Appropriation in Art: How Ai Weiwei and Yoko Ono Boldly Challenge Originality at Berlin Art Week

art and appropriation at berlin art week

Last Updated on April 8, 2024

What does Appropriation in Art Mean?

In the vast world of contemporary art, the concept of appropriation in art remains one of its most intriguing and complex dimensions. At the crossroads where the past meets the present, reappropriation delves into the intricate dance of originality, imitation, and the constant redefinition of artistic meaning.

Appropriation in art refers to the act of borrowing, taking, or reusing existing elements, such as images, forms, or styles, from previous artworks or from broader visual culture, and incorporating them into new works. This can be done without the permission of the original creator, and the borrowed elements are often transformed or placed into new contexts.

Several reasons drive artists to appropriate:

  1. Critique or Commentary: Some artists use appropriation to comment on the original work, the artist, or the broader cultural context surrounding that piece.
  2. Recontextualization: By placing borrowed elements in a new context, artists can give them fresh meaning or perspectives.
  3. Challenging Authorship: Appropriation can question the very idea of originality and authorship, suggesting that all art builds on what came before.
  4. Cultural Critique: Appropriation can be used to address broader cultural and societal issues, especially in terms of power dynamics, cultural borrowing, and sometimes even cultural appropriation, exploitation, or colonization.

While it’s celebrated for its ability to push boundaries and redefine meanings, it can also be criticized, especially when it involves issues of cultural sensitivity or when it seems to cross into plagiarism.

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Historically, numerous artists have engaged in appropriation in art, with movements like Pop Art and postmodernism particularly embracing the approach. The line between inspiration and appropriation can be thin, and it’s a topic of continuous debate in the art world.

As we embark on this exploration of Ai Weiwei’s and Yoko Ono’s masterpieces in the context of Berlin Art Week, we are beckoned to confront these challenges anew. We tread a path illuminated by thinkers like Plato and trailblazers like Levine, understanding that art’s continuous cycle of reinterpretation and reappropriation not only questions its own nature but also how society perceives, values, and evolves with it.

A Fake of a Fake?

The history of appropriation in art is a complex tapestry of artists continuously borrowing, reimagining, and challenging pre-existing cultural and artistic narratives.

From the ancient wisdom of Plato, who mused on art as an imitation of an imitation, we find the very essence of this dilemma. For Plato, art was but a mere shadow of reality, twice removed from the truth. If reality itself is an imperfect copy of the ideal forms, art, in its attempt to imitate reality, becomes a copy of a copy, losing essence with each iteration.

This age-old philosophical musing resurfaces, echoing profoundly in the contemporary art scene, especially during the Berlin Art Week, where two monumental reinterpretations—Ai Weiwei’s “Last Supper” and the re-performance of Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece”—were showcased.

The path to these modern reappropriations, however, was significantly influenced by landmark works that questioned the boundaries of originality and imitation. A prime example is Sherrie Levine’s “After Walker Evans”, a series that effectively thrust the conversation of appropriation into the limelight.

Levine rephotographed Evans’ iconic Depression-era photographs, presenting them as her own without alteration, compelling audiences to grapple with layered queries about authenticity, ownership, and the very essence of artistic creation. Such audacious acts paved the way for intense dialogues on the blurred lines between homage, theft, reinterpretation, and originality. Levine’s work shattered previous notions, inviting artists to reckon with the evolving nature of art and appropriation in the postmodern era.

Ai Weiwei’s Interpretive Dance with da Vinci: The ‘Last Supper’ in LEGO

Ai Weiwei is a renowned Chinese contemporary artist, activist, and filmmaker known for his provocative works that address social, cultural, and political issues.

In the bustling environment of Berlin Art Week 2023, amidst a sea of avant-garde expressions and statements, Ai Weiwei’s exhibition titled “Know Thy Self” stands distinct. While the exhibit offers a series of LEGO-assembled renditions of iconic artworks, the crown jewel is arguably Weiwei’s reimagination of da Vinci’s “Last Supper”.

