“What’s the use of all this copied stuff?” a colleague asked recently in response to the increasing hype surrounding the touring Tutankhamun exhibition. Of course, between the lines, this served to show that copies still have a rather poor image in the arts. They continue to be seen as second-class items, reproductions of questionable value, creations without a spirit of their own, to say nothing of the unstated comparisons to theft and forgery. For now, the absolute ruler in this area remains the original. Worshipped ecstatically, its aura is exulted beyond all others. The copy remains in the shadows. This isn’t fair, or better said, it isn’t fair to the copy.
Firstly, copying is a primordial human activity, or, one could almost say, a divine force within us. Even God famously created us in his own image and was as such a great copier. Has anyone ever condemned him for it? And how can we humans do otherwise if the urge to copy is virtually pre-programmed into us? For a good reason too, is all one can say, and cast a glance back at the past, such as at medieval monastic writing rooms. There the scribes – the copyists – were held in high esteem. They not only effectuated the mere reproduction of cultural goods, but, in spreading them, also ensured their survival and continued development. The famous C manuscript of the Nibelungenlied can be found in the Baden State Library in Karlsruhe. It is a treasure, one of the pillars of our culture.
It is granted the highest conservation status even though it is ‘only’ a copy of the original – which, by the way, no longer exists. When it was made it probably was just a copy, but now it has the aura of the original. In other words, this copy has undergone an immense increase in value. This is why one should never be too quick to dismiss a copy.
The famous Lascaux cave is situated in central France and contains the most comprehensive examples of early human painting. It had to be closed down because the works of art didn’t react too well to so many visitors breathing on them. It was replaced by a copy, by the Lascaux II cave with its tracings. These are by no means of equal value to the originals, to be sure, but without them this authentic evidence would have disappeared before our very eyes, to be gone forever. Originals are fragile. Copies protect.
Now, when the original tomb treasures, which consist of about a thousand objects, were recreated for the huge Tutankhamun exhibition, it was done with added value, with the third advantage inherent in replicas: The creators wanted to bring together that which has never been seen in context since the discovery of the tomb in 1922, namely Tutankhamun’s burial chambers with all of the accoutrements that a pharaoh needed for his journey into the afterlife – each detail in relation to another detail, every grain sack, every pitcher, every diadem in its original place. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo, with its scattered preserved originals, doesn’t offer this panorama and will never be able to. But is this abundance of dazzling gold replicas just marketing a bunch of kitsch, or a pseudoscientific Disneyfication of eminent archaeological goods?
Such accusations always abound with the kinds of project that involve copying. But this criticism doesn’t apply here. Not only because the objects in question have been duplicated largely by hand, to scale and with meticulous detail, but also because this show literally opens a door. A door to an overwhelming experience. It’s true that the replicas don’t preserve the unique moment of discovery of this world-famous treasure. But they do give us an impression of the impact of this moment and allow us to convey it to others. All thanks to copies.
We should learn to appreciate them and see them for what they are at heart, namely a cultural achievement.
Incidentally, that last thought is not mine. It’s a complete copy. I took it from a book written by the cultural theorist Dirk von Gehlen. It’s called ‘Mash-Up’. And further: ‘In Praise of Copying’! And I couldn’t agree more.
This text is the transcript of a radio essay which was broadcasted on hr2-Kultur on the occasion of the Tutankhamun exhibition in Frankfurt in 2011/2012.