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The Rise of the Facsimile in Contemporary Art

Codex Seraphinius  View 1.JPG

Codex Seraphinianus

Marcel Duchamp continues to be lauded by contemporary artists and art historians for his questioning of the original, singular art object. His readymades, which were sourced from mass-manufactured consumer products, pointed out the flaw in singularity in the modern era. Each readymade posed the questions – can a mass-produced item, such as a bottle rack, bicycle wheel, or shovel, ever be original and can it represent something other than itself? Duchamp fully expressed both points with his Boîte-en-valise (1935-41), which featured facsimiles of his earlier art production, including the readymades, but featured no “original.”    

      This dialogue on original versus facsimile reached its pinnacle during Postmodernism through the writings of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard observed in his 1981 treatise Simulacra and Simulation that the relevance of the original and the representative nature of art had been pushed to its limits. He asserted that, due to the proliferation and repetition of images, signs and symbols no longer adhere to an origin; rather, they are merely a simulation of a reality that may or may not have ever existed and can even exist in advance of reality. Although both seem far removed from illuminated manuscripts and their facsimiles, Duchamp and Baudrillard were drawing attention to an essential element found within their pages—that which is included in the facsimile is never the thing itself; it is always a representation. For that matter, the words within the “original” manuscript and its accompanying illustrations are also a symbolic representation, nothing more than a conveyor of information. The reader’s interaction with either the manuscript or its facsimile—how it becomes interpreted and performed in his or her mind—is its basis in reality.

      Duchamp, Baudrillard, and the facsimile all resist the significance of the original to highlight the value of reception and interpretation in the formulation of what is “real” in the modern world. A facsimile, therefore, can produce a reality in the mind of the viewer just as much as the manuscript that it is based upon, thus making the divide between original and copy obsolete.

      Codex Seraphinianus by the Italian artist Luigi Serafini was first published in 1981 and reveals a similar engagement. The codex is full of imaginary objects, fantastical beasts, and fictional languages that do not exist beyond its own pages—it creates a reality that lives only in the mind of the reader. In addition, Serafini’s codex was intended strictly for mass production by a publisher, Franco Maria Ricci, who desired to produce a work in the tradition of the facsimiles of medieval illuminated manuscripts. Within the pages of Codex Seraphinianus, the reception and interpretation of the original manuscript is always delivered through a facsimile, but in this case there is no origin in reality and there is no original; it is a simulacrum producing simulation. It reflects the sentiments of Baudrillard’s treatise and gives a nod to Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise while also highlighting a significant turn away from the original and toward interpretation that defined Postmodernism and has ongoing implications for contemporary art. Since 2000 the discourse on representation, simulation, and originality continues in the works of Marcel Dzama and his many facsimiles, such as The Course of Human History Personified (2005), Allan McCollum’s ongoing work with art as surrogate, and the mass-produced art objects of CerealArt.



Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” In Image/Music/Text. Translated by Stephen Heath, 142-147. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

Nesbit, Molly. “Ready-Made Originals: The Duchamp Model.” October, no. 37 (Summer 1986): 53-64.

Taylor, Justin. “The Codex Seraphinianus.” Believer 5, no. 4 (May 2007): 17-28.

The Rise of the Facsimile in Contemporary Art