Comprising three monumental LEGO ‘paintings’, each iteration colorfully reinterprets the renowned Biblical scene in da Vinci’s masterpiece. At first glance, the LEGO pieces function like pixels, simplifying and abstracting the intricate details da Vinci so masterfully rendered.

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The act of deconstruction is not merely visual; it’s symbolic. By choosing LEGO — a child’s plaything — to reconstruct an almost sacred image, Weiwei isn’t just appropriating art; he’s questioning the values and beliefs we attach to it. This recreation, with its glaring plasticity, is a stark departure from the solemnity of the original.

The choice of material and the context in which it is presented profoundly alters the essence of the “Last Supper”. By using a medium synonymous with childhood and ephemeral construction, Weiwei emphasizes the themes of time, preservation, and change. It’s a dialogue about continuity and transformation, about what remains constant and what is lost with the passage of time.

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This reinterpretation also brings forth the idea of consumerism and its influence on our perception of the sacred and the profane. LEGO, a consumerist toy, contrasts the age-old reverence associated with religious artworks. In Weiwei’s version, the plastic pieces, with their inherent artificiality, further create a glare under exhibition lighting. This brilliance serves as a stark reminder of its modern, man-made construct — a juxtaposition that heightens the tension between old values and new materials.

Furthermore, by using LEGO, Weiwei might be touching upon the idea of accessibility. The original “Last Supper” is untouchable, residing in a controlled environment in Milan. But LEGO is tactile, meant to be touched, played with, and reassembled. Perhaps there’s a commentary on the democratization of art, making it more approachable and less sanctified.

In essence, Ai Weiwei’s “Last Supper” does more than just reproduce; it redefines. It challenges the viewer to confront their notions of sanctity, originality, and the very fabric of art. In his hands, an age-old masterpiece is reborn, not to replace the original but to stand beside it, prompting discussions on art’s evolving nature in a changing world.

“Cut Piece” Revisited: Power, Gender, and Audience in a Digital Age

Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” is one of the seminal works in performance art, conceived and executed by Ono herself in 1964. In this provocative performance, Ono sat passively on a stage with a pair of scissors in front of her, inviting audience members to come up and cut away pieces of her clothing.

The original piece was as much about the vulnerability of the artist as it was about the audience’s agency, morality, and the invisible boundaries of societal norms. The performance received varied reactions, some seeing it as a profound statement on femininity, vulnerability, and power, while others viewed it as an unsettling call to introspection on the audience’s part.

Fast forward to Berlin Art Week 2023, and the “Cut Piece” was reincarnated, albeit with distinct alterations. Set in the grand space of the Neue Nationalmuseum, adjacent to a TV showcasing Ono’s original performance, Berlin-based performers re-enacted the piece daily. Yet, when the performance I witnessed featured a male actor in Ono’s place, the differences between the two versions became not only noticeable but also deeply consequential.

The absence of Yoko Ono and the replacement of a hired actor are profound shifts in power dynamics. Originally, Ono, as the artist, put herself in a vulnerable position, allowing the audience to infringe upon her personal space. In this new version, the decision to hire an actor gives the artist a position of power, control, and distance.

The chosen male actor added layers of gender politics to the performance. The change in gender challenged traditional notions of male invulnerability, while also examining the audience’s hesitation to invade a male’s personal space compared to a female’s. This shift offers a renewed perspective on feminist interpretations of the work, prompting questions about gender norms, societal expectations, and the dynamics of male vulnerability.

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Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece performed in the Neue Nationalmuseum Berlin 2023.

The contextual environment of the Neue Nationalmuseum, coupled with the glaring omnipresence of smartphones, further diverged from Ono’s original piece. In 1964, the audience arrived with no predefined expectations, their reactions were organic and unfiltered.

The modern audience, however, already familiar with or exposed to the original performance via the adjacent TV, shifted the performance’s emphasis from the passive subject to the proactive audience member. The sea of smartphones transformed the audience from passive observers to active participants, often more concerned with capturing a shareable moment than the essence of the performance itself. This rampant narcissism seemed to overshadow the inherent message of the performance, turning it into a spectator sport or a hunt for the most viral clip.

