Loving the fake (#1 of 2): Digital rip-offs

I love the idea of fake art in the age of digital rip-offs. To put it in grander terms, I love the “issue” of conservation – facsimile, and reproduction, actually – in an age of mass culture and digitalisation. (In my next blog, I want to riff in rather the same way about the modern issue of tourism and anthropology, flowing from Human Zoo tourism.) We have entered a wonderful time in which re-envisioning, for instance, Tutankhamun, Seti I and and Piranesi fairly make the mind explode with potential. I explore some of this below the fold:

I can’t imagine myself schlepping round the “real” Tutankhamun archaeological site, but it is great to think that it can soon be closed – perhaps not resealed exactly – since there is now a perfect facsimile nearby. This is not merely a facsimile of the objects which were once entombed, nor merely of the tomb – the sarcophagus – itself: the big thing here is that the whole interior of the chamber has been recreated. It is the work of Factum Arte  and its star director, Adam Lowe.

This is a case of 3D printing and many other skills coming to the aid of an original site which is over-visited and at risk. One’s mind immediately spins to the Elgin Marbles and how this sort of technology could easily provide a solution to the problem of where they really ought to be. My dream solution has for year been that one should run up facsimiles and shuffle and shuttle the originals and the look-alikes around so that the culture tourists in Athens and London would never know the exact status of the objects they stood in front of. That would, in a way, release them from the right or chance to worry about possessiveness – and force them to enjoy the aesthetics of the experience.

But, as Peter Aspden wrote in the FT magazine (April 19/20 2014), there are other wonderful dimensions to this sort of work. Many of them are perfectly demonstrated in that most moving and exciting of London museums, Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln Inn Fields. This is the right place for a bit of high-tone facsimile work involving digitalisation, 3D printing, and a raft of conservation skills some of which are very old and some very new. The original material in this case never existed, or rather, only as a drawing. Factum Arte has taken several works of Piranesi, the master creator of imaginary cities and worlds, most with a classical underpinning.

One of the team had already (2010) digitally produced  3D video realisations of a gorgeous but nightmarish Piranesi work on an imaginary prison, Carceri d’Invenzione. (This is available as a DVD which has strong additional material, and less richly online at YouTube.) I prefer Hollywood’s movie accounts of the Marvell comics to the originals, and this classier work gives me a slightly similar excitement. But the wonder of 3D digitalisation is that it adds no new elements: it merely lives out the artist’s perspective work. At times, watching the video in Sir John’s house, it seemed just like the horrors that have sometimes visited my head in the small hours. At others, I thought how possible it was that the dreams I hadn’t yet had in that vein may well come at any time. More completely the product of every modern trick, the team have now taken some Piranesi imagined objects and rendered them as real, I assume even useable, 3 dimensional artefacts.

Prime amongst them is a gilded throne which was at the Liberace end of Versailles-style. But there are other marvellous things: a pair of exotic plant stands (as I imagined them); a horned coffee pot; something stygian whose detail I now forget (exhibited almost casually in the gloom of the Monk’s Cell area). Outside, there’s an urn which has exploded out of reasonable scale: a Ron Mueck of a vessel, rendered in blinding white, as though to remind us that the team and the museum are not above a joke, but also that – in the realm of the imagination – this isn’t a striving after accuracy, since the original is not a blueprint.

This is all just right for Sir John’s house because our host loved Piranesi, and his work is given an exalted Above the Line role in the Picture Room (where the Museum has kept some originals, but used some modern prints as well on conservation grounds). The whole museum exemplifies the museum experience (sorry, Sir John, but you started this stuff). The Hogarth Rakes’ Progress paintings we see in Sir John’s house were put on show by the artist so that visitors, inspired by them, could order in-house prints of them.

As I learned from the tour guide, Hogarth delayed exhibiting the paintings until the Copyright Act – in which he had had a hand – went through Parliament. He needed the law’s protection for his intellectual property, and it’s a concept which comes into its own most forcefully when reproduction is possible. (Think of the problem of pharmaceuticals and songs.) Sir John’s house is filled with maquettes and models, and for all I know many of the mightier scultpures and architectural details are copies of one sort or another.

One interest in the whole reprographic thing is that we are torn between irreconcilables. On the one hand, there is the desire that creators should receive reward for the imaginative feat of their work, and this should be – largely is – as a matter of its original inspiration and creativity, and thus maintained even in reproduction. Copyright serves this function. But on the other hand, we love (I love) the idea that reprographic larks free us from the uniqueness value of art (and other works): we don’t have to fetishise the singular and the exclusive. That collecting desire to take an object out of the public gaze and render it exclusive – to privatise it – is denied, or vitiated.

If the Piranesi imaginary chair can be conjured out of the silicon of a computer’s memory, and lasered into wax, thence to be reproduced in gold (or whatever), why not into plastic too? Following the copyright trail here is way above my pay grade, but you may perhaps easily agree that whoever is collecting rent on this process ought to be getting less and less – at least per unit – as we go from gold to gilt to plastic, or from throne-size to dust-gathering shelf ornament.

It occurs to me that one huge advantage of reproduction conservation is that one can leave the original as it is, but tinker ad lib with replicas. In other words, one could take a picture and “print” it as any imagined state of conservation, or any imagined view of what the original might have really looked like. This would overcome some of the issues so usefully identified by Michael Daley of Artwatch International over the years. (My grandfather Stanley North was castigated by later conservationists for mucking about with the Hampton Court Mantegna’s; though Anthony Blunt kindly reassured me that actually Stanley had only muddied them with a preservative coating of paraffin wax, which was readily removable. Thus Stanley had preserved the works at a certain point in their history, in what is now called permanent reversibility.)

Anyway, whole vistas of reproduction open up, and surely it’s almost all good.

There is even an Apollo Belvedere, much like the one I have in my garden. Mine is in modern concrete of some sort.   Sir John’s was posher:  a cast made for Lord Burlington in Italy around 1719 (presumably from the Roman original in the Vatican) and formerly at Chiswick House.

The Apollo Belvedere is a perfect simulacrum (if you’ll allow) for the Factum Arte operation. If I get the timeline right, it is assumed to have been sculpted by an unknown Roman with the intention of capturing the essence of Greek sculpture. It was in that sense a piece of imagineering from the start. It lay ignored (buried, for all I know) until the 15th Century Renaissance, of which it constituted an important impulse and part. It immediately inspired copies, casts, and drawings. Nowadays, it need not be recast from the Roman copy, fake, imagineered, item (whichever it is): it could be scanned and 3d printed instead.

By a quirk, the Soane and Factum Arte story look like candidates for another twist. Sir John collected the original Seti I sarcophagus from Egypt, and now Factum Arte are recreating Seti’s burial chamber, as they have Tutankhamun’s. Presumably, they could scan Soane’s sarcophagus and give Egypt an even more complete replica piece of pseudo-archaeology.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Publication date

24 April 2014


Mind & body; On art