Authentic Problems

Scott McLemee reviews Maria Francesca Piazzoni's The Real Fake: Authenticity and the Production of Space.

March 29, 2019

Imagine an old building, impressive and much photographed in its day, but long neglected, with the facade now vandalized and the interior partially ransacked. Suppose the blueprints have survived, along with a good many bills of sale for the original furnishings. Someone has decided to bring the place back to its original glory, and two options are on the table.

The first involves clearing the debris, replacing the broken glass and patching the walls, and cleaning up whatever has remained of the décor. An exhaustive search is made for vintage originals of the missing furniture, some of which must also be restored.

The second proposal defines a radically different course -- first of all, by razing the place to the ground. A team of architects would study the blueprints and take them as a springboard: they would design as exact a duplicate of the original as possible but use the best materials and the most suitable engineering currently available. The furnishings and décor would likewise be exact replicas, produced by contemporary means. Comparing the finished product with photographs taken 100 years earlier, no one would notice anything amiss.

So now the question this thought experiment poses: Which of reconstituted buildings is the more authentic of the two? A reasonable response here would be that neither is -- that authenticity is absolute, not relative. (Prior to restoration, the building was authentic: an eyesore, yet purely itself.)

But a less stringent concept of authenticity prevails in common speech. The tourist in search of “authentic Cajun cooking” will be happiest if the meal is made with traditional ingredients and recipes by a cook born and raised on the bayou. The same dishes will seem less authentic upon discovering that it was prepared by a Norwegian making use of such spices as are at hand, and still less if it turns out that the recipes were found online.

Asked to judge our two hypothetical buildings, a Westerner is likely to identify the first one as being the more authentic -- and on grounds not too dissimilar to our tourist’s expectations regarding jambalaya. It incorporates as much of the original structure and materials as possible; the antique furnishings were produced during the same period as the ones they replace. By contrast, no effort at preservation goes into the second option; all traces of the original are obliterated and a simulacrum erected in its place. The reproduction may be perfect, but the very concept seems to preclude it being called “authentic.”

Except, perhaps, to the public Maria Francesca Piazzoni writes about in The Real Fake: Authenticity and the Production of Space (Fordham University Press). In the case of Thames Town -- a Shanghai suburb built to imitate the look and feel of a British village, combining the elements of a real estate investment opportunity and a popular tourist destination -- Piazzoni finds the transplanted spirit of the original assuming an intriguing and puzzling form.

Drawing on her background as an architectural preservationist and on her fieldwork in China as an ethnographer of urban design, Piazzoni underscores a fundamental cultural difference manifested in the use of two Mandarin words for “copy” signifying “a lower and a higher quality of replication.” While “a copy is initially considered less valuable than its initial model,” it is possible for “the replica [to] captur[e] the essence of the original” and transform the copy into “a perfect substitute for the original.” The “life force … initially possessed by the [original] source” is absorbed by the superlative variety of copy -- leaving the prototype, I take it, no worse for wear.

Western cultures have gone through waves of chinoiserie -- a taste for styles and images from a place that exercised its fascination from a great distance. Now the tide has shifted. The ambience of Downton Abbey and the Harry Potter movies have grown appealing to Chinese consumers. Thames Town is a custom-designed expression of what might be called angloiserie.

In July 2013 and September 2014, Piazzoni conducted street observations of the town’s various quarters and, with a translator, conducted in-depth interviews with local residents, construction workers, security guards and tourists. The latter group consists largely of engaged couples there to have their photographs taken in wedding clothes, as gifts to give their families once they tie the knot. (The pictures must be very popular: a whole sector of the local economy exists to meet the demand.)

The author presents Thames Town as a careful and deliberate exercise in thematized urban development, with an infrastructure for utilities laid out first and the landscape then crafted to mimic the feel of a rustic town that had taken shape, without planning, over the centuries. Any resemblance to the carefully engineered nostalgia of Walt Disney’s theme parks is quite deliberate. But the space is also designed to appeal to the most upwardly mobile segments of China’s middle class. Its estates and gated communities contain luxuriously appointed country houses, so very British that residents sometimes find the need to carve out a more familiar and comfortable niche for cooking and everyday life.

Residents complain about the noisy and annoying tourists. Migrant laborers live in work camps just outside town, or risk squatting in unoccupied buildings, of which now there are quite a few. Many people who bought them did so as investments rather than to live there. Parts of it are a ghost town.

Cultural appropriation and conspicuous consumption are alive and well, it seems, in the authoritarian capitalist dynamo called the People’s Republic of China. Or they were, anyway, between 2006 and 2012, when real estate values in Thames Town tripled. The scene as of Piazzoni’s fieldwork a few years ago was one of pronounced class tensions amid what sounds like incipient decay. She calls it “at once an enormous success and an evident failure.” The residents and tourists she interviews seem to think of the place as authentic, or at least close enough to the image of the original they have in their heads. The Real Fake leaves you with the sense that the resemblance goes deeper than surface appearances. It may embody more of Western reality -- more of the strains on tradition and the unevenness of progress -- than the designers anticipated.


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