South Korean Copyist Wins Award for Borrowed Ideas

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It’s not every day that an American artist receives an email alerting them that someone halfway around the world has just won an award for unauthorized and blatant reproductions of their own work. But that’s what happened recently to Mike Womack, who “out of the blue” received some intel via email regarding one Jeongwoo Hahn, a South Korean sculptor who scored $6,500 via Insa Art Space, a non-profit institution launched in 2000 in Seoul, and the opportunity to stage a solo exhibition at the venue. One small problem: Hahn’s creations were almost note-for-note fascimiles of work that Womack had debuted, in 2013, at ZieherSmith Gallery in New York (now Zieher Smith & Horton).

“At least one [of Hahn’s pieces] is an exact copy in every detail: size, scale, paper margins and position; down to the manner and angle at which I photographed the work,” Womack told ARTINFO. “Another is a near exact copy, with the legs of the saw horses holding up the concrete being slightly different; but even this sculpture was installed exactly as mine had been at a slight angle up against the wall. Many other pieces appear to be mimicking the aesthetic of my work and the feel/installation of my exhibition.” The image above is of Womack’s install; the image below shows Hahn’s exhibition in South Korea. Even Hahn’s title, “Somewhere Laid Down” — while not a direct pilfering from Womack — has the general tone of Womack’s titling.

HahncopyWhat makes this affair even more loaded is the very autobiographical nature of the works in Womack’s 2013 exhibition, “Observer Effect.” Despite having the impersonal, detached air of Minimalism, the pieces involved “a series of drawings of my earliest memories,” Womack explained, “made while under hypnosis and never viewed by anyone — and then buried in concrete. I’m not sure if Jeongwoo Hahn just made replicas of the objects, or if he in fact made ‘memory drawings’ first, before casting them in concrete. The image, artifice, or residue of my own work is all that’s available to me — much like the inescapably false truth of a memory. It’s a copy of a copy of a copy.”

After being exposed, Hahn’s exhibition was taken down, and Insa Art Space officials said that he will be issued a fine (in addition to paying back the $6,500 award). The South Korean himself drafted an email to Womack, rendered in shaky English, in which he claims to have destroyed the offending sculptures, and says that he has “come to worry… why I did that” in the first place. Womack said that he’s “more fascinated than upset” by the whole scenario. “When I think about how ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ it becomes easy to chuckle at the strangeness of it all,” he said. “Two identical pieces of sculpture existing on different sides of the planet. I’m reminded of Boris Rosing in Russia, and Philo T Farnsworth in the US, both inventing the television in isolation from one another.”

It’s interesting that Hahn, after being called out on his uncredited reproductions, didn’t simply play the Richard Prince card. Womack himself seems undecided in regard to the boundary between appropriation and outright theft. “I think appropriation, remix, and collage are very much the current mode of cultural production,” he said, “and yet the line between a soul-less copy and a ‘transformation of the original’ remains elusive and unpredictable. I dig ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke, yet recognize that it’s standing on the shoulders of Marvin Gaye. I like it, yet I know it’s a copy. I think the inability to separate the two describes our condition at the moment: cognitive dissonance seems inevitable.”

— Scott Indrisek (@indrisek)

(Photos: Courtesy Mike Womack)