Material Speculation: ISIS
Since around 2014, terrorist group ISIS has been destroying ancient artifacts: an event that struck the world as a tragic loss of irreplaceable pieces of history and heritage. These demolitions are not only devastating for people from Iraq, Syria, and Libya, but anyone sitting behind a computer can get a sense of helplessness from watching ISIS’ personal coverage of the event in video form.
However, many of the destroyed artifacts have been coming back–in a slightly altered form.
Although her tools may be a bit different than those originally used to create the artifacts, an Iranian woman has been bringing destroyed artifacts back into existence in her 2015-2016 project: Material Speculation: ISIS. Artist Morehshin Allahyari was born in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, and attended college in the US, where she now resides. For this project, she first researches pictures, videos, and documentation of a lost artifact to carefully sculpt a 3D model of it, then uses 3D printing to bring the piece into the physical plane. She doesn’t stop there. Allahyari has also been creating digital files holding all of the documentation of the artifacts and their 3D models, which have been placed inside of the 3D sculptures, and plans to also make the file publicly accessible. The artifacts she has recovered include Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh (which can be seen being desecrated in the above video), and statues from Hatra (~100BC-240AD, Iraq). The 3D models she has printed so far have been done in a translucent plastic, and are much smaller than their original ancient predecessors–standing at what can be assumed to be around a foot tall.
Allahyari’s work stands as a powerful, completely nonviolent opposition to ISIS’ destruction; it also emphasizes a necessity for historical artifacts to be backed-up in easily protected forms. Correspondingly, Allahyari discusses 3D processing as a tool that could be transformed into an action for resistance and repairing history. Ideally, the files from Material Speculation: ISIS will be passed down generations: easily modified when new ways of storing the files are invented, and ultimately immortal. The files are a new method of storing historical artifacts that can be accessed by massive amounts of people. Therefore, knowledge could be available to a more diverse range of people, especially in underprivileged or oppressed countries with copious amounts of censorship. Overall, amidst the abundant suggestions for a bloody approach towards eliminating ISIS, Material Speculation: ISIS is perhaps the most peaceful course of action that has been taken in resistance towards ISIS, and one of the biggest triumphs towards restoration on a global scale.
Journalist Paul Soulellis from The Rhizome comments on the journey of one of the recovered artifacts, a statue of King Uthal (Thumamah ibn Uthal):
“Created from dozens of still photographs, Allahyari’s models are "same, same but different," evoking the original in a scaleless, placeless version without material conditions. These variables, once reserved for artistic intent, are now given over to the collective. The dispersion of the statue guarantees the persistence of its many divergent versions, stored on hard drives and printed out anywhere, at any time. How might we characterize these copies? Will the sculpture of King Uthal be brought back to life? Perhaps, in the same way that a meme is alive. As the files are posted, downloaded, and printed, different each time, the nature of the thing remains unsettled. In its hybrid state of being and non-being, the CAD model bridges an ontological gap between presence and disappearance—a multiverse of digital cenotaphs. King Uthal’s simulacrum is a mixed-up phantom of itself, actively repairing cultural memory while denying us a conclusion.” Soulellis, Paul, (February 16, 2016). The Rhizome. The Distributed Monument.
Along with the obvious themes of resistance and restoration, the journey of any one of the artifacts that Allahyari has restored could also hold cultural meaning. In detail, this is the journey that one of her resurrected statues goes through: First being originally built by artists long ago, then horrifically destroyed by terrorist–although remaining digitally alive, and finally brought back to the physical world by another artist. This temporal exchange across artists is awe-striking. Additionally, an interesting similarity to current media is also present–the social media profiles of the deceased. Especially those that still get commented on, changed by updates from the individual site, lacking in nothing except for an owner. Material Speculation: ISIS brings to question how a piece of media can be changed by its environment, and how much it can be altered before it has transformed into a separate entity. The translucent plastic chosen for physical exhibitions of Material Speculation: ISIS may help represent that; the pieces appear as a stereotypically see-through ghost. Perhaps part of original remains inside of the statues, though they are but “ghosts” of the predecessors, just like how a deceased person’s profile was once a symbol of current life. Both reside somewhere in-between destruction and resurrection.
Although one would assume Material Speculation: ISIS to be a work leaning towards activism, Allahyari has mixed opinion on it. Some of her personal qualms with 3D printing are evident in a recent piece of hers, The 3D Additivist Manifesto (2015-2016). The 3D printing Allahyari uses as a form of activism, is arguably more destructive than the progress she is trying to create. Ultimately, plastic, the material 3D printers use, could be causing more harm than ISIS. So although she is taking a step forward with Material Speculation: ISIS against ISIS, Allahyari may fundamentally be taking two steps backwards, or so could be suggested by The 3D Additivist Manifesto. In this slightly satirical piece, the turning of the world into a plastic-haven is seen as a beautiful metamorphosis. It calls for artists and researchers to give their ideas and opinions concerning 3D printing, and those comments will eventually be made into The 3D Additivist Cookbook. 3D printing is usually considered a radical piece of technology destined to greatly change society for the better. However, it also has negative aspects. Although, rather than considering it good or evil, The 3D Additivist Cookbook intends to change binary thinking on the subject. Therefore, the term “Additivism” was created from the two opposing terms “activism” and “additive.”
Allahyari’s collection isn’t the only group of ancient pieces of art that have been digitally recreated. Classic pieces like Girl with a Pearl Earring have also been 3D printed in Daniel Warnecke’s series of works, Subject to Impression (2016). Warnecke has modernized the pieces, while keeping them easily recognizable. Similar to Allahyari’s works, his series can also show the transformation that can happen to a piece of art through the ages. Warnecke says his pieces are meant to highlight how artists and creators may be led through new creative spaces as new technologies and methods are invented, while also highlighting the importance of examining the success of the past great artists. Compared to Allahyari’s works, it is much less politically charged, and more openly embraces the changes that differ it from the original artworks. In Warnecke’s collection, the concept of change is built on as an artistic possibility.
Material Speculation: ISIS has been featured in the following exhibition:
Soulellis, Paul, (February 16, 2016). The Rhizome. The Distributed Monument.
Quakenbush, Casey (February 17, 2016). The New York Observer. These ISIS-Destroyed Artifacts Are Now Available to Download and 3-D Print
Sandals, Leah (February 11, 2016). Canadian Art. The Artist Who Reclaims What ISIS Has Destroyed
Kaplan, Isaac (February 18, 2016). Artsy. Meet the Artist Who Is 3D-Printing Artifacts Destroyed by ISIS