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A cut-and-paste festival

'Ruins of the Future,' a collection of contemporary art, is billed as a Peruvian international exhibition. But don't buy a plane ticket -- it only exists online.

October 26, 2003|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Did local workers really produce Koons' giant porcelain dog in the kiln near the sculpture? Did Christo and his wife, Jeanne Claude, really do a Peruvian rerun of the yellow umbrellas they erected in California's Tejon Pass in 1991? And doesn't that Oldenburg bow and arrow look exactly like "Cupid's Span," the work that he and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, installed last year at Rincon Park in San Francisco?

"All this is a lie," says Mertens, who has simply merged low-resolution Internet images of existing artworks with his photographs of the kilns, creating a sort of collage. He took more liberties with other works. Long, who often arranges stones in lines or circles, supposedly tore down one of the kilns and used the bricks to make a pathway leading over the horizon. Panels of text in Kosuth's installation are said to be "dictionary explanations of Inca signs," but they are Mertens' inventions, adapted from another Kosuth work.

Mertens is amused that art magazines have listed the exhibition as a real event and that he and Van Mourik have received queries from people who want to see the work in Peru. But he set up the show so that "the lie can be unmasked," he says. "If you really look at our Web site and read the whole thing, everything is explained."

Well, not quite everything.

Mertens did not ask the other artists for permission to use images of their work. That would have been contrary to the spirit of the piece, he says. "If I, a 50-year-old man, want to be a 17-year-old girl, I can create that virtual identity for myself and contact others in that identity. I don't ask permission. That isn't the Internet; the Internet is anarchy."

He would not agree to letting someone else poach his work, "so I would never ask this of another artist," he says. "My art is mine. I have to decide what I will create and where it will be."

'Borrowing' from other artists

So far, none of the artists has objected, Mertens says. Those who were contacted by The Times did not respond. For now, at least, it seems that they are either unaware of his work, unconcerned about it or willing to take it in stride as creative expression -- or as part of the tradition of art about art. From European Old Masters' creations "after" their mentors to Andy Warhol's remake of the "Mona Lisa" in his 1963 painting "Thirty Are Better Than One," art has a long history of propagating other art.

"This kind of plagiarism or dipping one's cup into the canon of art for one's own critical project is a fairly well-established art practice," says Rachel Greene, the author of "Internet Art," a soon-to-be published book, and executive director of Rhizome, a nonprofit online artists' platform that recently forged a partnership with the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. And the Internet has made it easier, she says, "because cutting and pasting is such a fundamental command."

Slovenian artist Vik Cosic completely duplicated the Web site of Documenta 10, held in Kassel, Germany, in 1998, thereby appropriating the "official art," Greene says. In a similar vein, L.A. artist Michael Mandiberg's Web site,, reproduces the same 1936 photographs by Walker Evans that artist Sherrie Levine rephotographed in 1979. Mandiberg calls his project "a comment on how we come to know information in this burgeoning digital age."

What interests Greene about Mertens' project is "the critique that the artist is getting at," she says, "which is to say that art travels in an incredibly global way, like capital, from rich centers to poor regions. By enacting that in this Peruvian landscape, he is making a comment about how official art travels and pointing to how these so-called international art festivals repeat the same sets of artists. I think that's an important critique."

Benjamin Weil, curator of new media at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, counts Mertens among many artists who "present Web sites of something that supposedly exists but doesn't." Take The, he suggests. The creation of Xiao Min, a Chinese artist who lives in Tallahassee, Fla., it advertises a fictional island where "over 2,500 dogs are already enjoying a better life" and others are invited to join them.

"We tend to be very gullible," Weil says, and the Internet is well suited to artists who want to exploit that human weakness. But Mertens has taken an unusual approach by creating "a catalog for a show that doesn't exist, which is very interesting," he says. "A lot of our experience as consumers of art is based on catalogs and reproductions."

Mertens, who studied art at St. Lucas Institute in Brussels in the early 1970s, calls himself a contextual artist and typically chooses locations that provide provocative settings for critical inquiries. In his earlier days, he placed his work in schools, nursing homes and public buildings. After turning to the Internet, he created a virtual real estate company that is said to be selling major art museums.

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