Friday, August 03, 2007

The Sincerest Form of Flattery?, Part II

And here I was wondering what to post about today...

In response to
yesterday's post on the decision by the Singapore Art Show to remove Lynn Lu's work from the exhibition, we're very fortunate to have all three parties involved share their accounts of the events (Lynn Lu, Jason Mortara, and the exhibition curator Heman Chong). I understand that this was a highly charged issue, and I would like to thank each of them for their carefully considered and generous explanations. I'll repost them below in the order they were offered:


Jason Mortara here. Thanks to Mr. Winkleman for posting the whole story as it's been reported in the press, you clearly have an avid readership and your readers' discussion is generally thoughtful and interesting.

A critical thing missing from the current web links, to put this in context, is the original article, published first in the International Herald Tribune and then the New York Times, which featured the title "X" and made no reference to me. The current versions of the articles have been updated with the corrected title and a reference in the body.

I met Lynn Lu when we were both in graduate school a few years ago and she was/is a friend and colleague of mine, though she moved away about a year later after she graduated it was during overlap that I made this work. To clarify something that may be ambiguous in the articles, we were both asked to participate in the same one-night show in San Francisco on the same night. This was the third and last time I did this piece. The first was solitary, for the still camera, which is the image you posted from my site. The second was a roughly hour-long video, shot from about the same angle as Ms Lu's video. The third time was a live performance, also about an hour, and Ms Lu was simultaneously performing her piece a few feet over during this event.

Some of you are probably artists out there, so you are familiar with the life: no money, no stability, few opportunities, work really hard because you love it... really your ideas and your community of other artists is all you have. And one more thing: tiny scraps of recognition here and there. I'm not complaining: I love the life I chose for myself and consider myself lucky to have it.

Let's keep in mind that if you wrote a book, published it yourself on a shoestring, sold a couple of copies, forgot about it, and then five years later someone got international recognition for the same text with the names and a couple of chapters changed, there would be nothing to discuss about what was ethical or legal--it would be clear-cut plagiarism and you would have an ironclad case in court because you could prove you were the original author. When thinking about this in the context of a culture of youtube, mash-ups, sampling, and appropriation, you might ask yourself how you would feel if this were your work.

This piece, I would add, is from a brief period when I was experimenting with using autobiography in my work, and with a goal of not ending up with a physical object--I was trying to get away from sculpture and installation. It's not what I consider my best work and I haven't shown it since 2003.

After the first few days to get over my initial nausea and anger after reading about the original article in the International Herald Tribune, during which I had to act quickly to try to rectify the authorship issue, I entered a state of being a bit more objective about the whole situation. I found myself able to talk with friends (who were at that point more incensed than I was) about it as an important conversation about authorship and ideas. I found myself not exactly defending Ms Lu's decision or her piece, but trying to convince my friends that she meant no direct harm (this was based on my emails with her), and that it was an oversight gone awry, and that this is all part of an important conversation.

Some of your readers are right in that this is really mostly an ethical matter, and that the legal issues are quite gray. However, to act quickly (before this image and caption spread all over the internet), over emails to the curator, chair of the Arts Council, journalist, International Herald Tribune, and New York Times, to receive proper credit as the original author of this work in an international newspaper before the show opened a few days later in a country on the other side of the planet, demanded not a kind of "please, sir, may I humbly submit that this piece may have been influenced etc", but a much more significant assertion of my rights as an artist. I provided lots of documentation of this piece from my archives, video stills, a card from the show we were both in that features this image and both of our names on the card, emails to the curator of that show, and offered to send the new curator video of that version of the piece, etc. The curator, Heman Chong, asked Ms Lu about the piece and she made no argument or contest. If she'd felt that this was a truly original work that I deserved no credit for, she would have argued, and/or the curator would have stood up for her, and both the curator and the Singapore National Arts Council would have backed her up. I certainly didn't try to intimidate her and most of my arguments were directly to the curator and the museum and the journalist. She did the right thing and offered to give credit where it was due, and I respected her greatly for doing so. I think those of you who imply that she backed down because she is Asian or a woman are insulting her intelligence and should really think much harder about what you are saying about her ability as an independent thinker and accomplished artist in her own right.

