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‘Genuine Fakes’ keeps it real

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What is real? What is fake? What do those terms even mean? Is there some kind of gray area in between? And what about authenticity? Is that the same thing? Can something be real without being authentic? Or authentic without being real?

That idea of what is real is the central tenet of Lydia Pyne’s new book “Genuine Fakes: How Phony Things Teach Us About Real Stuff” (Bloomsbury Sigma, $28). Through an exploration of eight different objects that land somewhere in that blurry place between real and fake, Pyne offers readers a chance to consider what the differences might be.

Too often, we allow ourselves to be conditioned to believe that there are two choices: real and not-real. But the world is far too complex to be governed by that sort of yes/no binary – authenticity depends on one’s perspective.

What Pyne does with “Genuine Fakes” is offer up examples that point up the malleability of authenticity; what is and is not real isn’t always set in stone. And just because something comes to be through methods different than the norm, does that make it fake? Or just a different kind of real? It’s a legitimately fascinating read, well-researched and packed with detail – the sort of book that will surprise and delight the intellectually curious.

We hit the ground running in the introduction; Pyne talks fakes and forgeries before diving into the story of the artist Paul Stephenson, who in 2010 found and purchased 10 original acetates (essentially, negatives used in silk screening) by Andy Warhol. After thoroughly researching Warhol’s techniques, Stephenson created a new set of prints using the original acetates.

So – are those pieces new Warhols?

We’re talking about an artist who was notable for receiving considerable assistance in the studio. Hell, he called it “The Factory.” Assistants and other workers did the lion’s share of the physical painting/printing/what have you, with Warhol simply adding finishing touches. He wasn’t even always the one who signed the work. Stephenson followed the same blueprint with the same materials, so … are they authentic Warhols?

From there, Pyne ventures far and wide – often in unexpected directions. The first chapter is art-driven as well, offering a look at the artist behind numerous faked medieval artworks known only as “the Spanish Forger.” She also spends time on William Henry Ireland’s notorious Shakespeare forgeries. Both the Forger and Ireland have become collectible in their own rights, further blurring the line with regards to the value of what is “real.”

Another fascinating chapter involves the long history of flavor science. We hear the term “artificial flavor” regularly, yet in many cases, the chemical construction of that supposedly-fake flavor is the same as that which occurs in nature. Finding ways to generate familiar tastes in new contexts is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Oh, and we get to talk about Jelly Belly jelly beans as well.

The chapter titled “Taking a Look Through Walrus Cam” lends an interesting perspective to nature documentaries, asking what exactly is true when it comes to filming the natural world. Is it better to offer up raw, uncut looks at nature? How much is too much when it comes to shaping and forming a narrative? And what do the filmmakers owe the viewer in terms of acknowledging what was captured organically and what was staged? Does creating a feeling of authenticity excuse some manipulation?

Other chapters deal with faked fossils, paleontological and archaeological reproductions, lab-manufactured diamonds, ancient Mayan codices and the history of whale exhibitions.

Through these examples, “Genuine Fakes” digs deep into the notion of what is real, what is authentic … and whether it is possible for an object to be one without being the other. At what point does something stop being real, whether it’s an artist creating forgeries by incorporating genuine elements or a museum filling in the gaps of a giant skeleton with metal and plaster? It’s the Ship of Theseus writ even larger; at what point does replacement and refurbishment turn the real thing into a copy? And does that process somehow dilute or eliminate that sense of authenticity?

Nonfiction that is both information-dense AND fun to read is rare; Lydia Pyne has given us precisely that with “Genuine Fakes.” A book like this could easily become bone-dry, a slog of a read. But Pyne maintains an airiness throughout, treating the material with seriousness but never severity. Everything unfolds with a very light touch. The result is a book that is very difficult to put down.

The world is more than just real and not-real. There’s room for things that are real and inauthentic, just as there’s room for things that are authentic yet not real. Getting drawn into learning about those things is the real joy central to “Genuine Fakes” – a joy that you really ought to experience for yourself.

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 November 2019 07:50

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