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Sell-Out Surrealism: Dalí at K11

Deep inside the latest exhibition at the mall, and the challenges that dead artists face every day.
Nov 6, 2015 | 14:12 Fri
There’s no escaping the hype around this one: Dalí at K11 is a big deal. But if it’s oohing and aahing over iconic painting after iconic painting you’re after, this isn’t the show for you. The exhibition focuses on Dalí himself: media darling, sought-after cover star, guest editor and art director for an astonishing range of publications, and above all, an artist who unflinchingly lent his name and style to commercial endeavors spanning everything from cars to cosmetics. That in itself makes the show's venue -- art mall K11 -- something of a perfect fit, and adds a whole lot of depth to the flag-bearer of Surrealism and master of self-promotion.

All in all, it’s a really strong show that reveals a lesser-known side of this superstar artist. Full of surprising, small-scale cuttings and covers, if it’s an insight into the cult surrounding Dali, his sheer reach, celebrity and influence you’re after then you’re in for a treat. But if you’re simply hoping to catch in-the-flesh paintings of the same limelight-stealing icons rehashed in books, online and probably a fake exhibition or five, you might be disappointed. Something to bear in mind, for sure. Overall, though, thumbs up.

Dalí: Master of Self-Promotion

Co-organized by the K11 Foundation and Spain’s Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, the show underlines Dalí’s incredible dexterity and celebrity status. All wide-eyed and pointy mustached, his face was everywhere for a time: superimposed onto Mona Lisa for German mag Der Spiegel in 1959, splashed across Photo Monde and Revista -- even looking young and fresh-faced on the cover of a 1936 issue of Time. Viewed all together like this, he makes today’s "celebrity" artists -- the Tracey Emins, Damien Hirsts, or Ai Wei Weis of this world -- look like minor characters. Of course, it’s not just his character, antics, and proclamations that intrigued. His paintings, sculptures and designs remain perennially popular. Classic. For the Foundation charged with protecting Dalí’s estate, that’s a decidedly mixed blessing.

Anyway, magazine covers and excerpts are the mainstay at this exhibition, including those designed by Dalí himself, reproductions of his works or images, or Dalí-created advertisements for everything from Elsa Schiaparelli’s groundbreaking fashions to Perrier water.

Does Dalí’s huge body of commercial work make him a sell-out? Certainly not, explains exhibition curator, Montse Aguer:

"Dalí was very intelligent. He defined himself as a thinking machine and gave us this image of 'showman,' but that’s not real. He arrived in the US in the '40s while a World War was happening in Europe, thinking this was the center of the world -- 'I need to self-promote, I need to help audiences approach my art.'"

Dalí’s ads for the likes of Bryan’s hosiery, Isotta Fraschini cars, and loads more are fascinating to see. Purists might hold on to the somewhat perverse taboo that such unabashed commercialization compromises an artist’s reputation. Is that fair? “He was very conscious of that,” said Aguer. “He said, ‘Publicity loves me and I love publicity!’ He was very aware of what he was doing. He said, 'if Michelangelo could design walls for chapels, why shouldn’t I design dresses or perfume?'”

The exhibition features 14 original paintings, linking Dalí’s media work with his signature visual language: faceless statues, melting clocks and egg shaped forms, all hovering somewhere between dreams and reality. There’s also a section showcasing what’s rather morbidly described as "Dalí’s Remains." The non-mortal kind, it’s actually paraphernalia like the artist’s palette, brushes, glasses and so on.

Dali’s Legacy in China

From here, things take a turn for the contemporary with a group show curated by LEAP magazine’s Robin Peckham. The first half of this features slightly older, established contemporary artists, and the second is given to younger talents whose connection to the theme feels somewhat shakier.

Of the first bunch -- Zhou Tiehai, Zhang Enli and Wang Xin Wei -- it’s Tiehai’s pleasingly ridiculous Louis XVIII that resonates most with the superstar next door. Peckham explained:

"Looking at their work, what’s shared is humor. All of these painters are very, very funny, which is something you don’t see in a lot of more standard Realist Chinese paintings… what you get from Dalí is this idea of painting as performance… and part of a fundamentally humorous conversation. With the younger generation, there was no interest in Surrealism whatsoever. So we went in and said, alright, despite the fact that they’re disavowing Surrealism, where can we see the legacy of Dalí in their work? The answer was to find the idea of the surreal, the territory between the real and the unreal that’s becoming an interesting place for artists to work in, either because of the media they’re working in and its digital, virtual appearance, or psychology."

