A number of new art media have emerged in the world of contemporary art, the most notable one must be 3D printing technology, which provides new visions for the industrial design and changes the process of sculpturing. Initially developed in 1987, 3D printing technology did not dominate the manufacturing industry until 2013, the year services based on share economy started growing and the first affordable 3D printer was created by NASA employees Samantha Snabes and Matthew Fiedle. Subsequently, the continually enhanced accessibility and convenience of 3D printing technology have caused huge debate in the art world, does 3D printing make art too easy? Is 3D printed model an art sculpture? By reason of the unsolved arguments on the definition of artworks and manufactured goods, the value of 3D printed art is generally considered hardly comparable to traditional handmade artifacts which carry collective memories, ancient techniques but are also made time-consumingly. Nevertheless, after the 1990s, the application of resources such as found objects, recycled materials, unvalued trash, and readymades on art has reshaped the understanding of traditional sculpture and the identity of objects. If the materials and the applied techniques are no longer the essential elements of art, but the behind concepts, what is the artistic potential of 3D printing nowadays? Iranian-American artist Morehshin Allahyari’s work “Material Speculation: ISIS(2015–2016)” may be the answer to this question.
Material Speculation: ISIS(2015–2016) is a 3D printing project focused on the reconstruction of selected artifacts that were destroyed by ISIS in 2015. From the Roman period city of Hatra to Assyrian artifacts of Nineveh, the selection of those artifacts is a manifesto of Morehshin Allahyari’s ideology against violence. For example, one sculpture is Lamassu, an Assyrian eudemon is usually depicted as having the head of a human male and the body of a bull or lion with wings. Typically embellished the entry gates of cities and palaces, Lamassu is the not only the symbol of a guardian but also a sign of hope protecting people from ISIS’s anti-culture crimes. The complete series includes Lamassu, King Uthal, Unknown King of Hatra, Ebu, The Romanian Goddess of Beauty Venus, Barmaren, Maren, Marten, Nergal, The Eagle King, Gorgon, Nike, and Greek Goddess of Victory.
In fact, Morehshin Allahyari is not the only artist recreated those mid-east cultural heritages through 3D printing technology. In 2016, a UK-based organization named Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) reconstructed the Palmyra, Syria’s iconic Triumphal Arch and was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Supported by British Council and Oxford University, IDA launched a world tour to megacities including New York, Washington D.C, Dubai, etc in order to celebrate the reconstruction of Palmyra and raise the awareness of preserving history in digital methods. They successfully gained global attention on both traditional news media and social media, yet also attracted a lot of criticism, which mostly concerns digital colonialism. The critics think it’s not impartial to exhibit the Triumphal Arch alone without providing more details of the real history and the suffering of the refugees in Syria. This leads to a series of questions about the purpose of artifact and its reproduction. If they all present the same shape, size, why doesn’t the replica have the same cultural meanings? Also, built on the same technique, why doesn’t the IDA’s Palmyra have the equal aesthetic value as Material Speculation: ISIS(2015–2016)? What’s the difference between this two 3D printed works?
All based on the intention of using 3D printing for repairing history and memory, the biggest difference between Material Speculation: ISIS(2015–2016) and the reproduced Palmyra would be Morehshin Allahyari’s strong attempt at endowing those destroyed arts with more possible. In the beginning, she tried to rebuild the models by scanning the collected photos, however, due to the incompleteness of sources, she realized the most accurate way to repair the heritages is to 3D model all of them. Instead of using the most popular material of 3D printing — plastic, the derivative of oil, Allahyari printed those models in resin for purpose of creating the ancient texture like the original artifacts. Her ghost-like, transparent sculptures are denser and heavier than the most plastic 3D printed works, and the mysterious refraction of the models eventually lead the viewers to the most significant message from Allahyari, the inside USB drives. In every 3D model, she inserted memory cards and drives containing important documentation gathered attentively from archeologists and historians in the last months on the sites that were destroyed. Ultimately, the object file for one of the sculpture King Uthal was made openly available to anyone in 2016 by Rhizome’s curation, “That’s what gives this project power — downloading,” according to curator Paul Soulellis, “In a way, it gives the artwork new life.” The process of making art practiced by Allahyari will eventually challenge traditional Western methods of recording history and protect cultural objects from the objecthood of just being stared by people.
On the other hand, the main problem of IDA and the other cultural institutions is they tend to keep data they collected private, only those who have certain authority like academic institutions or collaborated artists would be permitted to access the 3D object files. They seemingly open their 3D printed works to the public through world tours and free exhibitions, actually the worldwide coverage by the mass media makes it becomes a propaganda showing the stereotype of the middle east cultural site and propagating antiterrorism just as ISIS uses social media to disseminate hatred. This reveals a superficial freedom behind western supremacy — those companies rely on a highly open-sourced technology to sell pity while keeping the data of intellectual property secret and charge for access. As a consequence, the 1/3 scale 3D printed heritage in western countries is, after all, a product of which value is defined by the financial system, by the costly ISIS crime stories, but not its aesthetics and historic significance.
In conclusion, since Morehshin Allahyari has not yet made all the object files available for the public, I am still in doubts about the way she obtained those materials and keeping. However, Material Speculation: ISIS(2015–2016) indeed blurs the boundaries between handmade crafts and manufactured goods. As Morehshin Allahyari mentioned in the publication The 3D Additivist Manifesto (2015), “Additivism does not re-inscribe structural power dynamics that are responsible for countless human and environmental tragedies. Instead, it considers material reproduction as a humanist endeavor, one that merits the same safeguarding as flesh and blood, ” Her rehabilitative practice can be considered as a poetic action against the consumerism behind this convenient additive technology. Although it is impossible to completely revive those damaged sculptures and monuments, Morehshin Allahyari gives 3D printing the possibility to inherit the historical sense. The artistic value of her artwork shifts obviously from the 3D model itself to the information it carries, then to the distribution behavior between people who access the object files. Finally, her sculptures would continue living in new life, online and offline.
- Ksenija Pantelić, “The Quintessential Found Object Art Pieces”, Widewalls, Sep 30, 2016, https://www.widewalls.ch/found-object-art-famous-examples/
- Alexis Anais Avedisian and Anna Khachiyan, “On Material Speculation”, 6
- “Preserving Syrian Heritage” British Council, accessed Dec 1, 2018, https://www.britishcouncil.org/arts/culture-development/cultural-protection-fund/projects/preserving- syrian-heritage
- Sarah Bond, “The Ethics Of 3D-Printing Syria's Cultural Heritage,” Forbes, Sep 22, 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/drsarahbond/2016/09/22/does-nycs-new-3d-printed-palmyra-arch- celebrate-syria-or-just-engage-in-digital-colonialism/#3c8b541577db
- Paul Soulellis, “The Distributed Monument”, Rhizome, Feb 16, 2016, http://rhizome.org/ editorial/2016/feb/16/morehshin-allahyari/
- Casey Quackenbush, “These ISIS-Destroyed Artifacts Are Now Available to Download and 3-D Print,” Observer, Feb 17, 2016, https://observer.com/2016/02/these-isis-destroyed-artifacts- are-now-available-to-download-and-3-d-print/
- Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke, “The 3D Additivist Manifesto” (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence, 2015)