At my suggestion, Ms Lu instantly and courteously agreed to split the small artist's fee and change the title. She made the same arrangements with the curator and the journalist who was to submit a correction. (I don't feel I should receive any part of the fee now that a different piece is being shown.) Never at any point did I suggest that the piece be withdrawn. I was interested only in receiving credit for what I saw was essentially my own work being performed by another artist. This view was affirmed by the unsolicited opinions of my peers. I gave my response great consideration, knowing that I was entering waters personally unknown to me and with no guarantee that my authorship would be clarified, and, I felt, taking the risk we all take when we enter the public fray--that our words or deeds might be taken out of context, distorted by the other parties involved, that the media would inevitably get some or most of the story wrong no matter what their intentions, and that it might snowball. I have never done this before, I found the assertion I was forced to make very distasteful but necessary, and I truly hope never to have to get into this kind of issue again. Any artist will agree that my side of things is not how an artist wants his or her name out there.

At the same time I was considering this action, I was getting emails from outraged friends clamoring for me to defend myself--people who had seen the original work, and people who also know Ms Lu. I still have friends who, weeks after this started, are telling me I am "going too easy on her", "should sue", etc. I'm certainly not out to hurt Ms Lu's reputation--I would stand to gain nothing by that--only to clarify my own authorship. Of the dozens or so friends who have been writing me, about half had stories of their work, or a friend's work, being plagiarized or used without permission, inevitably with the perpetrator benefitting and the original artist left with no viable recourse. Not one of those artists got proper credit for their work. Not to be too sappy about it but I felt that the roster of frustrations could benefit from an occasional success story.

The curator, Heman Chong, was really great throughout this. I was impressed with his professionalism. He treated us both fairly I feel. A few days after the title had been changed, he wrote me that he and Ms Lu had changed their minds and decided to pull the work from the show so that this story didn't overshadow the rest of the show, and that Ms Lu would show a different piece. Again I never asked for this. I was also impressed with Ms Lu's professionalism after my response.

One major thing that's come up in all this is that of "appropriation", "idea osmosis", "ideas are out there", "influence", etc. These are critically important concepts that any good contemporary artist should grapple with. Many of you are sharing your views on this in this forum, which is important. To me, appropriation, which is a critical tool for many artists and is a bedrock of much contemporary art, implies that you are overtly and purposefully reusing existing content to create new content and new meaning, and that the fact that there was a previous author is actually an important component to your new work. Here, in my view, we had a different case: this was certainly not appropriation. Also, all artists share ideas with and are influenced by other artists. "Influence" is a bit more slippery to define and one could argue it constructively all day. What was the nail in the coffin for me was the fact that this was not a piece Ms Lu heard about, or read in a book, or we talked about doing some day, but one she saw me perform in person, with her own eyes. And if I were to submit a piece to a show that were so heavily influenced as to be nearly identical to another work, you can bet I would be referring to the original in the title and when I spoke to the curator about what I was going to show. Entire successful exhibitions have been created out of nothing but well-made art that references previous works. Who loses by referring to the original author? Nobody--it's win-win. To not do so is not unlike a lie of omission: to claim the entire idea is your own original creation.

In fairness to everyone involved, and in hopes of continuing this discussion, I am inviting Ms Lu via email to add her thoughts on all this, which I know are as valid as my own. I know she might want to comment and feel she should tell her side of all this.

Thanks for the interest everyone.

-Jason Mortara, August 2 2007

The thing that was not reported in the NYT or the IHT at the time of publishing was the fact that Lynn and I were discussing the matter at hand and working out a resolution that would be fair to several parties, including her, Jason, the National Arts Council (NAC) Singapore.

Out of the discussion, we decided that we should credit Jason by renaming the work and I left it to her to resolve the money bit of the deal. Not once did I imply that she had to share her grant with Jason and I kept the NAC at bay by assuring them that the artists are adults and would be able to come to a simple contract regarding the matter. No point having a situation with a large institution national funding agency stepping into the scene.

