Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Sculpture as Data in the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Sculpture as Data in the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries

Article excerpt

In museums, galleries and artists' studios, revered antiques and historic sculptures are being cut up, sliced into cross-sections or having their fleshy contours chipped away into jagged planar structures, sometimes barely human in appearance. This phenomenon is not, however, any physical destruction of sculptural heritage; indeed it is one that some have posited as a response to such destruction: that of digitizing sculpture through 3D scanning, computer-aided modelling and 3D printing.1 Various processes are denoted by these terms, but all involve breaking up the continuous world of physical objects into finite sets of geometric data, and in the case of 3D printing dividing geometric solids into discontinuous cross-sections that generate a three-dimensional volume when layered on top of one another.2 Museums such as the British Museum and Smithsonian Institution are increasingly turning from analogue methods of recording and researching artefacts, such as casting, to 3D scanning, which is less invasive and allows spatial information to be shared, converted or reused without degradation.3 Sculptors too are exploring the 'digitization' of historic sculptures, often in collaboration with museums. Recent examples include Zachary Eastwood Bloom's polygonal translations of a classical bust for Royal Academy Editions, Oliver Laric's project to 3D-scan objects from The Collection Lincoln for public access and manipulation, and Matthew Darbyshire's contribution to the Fitzwilliam Museum's Following Hercules show: a recreation of the Farnese Hercules as a tower of polystyrene cross-sections (a variation on Darbyshire's CAPTCHA series which recreated the Doroyphoros and Belvedere Torso using coloured polycarbonate sheets), which acts out through handcraft a 3D printer's process of modelling by adding regularly divided layers of material.4 Whether to learn more about past art or to co-opt it in creating new art, we are increasingly seeing sculpture through the lens of 3D data.

Yet the '3D data' approach to sculptural form does not belong entirely to the modern age of digital computing. From the beginning of the nineteenth century engineers developed numerous lathe- or pantograph-based machines that reproduced sculptural volumes at different scales, by tracing sets of cross-sections or points (effectively creating a 'point cloud' in modern parlance) and carving or drilling these in different materials.5 Devices on this principle reached perhaps their most elaborate pitch with François Willème's 'photosculpture' process of 1861, which made busts after living sitters by combining regular cross-sectional segments of wood or clay, which had been copied using a pantographic carving device from a 360° array of photographs capturing the various profile outlines of each sitter's face.6 Art historians have increasingly studied such developments, providing historical perspective on the implications of reproducing sculptures using machinery and volumetric mapping.7 One strong theme in scholarship on nineteenth-century art reproductions is scepticism regarding their ostensibly 'mechanical' or 'objective' nature.8 Reproductions are never just reproductions, it is emphasized; various kinds of human labour, creative judgement or selectivity have always filled gaps in schematic or mechanized ways of reproducing sculpture. Marketing or viewing such reproductions as simple substitutes for their originals, therefore, has necessarily entailed externalities, such as unjustly disavowing anonymous craftwork or perpetuating fantasies or fetishes concerning the 'original' object or its maker(s).9 Such observations on nineteenth-century 'sculpture machines' in turn echo debates about modern-day digital heritage projects, which address the extent to which 3D scans and computer-aided reconstructions can reveal or conceal gaps in our knowledge of the 'reconstructed' objects.10 The geometric abstraction of sculpture, then, currently forms a potent nexus about which artists, art historians and other specialists can inform each other's work. …

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