Andrew Paul Wood – 11 August, 2020
What it essentially boils down to is one of the inherent qualities of minimalism; when you make work with the same tools and materials in a similar way, inevitably you're going to get similarities. This is compounded when you're trying to reduce something to a basic geometric simplicity. Artists have been struggling with that ever since the days they were copying the same classical statues.
EyeContact Essay #39
The Parkin Drawing Prize inevitably gets the public’s jimmies in a rustle. This is understandable given that at $25,000 it’s one of New Zealand’s most lucrative awards, and taste is subjective. When Charlotte Davy—Head Curator of Art at Te Papa—in her capacity as final judge (full disclosure, I was one of the selectors) awarded Poppy Lekner the top award for her Forward Slash I was expecting the usual grunts and moans about it not being drawing.
The work consists of a dense rectangular grid of forward slashes created on a Brother manual typewriter. I long ago resigned myself to the idea that drawing can be conceptual and reduced to any number of variations and meta-variations of Kandinsky’s point and line to plane even if I was resistant to Kirsty Lillico’s carpet-based piece winning in 2017 because at some point you have to draw the line (pardon the pun) with installation. It’s fair to say I ain’t bovvered.
What I wasn’t expecting was Auckland artist Alan MacDonald’s accusation that the work plagiarised a work of the same name by Joel Swanson, and another unnamed person raised concerns that it was similar to Maurizio Nannucci‘s 1964 concrete poem Dattilograme Typwriter Poem.
To my mind, the fact that there is more than one similar work just underlines that it isn’t plagiarism, not least because fundamentally the line spacing is quite different, resulting in a different optical effect to Swanson’s work, and the intent is obviously quite different to Nannucci’s — ie. optical and schematic rather than ascemic or literary.
What it essentially boils down to is one of the inherent qualities of minimalism; when you make work with the same tools and materials in a similar way, inevitably you’re going to get similarities. This is compounded when you’re trying to reduce something to a basic geometric simplicity. Artists have been struggling with that ever since the days they were copying the same classical statues.
Were Theo van Doesburg and Mondrian plagiarising each other? No. Were Donald Judd and IKEA? Of course not. Would we be having this conversation about say, for example, makers of tapa and tuvaevae who use similar traditional Samoan motifs in similar grid patterns? That would be ridiculous.
The same can be said of artists who use mass-produced readymades. Duchamp wasn’t plagiarising Leonardo when he made L.H.O.O.Q. These issues are simply inescapable when artists are responding to a mass-produced culture like our own, especially when struggling with the contemporary predicament of the Barthesian death of the author/artist. Can you even plagiarise a mechanical process?
At the end of the day such accusations look like little more than sour grapes and mean-spirited bullying by people who should probably know better if they are familiar with such works in the first place. Sometimes you just have to reach a level of self-awareness where you realise that your personal peccadilloes aren’t absolute. At such times I’d rather just enjoy the event and be happy for the winner. It doesn’t matter.
Andrew Paul Wood
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