I must stress that I never had the thought of throwing Lynn out of the show. I came to the conclusion that her work "X (after Memories Revisited by Jason Mortara)" would be withdrawn because the work itself is compromised by her admittance that she made a mistake by appropriating Jason's work without a clear intention of doing so. So for me, its really an issue of infringing a kind of social contract (I would use the example of the inclusion of footnotes for quotations you have in an essay, which is something you're expected to do), which Lynn has transgressed upon. If it was her intention to borrow from Jason's work, then she should have credited it from the start. I agree with the comments above that the crediting came WAYYY too late.

So, I thought it would be a good idea to nullify the previous working agreement that we had, the product of which was "X" and to refresh the curator-artist engagement within the very same exhibition process and platform. What we've settled on is for her to show another work in the exhibition, one where she has volunteered to produce in the short span of time between where the issue surfaced and the opening of the exhibition. She filmed the work on site in the gallery and I'm glad to say that it worked out very well.

Reading from the papers, it must have spelt out like some good old-fashioned scandal involving a couple of bohemian types trashing out, but the truth of the matter is that both Lynn, Jason, the NAC and I were emailing each other in a calm and human manner thoughout the whole correspondence. There was no shouting, no name calling, no finger pointing or malice of any sort. Everyone did their role to address what we think is best for the logic of the situation.

Best regards,

Hello, this is Lynn Lu.

When I began thinking about making a video about memory, time and travel, in the context of it being screened in an unoccupied shop in a shopping mall in Singapore, it occurred to me to directly address my audience (something I do quite often in my work) by name in the video. Reflecting that I have lost touch with most of my childhood friends from this city, and many people I have known over the past decade-plus of somewhat nomadic existence, I thought that I would bring them back to my consciousness, in a way that also indicated that they are no longer a part of my life as they once had been.

In the midst of this nostalgic reflection, I recalled writing secret letters to childhood best friends in apple juice, readable after applying a hot iron to them. I thought that I would write the names of lost friends one by one, using this method. Since this loss over time is a fact of everyday life, toilet paper seemed appropriate for its connotations as well as form. Putting the invisible writing to the heat of a flame would cause the names to appear for an instant before being consumed by the fire, seemed like an apt metaphor for what I was considering. I wanted innocent shoppers to be surprised by their own names (or names of people they know-Singapore is a small city) mysteriously appearing and disappearing.

At this point, I recalled a performance made by Jason Mortara, an artist I went to graduate school with in San Francisco. We performed at a group show together once in 2002. At this event, I
performed interacting with the audience for the duration of the evening bathing in a bathtub, while Jason performed his piece at one point in the evening. I remember him writing on toilet paper in ink, then letting it burn in the palm of his hand, and recalled hearing from others that he was writing confessional/diaristic statements.

It seemed that his work was about personal pain (both emotional and bodily), while mine was a meditative and direct "Hello there" to long-lost friends. It never occurred to me that Jason would see 'X' as a copyright infringment on 'Memories Revisited', and in fact I did not give it any thought.

I forwarded Jason the link to the article (we have been on each other's mailing lists and in touch over the years), and when he wrote back (seemingly) lightheartedly if I meant to compliment him with the similarity of 'X', I replied (genuinely) lightheartedly that I did. I was extremely suprised to receive a strong request from him later that day to be credited and compensated financially.

I felt like the new dog who peed at what seemed like a reasonable spot and only realized "uh-oh" when the owner got mad. I was shocked by Jason's reaction and immediately felt that I must have done a terrible thing thanks to my very poor judgement. I saw why Jason would feel they way he did, and felt sorry for not considering more carefully how my actions (or non-actions) affect others. I apologized to Jason immediately for my carelessness, and was grateful for his gracious response.

