stated – that those are the dialectics that lay at the basis of the concept of MODERN art in the Western tradition.15

The first rebellious MASTER in the modern sense might have been Baudelaire’s friend Gustave Courbet, who not only installed the rule of realism in painting and the acceptance of the ugly within reality, but who also embraced early forms of socialism and considered the artist as no different from any other worker.  Those idea’s however would be firmly opposed by a MASTER who, among the artists of the 20st century in the West, has been the most lucid, reflective and in the end successful in his rebellion against what he called a kind of painting as a practice of pleasure: Marcel Duchamp.16

As no other artist of his time he would be concentrated on his project, most often as a lonesome traveller (without being understood) until in the late 1950 a whole generation of artists started to wake up over the fact that Duchamp, all by himself, had strategically placed the cornerstones of a whole new reality in art.  By then this rebellious MASTER was already over 70 years old.  In the exhibition we will bring one of the most brilliant COPY ROOMS the 20thcentury has witnessed, the so called: “Box in a Valise”. As all the other artists in the exhibition have been deeply inspired by the ideas and concepts of Marcel Duchamp we might consider this piece as the umbilicus of the exhibition.17

“White Room” (Salle blanche) here presented for the first time in China, is one of the ultimate masterpieces in the oeuvre of Marcel Broodthaers. The piece collects all the crucial words in the vocabulary of the poet turned into a visual artist, written on the walls of a COPY of the MASTERS living room in Brussels. The “White Room” can certainly be understood as a late expression of his practice that brought poetry and the visual arts together.  This particular universe that was nourished by the art of René Magritte (both artists knew and highly respected each other) is now largely considered as one of the far most influential oeuvres of the 20st century.18  In fact the work of Marcel Broodthaers come close to the mind of some Chinese artists in the exhibition such as Xu Bing or Song Dong, artists who never believed that a rupture between the visual arts and language would be necessary.

The “White Room” presented at the entrance of our exhibition in Beijing however is NOT the original piece that is part of the collection of centre Pompidou in Paris. We bring a new COPY constructed through Chinese handcraft in Beijing and that will become the central trigger not only for the exhibition itself but also for an extensive discursive program through which intellectuals and artists, Chinese an Europeans will examine the arguments that will animate vivid debates between both traditions.

Master Mould and Copy Room.  Even if the title of the project might not be comprehended all at once, this title covers all the curatorial intentions in the most perfect way.  That is how our presentation of the project started and even if we succeeded to clarify more or less our intentions, many other aspects and lectures of this title can be added, as if this cluster of 4 words became a jewel in it own right, that offers us other possible connections as soon as we move it in the light. Just as a poem.  Broodthaers would have loved it : “PARLE - ECRIT -COPIE”