The real and the fake (2015.06.01 [Mon.])


  I scanned a few prints from books I acquired at bouquins along the Seine in Paris, and printed them with a laser printer to frame and hang on my walls (see Fig.). The clerk at the Tokyu Hands framing department remarked on the high quality of the paper I printed them on, but in fact it was just ordinary A4 copy stock, but the printer had rendered the original's texture and every smudge and flaw perfectly. Once the framed behind glass plates, these 'works' were indistinguishable from the originals. If anything, they were more striking.

  It has been many years since the resolution of high-end digital copiers first exceeded that of the human retina. Often, you can't tell a copy from an original unless you reach out and actually touch it, so for personal uses copies often work just fine. Whether or not that is a good thing is the question I want to pursue here.  For myself, the answer is clear – if a copy is close enough to the real thing to generate the same emotional response, then it is just as 'real.' As you might imagine, this applies to books as well – if the content is the same, it doesn't matter to me whether the work is a first edition or a reprint, and although I do buy a lot of antiquarian books, I'm sometimes stunned to find a cheap new edition become available after buying the original...

  I took my newly framed, photocopied treasures with me and continued to an antiquities seller on Tor Road west, thinking I might pick up a print or two if they had anything to my taste, but also to have a sneaky bit of fun testing whether the proprietor could discern the true nature of my framed fakes.

  She had a look and laughingly scolded me "You shouldn't be doing this!" I hadn't tried to sell it as an original, and had only made a copy from a book I had already bought, so I wasn't interfering with her business. But still I could understand her point. I am a frequent customer of old book shops and antique dealers, and I know the value associated with such rarities and the price tags they can carry. It doesn't seem strange to me that original natural history prints from overseas would be priced at a premium in Japan. That's just the nature of business, and anyone who can't accept it is welcome to visit Paris to search from themselves.

  At the risk of repeating myself, an interest in natural history involves the desire to acquire the real. This is true for collectors of insects, and zoologists as well—only the actual animal is considered the real thing, no matter how detailed an image is produced. So then, does species collecting attach the same worth to antiquarian authenticity as book collecting? I'm sure Walter Benjamin would have described it as an 'aura,' but there is something about the minutiae that differentiate the original from any copy and stand testament to its endurance through time and place in history that signifies value. My little experiment was good news in a sense for book collecting—I could enjoy a framed replica from a book without having to tear out the page. But when I think about the likelihood that this will turn into to someone's business model at some point, I can't help but think that changes things for the worse. I suppose many would agree with that.

  In fact, this kind of business is already rampant in the art world. In the past, a person might think, "Wouldn't it be neat to hand a borderless picture on that wall?" and even without necessarily having any deep appreciation for art, head for a dealer or gallery to buy an original work to display. But there are still quite a few eccentrics in the world, like me, who won't be satisfied with anything but a very specific work, such as Arnold Böcklin's Die Toteninsel or Dali's Reminescence Archeologique de l'Angelus de Millet. Desire of this kind is not constrained by money. No matter how high the price tag, only one person in the world will have the satisfaction of possessing the true version. Given the impossibility of acquisition, we're left with two choices: buy a high-resolution digital print, or commission a talented artist to paint a copy. The latter has the advantage of being an actual painting, but carries the risk of unsatisfying differences in artistic interpretation and ability. But can one enjoy such a copy, knowing it's a fake? There are in fact those who obsess over high-quality artistic forgeries in their own right, and the Vermeers (or I should say, Vermeer-like paintings) done by Han van Meegeren, which were good enough to fool the Nazis, now constitute a niche market of their own. That said, I would still opt for the former option, despite the complete absence of any painterly essence. Some might say I am missing the real enjoyment of the art, but I would counter that I am enjoying it fully. For me, if it can convince my senses (other than smell and touch), then it is good as real.

  Barbara Stafford has written that Western art progressed along with the desire for ever more accurate representations in medicine and anatomy. But I would argue that natural history also played it part, striving to capture the detail of the natural world, and giving rise to a publishing industry that circulate its achievements the world round. After all, the old prints we now treasure were themselves mere 'copies.' We see the most recent instantiation of this in the high-resolution color photography collections in bookshops today. Natural history images more closely resemble Japanese art than do other works of Western art in the detail of their outlines (and I think we should include the famous Japanese painter of fish, Bakufu Ono in this category). I have written previously about how Jujiro Nomura provided all of the lithographs for Edward Philips Allis' published works (of which I sadly possess only black-and-white copies).

  What then is the difference between the copy and the real? Victorian Era natural history held a fascination for antiqueness distinct from the actual value of a given specimen, which has continued in the field today. But we also now see the re-emergence of the Victorian Style in steampunk cosplay, which only seeks to re-create the look of the day. Both look to the dull brass and foxed pages, but in pursuit of opposing realities. For myself, I say that the if the real is not out in the field, or stored in a specimen case, then it is what I carry around in my own head. I don't seek to collect an aura, but to exude one.