China is infamous for its ability to create cheap knockoffs of almost anything, from toys to sneakers to smartphones. Not even priceless masterworks are exempt from Chinese counterfeiting. Right outside of Beijing, in fact, you will find a ghostly, almost colorless village called Dongcheng, in which dozens of sculptors toil away in a dust-choked purgatory, sculpting doppelgangers of famous statues from Michelangelo, da Vinci, Rodin, and more.
It is this Sculptors Village that is the subject of a hypnotic series by Italian photographer Chiara Goia. In Goia’s work, the mass production of counterfeit sculptures almost appears to take place in an achromatic limbo, where discarded limbs and faces litter the ground, as if the scene of some alabaster atrocity.
With the Sculptor’s Village series, Goia says that she originally set out to examine the meaning of authenticity and fakeness. Hearing from a fellow student in the Reflexions masterclass back in 2008 about a Chinese village in which a huge number of replicas of famous statues were made, Goia set out Dongcheng to document the town where thousands of mock masterworks were carved every year.
“Dongcheng basically consists of just one road, probably less than half a mile long, with workshops and small houses lining it on each side,” Goia tells Co.Design. “There’s only a couple of shops, and the closest restaurant is in a neighboring village. It’s very small. Most of the people who work there live elsewhere.
Though the Sculptor’s Village may be small, it is responsible for thousands of statues a year, most of which are reproductions of famous works such as Michelangelo’s David, the Greek Caryatids, Rodin’s Thinker, St. Peter’s apostles, and the Laocoön. According to workers Goia spoke with, some of these are sold within China, but the majority of the finished sculptures are sold to the West.
Multiple laborers work on each sculpture, Goia says. Everyone has a role, from hewing the rough form out of a block of stone to carving the hands and faces to chiseling in the detail to filing away the rough edges.
To Goia, Dongcheng is a place of great surrealness and ambiguity, where the plasticity of a sculptor’s own body as he works on a statue is juxtaposed against a sculpture’s rigidness. When she first arrived, Goia says she thought of these people as counterfeiters. Then she changed her mind. “Over time, as I watched how they worked, I started looking at them as artists,” says Goia. “But if I said that to them, they’d just laugh at me. To themselves, they were only workers.”