Featured in
Issue 182

From the Ground Up

Iranian-American artist and activist Morehshin Allahyari uses 3D-printing technology to give new life to destroyed artefacts

BY Timothy P. A. Cooper in Features | 13 OCT 16

In February 2015, fighters from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) staged a series of iconoclastic destruction ceremonies for their attendant camera crews in and around Iraq’s Mosul Museum, in a territory the group had occupied for almost a year. The video footage, widely spread over social media and intermingled with statements condemning the ‘idolatrous’ objects, showed fighters methodically destroying nearly 3,000 year-old artefacts from the Assyrian empire and the ancient city of Hatra with sledgehammers, drills and stone-cutting saws. These included one of the finest Assyrian winged lamassu, which flanked the Nergal Gate in Nineveh, and a renowned Hatrene royal sculpture of King Uthal.

Amid the global condemnation that followed, Iranian-American artist Morehshin Allahyari started work on her project ‘Material Speculation: ISIS’ (2015–16). Building on her existing interest in archiving and 3D printing as tools for ‘both resistance and documentation’, she began compiling visual data with the aim of reconstructing some of the artefacts that had been destroyed. After communicating extensively with former Mosul Museum staff who had managed to escape ISIS’s occupation of the city, the artist focused her attention on 12 artefacts from the museum’s former collection that had succumbed to the attack. Allahyari also corresponded with archaeologists, historians and scholars in Iran, Iraq, the US and Europe. She then used open-source modelling software to render 3D visualizations from extant images of the original artefacts she found in exhibition catalogues, monographs and tourist photographs. Midway through her preparatory phase, Allahyari came across a similar digital restoration initiative – Project Mosul (recently renamed Rekrei), founded by researchers Matthew Vincent and Chance Coughenour – which aimed to crowd-source enough imagery to digitally reproduce destroyed cultural heritage in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. But, unlike Project Mosul, Allahyari’s restorative process was not purely technology-based, nor did it aim to efface her subjective, artistic hand. Allahyari, faced with a lack of visual data, was modelling from scratch, using guesswork and invention. The palimpsest-like layers of academic sources and creative licence, sculpted through 3D-modelling software, and ironically contrasted in the translucent material she chose to manifest the printed artefacts, are more akin to the handmade materiality of the original ancient statuary they seek to re-create.

Morehshin Allahyari, Material Speculation: ISIS – King Uthal, 2016, 3D-print reconstruction. Courtesy: the artist

The resulting sculptures, printed in clear resin, make visible the memory cards and flash memory slots that Allahyari modelled inside the ‘body’ of each piece. On each memory card, she has stored her email correspondence with historians and scholars, images, maps, videos and PDF files detailing her reproduction processes. In an effort to preserve the entire material life cycle of each item, she also includes a video of ISIS’s destruction of it. My inner iconoclast would like to think that the only way to access the data would be to destroy the surrogate artefact again. This is not the case. Instead, as Allahyari explained to me, ‘since all this information will also be available online, one can think about these flash drives and the 3D-printed artefacts as time-capsules’.

The proliferation of image-data that Allahyari compiles seems almost like a wry counterattack against crude ISIS iconoclasts. The veneration she accords to artworks such as the sculpture of King Uthal recalls the symbolic value these artefacts held until recently as objects of cultural heritage and rarefied tokens of antiquity. From their initial creation as symbols of mortal power or divine protection (in the case of the lamassu), ancient objects like these have long been subject to various transformations, with museums replacing their original use value with a new cultural status. They’ve also been targets of those ideologically opposed to their reverence as either objects of worship or heritage. If 3D printing has a role in the postwar reconstruction of cultural heritage, Allahyari’s work begs the question: what exactly are we reconstructing? 

If 3D printing has a role in the reconstruction of cultural heritage, Allahyari's work begs the question: what exactly are we reconstructing?

While the value of academic research is taken as given, 3D printing is less widely accepted and has unexplored environmental and ethical consequences. Most notably, the process itself relies on plastics and, by extension, the black oil from which base chemicals in printing filament are derived. Allahyari takes plastic to be the defining material of our age, the geological signpost of the Anthropocene. She cites Reza Negarestani’s theory fiction hybrid novel Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (2008), in which he asks the reader to consider oil – from which the petrochemical base of 3D-additive manufacturing is derived – as the ultimate lubricant, ‘a vehicle for epic narratives’. Allahyari acknowledges that the material used to return physical form to destroyed artefacts emanates from the contested fossil fuel that many consider the root of the very same conflicts.

Having been selected along with artist and writer Daniel Rourke for the 2016 Vilém Flusser Residency for Artistic Research, at the Berlin-based media art and digital culture festival Transmediale, Allahyari has produced a collaborative project with Rourke that explores the ethical implications of 3D printing. The project, #Additivism (2015–16), is a portmanteau of ‘additive’ (the more technical manufacturing term for the process of 3D printing) and ‘activism’. During the residency, the pair compiled The 3D Additivist Manifesto, which calls for 3D-printing technology to be theoretically reappraised as a medium, starting with the very petrochemical base of the plastic used in additive manufacture. The accompanying 3D Additivist Cookbook, which will be released as a PDF for viewing 3D models, will contain over 120 open-source texts and designs from established and emerging artists and theorists.

Morehshin Allahyari, above: Material Speculation: ISIS – Lamassu, 2016; below: Material Speculation: ISIS – Nergal, 2016. Courtesy: the artist

Outside of the contemporary art world, Allahyari’s work is being widely discussed among historians both in the West and the Middle East. She has been invited to lecture at archaeology and Islamic Studies departments in universities and cultural institutions around the world about the role her innovative techniques might play in fields related to postconflict reconstruction. In February 2016, Rhizome and the New Museum in New York commissioned an extension of ‘Material Speculation: ISIS’, in which Allahyari released all the information she had gathered since the destruction videos, as well as the digital files of the destroyed Hatrene statue of King Uthal. Ensuring the institutionalization of her methods is part of a belief in public access that is intrinsic to ‘Material Speculation: ISIS’. The artist hopes that this log of visual data, 3D models and manufacture information – both a dispersed archive of collective impressions and a blueprint for future production – will continue to travel across media.

More straightforwardly, yet perhaps more profoundly, Allahyari’s sculpting and modelling of the 3D surfaces of destroyed artefacts is an intervention in what is known in anthropology as the ‘social life’ or ‘cultural biography’ of images and things. The social and cultural transformations the artist’s chosen artefacts have undergone help us to understand how objects gain meaning, by attributing to them agency to act in the world. Allahyari’s interventions in the lives of artefacts are neither acts of restoration nor reconstruction but rather attempts to protract their social lives as images. To make manifest not only their reconstruction in material form but also to lay bare the mediation between computer-aided design and sculptural finesse required for their reproduction, Allahyari highlights the ethical, academic and artistic issues that come to bear on the reconstruction of lost cultural heritage in the era of 3D printing.

Morehshin Allahyari is an Iranian-American artist, activist, educator and curator. Her series ‘Material Speculation: ISIS’ is currently on view at the Venice Architecture Biennale, Italy, as part of the group exhibition ‘A World of Fragile Parts’. The 3D Additivist Cookbook, which she co-authored with Daniel Rourke, will be released this year. In October, she will be an artist-in-residence as part of Eyebeam’s one-year research residency in New York, USA.

Lead image: Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke, The 3D Additivist Manifesto, 2015, 3D video still. Courtesy: the artists

Timothy P. A. Cooper is a researcher and essayist. He lives in London, UK.