If it would help clarify things regarding the works and where they are situated in the respective bodies of our work, please visit Jason's site and mine:;=3&NP=5

Thanks very much for your time,

I'll ask that any commenters, on both sides of the issue (i.e., those who feel there's not enough of a resemblance and those who feel there is enough of a resemblance to justify the concerns), maintain the same respectful approach to the feelings of both artists that they're clearly showing each other.

I'll ring in on one point only here and that's to say I appreciate the clarity Mr. Chong demonstrated in noting:
I came to the conclusion that her work "X (after Memories Revisited by Jason Mortara)" would be withdrawn because the work itself is compromised by her admittance that she made a mistake by appropriating Jason's work without a clear intention of doing so.
My only request at this point is that you end the suspense and share with us which piece by Ms. Lu will now be included in the exhibition.

Labels: imitation


Anonymous twhid said...

Thanks for the detailed follow-ups one and all.

Mr. Mortara is correct that this as an ethical not a legal issue. Chalk one up for artists with common sense.

I'm still unclear on why he thinks he deserves any financial compensation (Lu says he 'strongly' requested it).

What harm was actually done to him that requires financial compensation?

8/03/2007 09:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks to those involved in this for sharing the facts & their thoughts. It sounds like everyone handled the situation as well as can be and I hope it does not leave too bad of a taste in anyone's mouth.

I suppose the one thing that surprises me in this is that the issue of authorship didn't occur to Ms. Lu when she was putting together this piece. Perhaps it is just me, but that is something that I'm always very conscious of.

I suppose the line for me is whether the inspirations I draw upon result in originating a work of art (in which case I know to step very carefully) or whether the inspiration is simply additive to something I'm already working upon (in which case I feel on more solid ground).

8/03/2007 09:28:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Now that I’ve read more of the details, I’ll take back my original criticism of the curatorial response.

8/03/2007 09:51:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Now that I’ve read more of the details, I’ll take back my original criticism of the curatorial response.


8/03/2007 10:02:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

It's refreshing to read such civil and thoughtful responses from the artists and curator involved in this.

8/03/2007 11:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You don't really understand how bad this feels and what it does to your sense of trust in general until it has happened to you!--from an artist whose idea was sneakily ripped off by a professor/friend for her own museum show

8/03/2007 11:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There seems to be a big difference between the Mortara case and the Paul Chan incident. In the first case we are talking about intellectual property. In the second we are talking about abuse of power. For a professor or visiting artist to rip a students idea is just unacceptable. That student is making private ideas - notebooks - processes - available to an authority figure for critique. When a work is shown in public or a gallery it is understood that it is entering into a public world/image databank that will be influencing all who view it in one way or another. But the student/teacher relationship is very different and should be respected as such...

8/03/2007 12:40:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

I must add my vote of appreciation for the maturity and goodwill of everybody involved. It gives me great hope for the future of the art world in general when I see people resolving their conflicts in this way.

8/03/2007 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

What were you doing five years ago?

Mortara takes offense because he feels that Lynn Lu has appropriated his ‘idea’ from a performance piece he did while he was in graduate school (according to his CV) I can understand this, clearly his memory of his own work is acute.

Five years later, Lynn Lu does a similar performance. Now maybe she had a clear memory of Mortara’s piece, more likely she just had a vague recollection of the event. A recollection or memory, which may have subliminally come into play as she was conceiving the Shanghai performance. I would guess that if Mortara had pursued the ideas behind this piece in a public way, it might have come to the forefront for Lu sooner than it did. Five years is a long time, what’s the shelf life of an idea?

What is more important in my view, is that the Shanghai performance of "X", is clearly conceptually linked with her other works in her practice as an artist. Yes there are similarities with Mortara’s performance, they both used similar props but from what little I’ve read, Lynn Lu’s work is more directly involved with a dialogue with the audience and within here body of work "X" makes sense.

In the previous post, Anon 9:35 made a good comment concerning the public and private existence of an artwork and the role the audience plays in giving it authorship. No one ‘owns’ an idea, ideas are fungible and in the artworld ‘ownership’ is assigned by the audience. It’s up to the artist to make a case for their practice. It appears to me that Mortara wasn’t interested in pursuing this with "Memories Revisited", Lynn Lu revisited the format and made it her own.

