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Plagiarism or parody?

Critics argue that it is up to artists’ conscience 

South Korean artist Kwon Kyung-yup was recently shocked to find out that works very similar to hers were on sale in Singapore. A foreigner who came across an Indonesian artist’s solo exhibition in August at Art Front Gallery in Singapore sent an e-mail to Kwon to fill her in on the news.

In the show, Indonesian artist Dani King Heriyanto’s 2011 painting “Bandage” featured a girl wearing a hoodie and a bandage over her eye just like Kwon’s 2009 work “Adios.” Heriyanto’s 2011 work “Rise up” also showed a girl with a bandage wrapped around her face just as the girl in Kwon’s 2009 painting “Oblivion.” 
Photos by Kwon Kyung-yup
Photos by Kwon Kyung-yup

Appalled, Kwon wrote a post on her Facebook pointing out the similarities between the paintings and also sent a message to the director of the Singapore gallery to stop the sale and promotion of the works. According to Kwon, the director replied that the paintings are not the same and requested her to delete the posts. When she contacted Heriyanto, he simply claimed that he is a fan of her works, would like to be her friend, and that what he does is parody.

“But what makes parody different from plagiarism is that it clarifies the original,” Kwon told The Korea Herald.

An art consultant at Art Front Gallery admitted the Indonesian artist was in the wrong and said that he tried to contact Kwon about the issue.

“What Dani King did was wrong because he claims that he took inspiration from the Korean artist. So I actually tried to give her a call, and I asked someone in Korea to set up a call so that I could actually send out an apology, but it never happened. I thought this should be professionally spoken instead of being posted on Facebook ― what she has been doing is writing it on her Facebook and sending out e-mails to our clients,” he said.

But stopping the sale and promotion of the works is up to the gallery’s director and he has no say in it, he said.

Kwon is an up-and-coming artist who is actively working in many Asian and European countries. She has been participating in art fairs in Hong Kong and Taiwan since 2009. She showcased the very paintings in 2009 at Gana Art Gallery in Pyeongchang-dong, central Seoul. Many Korean critics agreed that there is a high possibility that the Indonesian artist plagiarized her work, as the works are too similar in color and composition, Kwon claimed.

Although Korea, Singapore and Indonesia are all members of the World Intellectual Property Organization which means that artists have copyrights to their work, in most cases it is only possible to call a work plagiarism by winning the case in court, unless the suspected copier admits to it. There is no stipulated criteria to distinguish plagiarism and parody, but what is vaguely agreed is that it is plagiarism if it has similarities with another artwork from the general public’s point of view and if the artist suspected to have copied had access to the original one.

Artists, therefore, are reluctant to sue because of the lack of specific standard to distinguish plagiarism and parody, not to mention that lawsuits cost too much. Many, including Kwon, hesitate or give up filing a suit, and numerous art plagiarism controversies all over the world end up as nothing more than a scandal.

“The best thing would be that the original artist proclaims the rights to the work to the copier and the proclamation gets known in the public so that the copier naturally dies out in the market,” said Kwon.

Lee Lee-nam, a media artist known for fantasy-like artwork in which Western and Asian masterpieces merge on the screen using high-technology, said that he quit arguing about legal matters.

“If it benefits society in some way, I just decided to let it go. I just concentrate on new creations now,” said Lee, who had argued last year that the Presidential Council of Nation Branding and LG’s ad about global etiquette copied his works in terms of concept and technique.

In the ad, characters from Western and Asian masterpieces meet through computer graphics. LBest, the ad’s creator, had refuted Lee’s assertion saying that it is a universal technique to parody masterpieces.

Critics say that except for starting a tedious lawsuit, there is currently no other way to fight plagiarism in the art world.

“There is no other way than to leave it to the artists’ conscience. We can do nothing but denounce unscrupulous artists,” said art critic Hong Kyoung-han.

By Park Min-young (