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Yandell Walton, Ecological Adaptation (work in development), 2023

The differing yet interrelated activities of making, imitating, artifice and illusion underscore the production of much visual art. Together, these activities are vehicles for expressing everything from concepts to emotions to formal innovation to mimesis. Complicating things further, many artists engage in several of these modes simultaneously. Sometimes, by repeating or copying something located elsewhere in time and space, artists collapse distances and form new connections across the present. In other instances, artists offer implicit challenges to dichotomies of truth and falsity, original and copy, and reality or fiction. Significantly, artifice can be used to both challenge and sustain illusion.

Renditions reconsiders dialectic tensions between artificiality and authenticity and historical relationships between original, copy, reality, and illusion through a twenty-first century lens. Importantly, it acknowledges that culture, history, geography and lived experience can also introduce radically different modes of perception and ways of seeing. With these ineffable differences in mind, this exhibition aims to explore how artifice, representation, and the nature of copies intersect with one another to shape aesthetic and social landscapes. How do contemporary artists negotiate the blurring of virtual and physical spaces, destabilise presence and absence, and implicitly question the material nature of representation and how it communicates or obfuscates understanding?

Given its historically contested reputation for unmediated description, the photographic image has long occupied a central position in the problem of representation. This remains the case in the digital era, with its hyperbolically and exponentially accelerating techno-proliferation only strengthening its instability.  With fluidity and mutability having largely displaced the essential or transcendental subject, the artist plays an active role in both activating subjects and destabilising subjectivities. Set against the immense influence of mass media imagery an artist’s representational claims can only ever hope to be at once critical and complicit.

The assumed indexicality of the photographic image was once considered to bear a physical relation to actuality somewhat analogous with the way footprints constitute physical traces or ‘indices’ of footsteps. What even the historical photographic image failed to reveal, however, is that framing and cropping of stilled moments represent a distortion of the continuum of reality, and that this inadequacy can be used to create fictions. With the advent of AI and advanced image manipulation technologies, this process of fictionalisation is exaggerated further, sometimes resulting in mutant composite copies without any single origin. Consequently, today, we can encounter images in an economy of multiples as a copy without an original, for paradoxically, the digital image presents us with a visible copy of an invisible or absent original. This is complex terrain. Just as Douglas Crimp once declared a plurality of copies against a pluralism of originals on the incoming tide of the postmodern, antagonisms between originality and copy are rarely present as an absolute antithesis. Sometimes, once we encounter an original after knowing a copy, we actually prefer the copy. Some languages, such as Mandarin, possess words describing things that are neither copy nor original. In some instances, copies can even be elevated as more valuable than originals. Here, an emphasis on materiality and skill can project a physical presence that elucidates the agency of copies and their absent originals.

To confidently navigate cycles of reference to the world, we still need to critically discern differences between the real, the copy, the material, and ourselves. Just as a work of art is a mutually insufficient constellation of concepts and substance, so too, the dialectic of artificiality and authenticity has largely converged within the cross-fertilised languages of contemporary art. Unlike that which constitutes a search for meaning or an unambiguous representation of reality, art is often, as Howard Singerman once eloquently put it, “motivated by a flight from interpretation”. Indeed, compelling art can thrive in ambiguity, nuance, and the presentation of multiple and contradictory perspectives. When engaging with art, it is instructive to remain alive to the way that some things can at once mean something, yet also be something else, yet at the same time present as artifice.