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Monitor showing the original Cut Piece Performance of 1964 on display at Berlin Art Week 2023.

In conclusion, the “Cut Piece” of 2023, juxtaposed against its 1964 counterpart, magnifies the influence of context, audience dynamics, and artist presence in art reproduction. The alterations in the modern rendition — the use of a male actor, the strategic absence of the artist, and the changed dynamics of a digitally aware audience — not only reinterpret the original work but also critique today’s culture, spotlighting the shifts in societal values, gender perceptions, and the evolving relationship between art and its audience in the age of digital reproduction.

Can an Artist Reappropriate one’s own Work?

Reappropriating one’s own artwork, as Yoko Ono has demonstrated with the reinterpretation of her iconic “Cut Piece”, is a profound and multi-faceted act. Through this lens, the artist’s evolution of thought becomes evident. Over time, as artists evolve, their perspectives and understandings of their own pieces may shift. This reappropriation offers them an opportunity to embed new insights and experiences into those earlier works.

Such acts can also serve as a response to changing societal, political, or personal landscapes. As contexts evolve, the significance or reading of an artwork can undergo transformation. In the case of Ono, the act of introducing a male performer into the once deeply personal and vulnerable performance speaks to such shifts in understanding and the cultural environment.

Aesthetic exploration is another dimension of this process. Artists, as they progress in their careers, might acquire new techniques, mediums, or styles. Revisiting a piece can allow them to experiment, showcasing how they’ve matured in their craft. For Ono, while the core concept of “Cut Piece” remained, its execution in the modern context brought fresh layers of meaning and interpretation.

Appropriation in art, and therefore reappropriation of one’s one work, can also be about reclaiming control. If an artist feels their work has taken on meanings or interpretations unintended or unforeseen, revisiting can help them regain control over its narrative. This could be particularly pertinent to Ono, given how renowned and widely interpreted her original “Cut Piece” has become over the decades.

Furthermore, the act might be a nod to conceptual continuity. Artists often return to themes or ideas that fascinate them. In the case of “Cut Piece”, Ono’s decision to reintroduce the performance in a contemporary setting emphasizes its timeless relevance, while also allowing for the exploration of new themes.

Lastly, there’s the element of self-reflection. Art is deeply personal, and by reappropriating, artists like Ono can engage in an intimate dialogue with their past selves, assessing their journey and the evolution of their ideas.

In the end, the act of reappropriation, as demonstrated by Ono’s “Cut Piece”, is a dynamic engagement with one’s artistic past, allowing for rejuvenation, reflection, and a deeper understanding of the artwork’s place in both personal and societal contexts.

Is Appropriation in Art Still Relevant Today?

In tracing the intricate tapestry of reappropriation from Sherrie Levine’s audacious endeavors to Ai Weiwei’s lego-rendered “Last Supper” and the updated performance of Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece”, we’re led to an inevitable contemplation: is appropriation in art still pertinent today?

The undoubted resonance of Ai Weiwei’s and Ono’s works in contemporary discourse suggests that it is, but not merely a repetitious act of borrowing. Rather, its relevance lies in the persistent probing of what is left to say or discover in a world saturated with images, both old and new.

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As the sands of time shift, so do societal perceptions and contexts. Even if the theme of reappropriation isn’t novel, the manner in which artists like Ai Weiwei and those involved in Ono’s re-performance challenge, adapt, and converse with the originals reveals uncharted layers of meaning.

While Levine’s work may have first prompted us to question originality, ownership, and authenticity, today’s artists push us further, asking us not just to recognize the act of appropriation but to ponder its implications in an age of digital replication and global interconnectedness.

So, is there more to unearth and understand? As long as art continues to be a reflection of evolving societal values, contexts, and technologies, the exploration of appropriation in art will remain inexhaustibly relevant, driving artists and audiences alike to delve deeper into the nuances of originality and the ever-changing dynamics of cultural interpretation.

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