I do not think that Mortara is correct when he suggests that Lynn Lu’s "X" is a recreation of his work "Memories Revisited". It’s not.

8/03/2007 01:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

jason's final paragraph doesn't give lynn much choice about commenting or not, does it? this got way out of hand... lose-lose for both sides. lynn should not have given in so easily, she was not so horribly wrong... this will be her google hell.

edward, why wasn't this an issue for you back when you first heard about paul chan?

to term visiting artists doing half-hour studio visits a "student/teacher relationship" is absurd.

8/03/2007 02:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

re: to term visiting artists doing half-hour studio visits a "student/teacher relationship" is absurd.

It may not be the same relationship but it's wrong in either case to "steal" (rip off, appropriate, etc.) an idea from a student. When one student does it from another, and it's still student work, not in a gallery show, that's more understandable. But when a professional artist, be it teacher or visiting artist, artist in residence, etc., does it, it is wrong.

I agree with the anon 11:55 that
you don't know what this feels like til it happens to you. A lot of conflicting feelings come up (as Jason expressed), including, "am I making too big a deal of this?" and "is there such thing as ownership of an idea?", many of which keep you from complaining, or expressing your concerns to the appropriator. It's difficult to know what to do, so generally people do nothing, except privately nurse a grudge.

another anon (I'm staying anon because I don't want to be labeled as a whiner/complainer - I'd rather turn the other cheek and take the high road, even though I'm still resentful).

8/03/2007 02:29:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

edward, why wasn't this an issue for you back when you first heard about paul chan?

I know this is will be re-open the issue of a certain Australian feminist, but I wasn't aware of the Chan issue until yesterday. Only so many hours in a day, I'm afraid.

8/03/2007 03:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aw, give yourself a break Ed. Germaine Greer probably didn't know about Paul Chan until today.

8/03/2007 03:14:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Aw, give yourself a break Ed. Germaine Greer probably didn't know about Paul Chan until today.

LOL...that's funny on so many levels...thanks for the chuckle.

8/03/2007 04:25:00 PM  
Blogger Bradley Hankey said...

This was a very interesting read and raises many questions about sources of inspiration, especially in our current era where the world is saturated with art and history, and at what point the line of "copying" another artist's work is crossed. I enjoyed the thoughtful responses from the artists themselves.

8/03/2007 05:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

Five years later, Lynn Lu does a similar performance. Now maybe she had a clear memory of Mortara’s piece, more likely she just had a vague recollection of the event. A recollection or memory, which may have subliminally come into play as she was conceiving the Shanghai performance.

Lynn's side of the story doesn't seem to support your surmise of vague recollection. At least in her presentation of the events, she seems to have a pretty clear memory of his performance and had consciously made a decision to borrow it.

There are certainly a lot of gray areas here, but the real error seems to me being not considering the issues of attribution & authorship.

It never occurred to me that Jason would see 'X' as a copyright infringment on 'Memories Revisited', and in fact I did not give it any thought.

I think everyone involved, including Lynn Lu, would have been more comfortable if she could have said that she had considered the matter and had decided her actions were okay because of such-and-such reason (and maybe, upon reflection, changed her thinking upon receiving the protest)... but instead she is left in a position where she has to admit simply not giving it any thought whatsoever... I think the lesson here is that professionals need to think twice when borrowing (or being inspired) by others' art and consider the implications.

8/04/2007 12:19:00 AM  
Blogger David said...

This reminds me of a similar situation, handled very differently, here in NZ:

8/06/2007 01:24:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...



is interesting

I don't think the idea of art as a zero sum game or as expanding like a fractal is new, but how many people have spent the time to diagram their essay?

Or cite their references. Thats what academics do, should it be any different for artists?

That artists are sometimes disingenuous is to be expected - and we find the same thing in academia.

Politics, its a sticky wicket.

8/06/2007 02:17:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home