Louis XVIII. Image courtesy of Zhou Tiehai

Honestly, the section doesn’t really feel integral to the wider whole - although paintings by Geng Yini and Wang Buke are nonetheless well worth seeking out.

On Repros, Fakes and Copyrights

In the run up to the show, much was made of the fact that this is the "the only exhibition in China showcasing Dalí’s works to be officially authorized by the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation since 2001." Further underpinning these very vocal proclamations of authenticity, certain repros are labeled “First Complete Authorized Replica in Mainland China.” To find out what that’s all about, I asked Joan Manuel Sevillano Campalans, Managing Director of the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation to outline its role with regard to the artist’s legacy.

"Very simply, the Foundation are the right holders. It was the Spanish people who inherited Dalí and the Spanish government who was empowered to manage all copyrights, moral rights, intellectual copyrights -- just as it was doing when Dalí was alive. In order to copy a work, reproduce, adjust or manipulate a work you need the permission of the artist or the right holders, which is usually the family. Dalí had no family; the Foundation was his family. So anything that does not have our permission is not authorized."

Easy! But the fact remains: this is not the only Dalí show to hit Shanghai since 2001. Although not prepared to comment on specific exhibitions (including, presumably, the current Dalí showcase over at Bund18…), Campalans described the murky -- and at times outright plagiaristic waters -- surrounding the artist’s estate:

"A very tiny fraction of Dalí’s intellectual property was contracted off at the end of his life [to], in many cases, people who are perfectly serious, legitimate and trustworthy publishers of commercial art. Some are of a high standard, others of a passable standard. For the most part they did their contracts, the series remained and these pieces have a secondary market value. In other cases you have private collectors who have things at home and they want to create a commercial venture or they just want to show their stuff… Legitimate partners of the foundation will always call us.

A very small amount of people have pursued their contracts in what we consider questionable ways. You start seeing manipulation of works, or works that were not made by Dalí which very often fall under the category of merchandising. They’re presented as originals in an effort to raise the price or perception of value of that particular thing. In some cases, people just copy: they just go ahead and reproduce what they're not authorized to do, hoping they won't be found out.”

How to keep track of all that? Not just in China, but the whole world?

"Normally in countries where we have a presence, through for example, the Artists Rights Society (ARS), we find out about these things." Therein lies the challenge facing not just the Dalí Foundation, but any artist dead or alive who’s found their work appearing on anything from t-shirts to notebooks: “China is not a member of ARS’ worldwide network. They’re negotiating this now. China is taking bold steps into normalizing its IP management situation."

That’s great, but arguably not enough -- as this eye-opener from 2012 succinctly demonstrates. Just today, it took me all of about five seconds to find a Hebei company flogging knock-off bronze elephants from just 3,500 USD. What’s a foundation to do?

“Right now, many of the tools we have in Europe or the US don’t really work here -- cease and desist letters, for example. It’s a completely different approach and that’s what we’re trying to build: not only the legal right to pursue something, but also the friends that might help us in terms of things not going wrong to start with. The first step we’re taking is coming back to China. This is our first step in an ambitious program to create a network of associates, allies, open communication channels with the authorities and educational institutions."

With that in mind, the Foundation launched a Chinese version of its website just this week. “We’re going to do more things like that, but you can’t do everything at the same time. At the end of the day we are not a corporation we’re a cultural institution so you have to adjust to the reality."


So, there you have it: the commercial ventures of a guru of self-promotion, against a conscious backdrop of contraband commercialization, all housed inside temple to (art) commerce, K11. It’s a fascinating show, especially for anyone working in media or design. As you’d expect, tickets don’t come cheap. 120rmb a pop, to be precise. Oh, and if Wednesday’s private view crowds are anything to go by, this one’s going to be pretty packed, most of the time. Do yourself a favor: go on a weekday.


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