Recently I went to see the Architecture Biennale in Venice and its exhibition entitled ‘A World of Fragile Parts’. This was curated by Brendan Cormier from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and explored the idea that making copies of things is a way of preventing the loss of material heritage. Having this show in Venice was especially fitting since the canal city has its own copies around the world in Vegas and Macau, though those were not made for the same reasons. Arguably it is in these places that the Venice of everyone’s imaginations actually resides, as the real city, though undoubtedly picturesque, also behaves like a real city which does not always fit the mystique.
Throughout the exhibition it was made clear that copies are not as simple as some might think. In my own experience from working in museums and from doing research for my thesis, I have seen quite a variety of reactions to the idea of having replicas as part of a collection. Some think they have a role to play in education as they are a way for different places to have access to an object they don’t own themselves. Some think authenticity comes from experience rather than material, so being able to hold an exact copy of a sword, even if not made by ancient hands, is more useful than seeing an original one behind glass. Others have almost visceral reactions against them: they are kitsch and cheap and have no place in a museum’s display. The main message here was that copies can be a method of documentation and a way of ‘mitigating risk’, told through different types of copies from plaster casts, to electrotyping and 3D printing.
Upon entering we were greeted by was a nineteenth century plaster copy of the panels from the Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna. I spent a year of my undergraduate degree in Bologna and though had I walked past them many times, I must say I never stopped to look as closely at these panels as I did when I was presented with this copy. Because the panels were placed above our heads, it was here that I noticed the metal beams and wooden roof of the exhibition space. The rough décor called to mind the state of the church from which these sculptures came. It has remained incomplete for hundreds of years after a certain Pope halted its construction out of fear that it would eclipse St Peter’s in Rome (or so the story goes). Unlike this unfinished context where the originals reside, the copy normally lives in the sumptuous cast court of the V&A. Within this coarser exhibition space, it’s as though the copy has come to know the type of setting the original always knew.
Many of the objects in the exhibition have received some attention in the news lately and I was happy to recognise some that I had previously read about. There was a 3D printed version of the famous bust of Nefertiti which is in the Neues Museum in Berlin. Although the museum lets visitors take pictures everywhere else, this bust is strictly off limits for photography. This did not deter artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles who secretly ‘staged an ethical art heist’ and used an Xbox Kinect controller to create scans of the object which they then made available to the public. #Nefertitihack, as it has been called, has encouraged questions about who owns ancient art, whether that be the actual object itself or simply the idea or image of it, and whether there can be such a thing as copyright and theft in cases such as this.
Another piece which I had read about before was Material speculation: Isis by Morehshin Allahyari. Here Allahyari printed copies of statues and artefacts which were destroyed by ISIS in 2015 and placed memory cards inside them. These cards contain all the different files that were necessary for creating the copies. According to the label, this was a way to represent the artist’s ‘effort to reconstruct them’. As a viewer, I was struck by the objects in a different way. Not only could they be taken as a physical representation of the idea that objects contain information about themselves hidden somewhere inside for us to find (something that not everyone agrees with), we literally would have to break them open to get to it. Are all of us archaeologists and historians also destroying ancient objects in some sense when we squeeze them for information? Do we change the object when we put it under pressure? Do we peel away its layers every time we analyse it in a new way and take away some of the mystery that made us interested in the ancient world in the first place? Can our eyes ever just look without assuming there’s a meaning? In this case the copy not only works to document that which was destroyed, it also makes us ponder different kinds of destruction.
The many different 3D printed objects in the exhibition (including a piece of the now famous Palmyra arch) also made me think about the place of these copies in the longue durée. The exhibition makes us believe that copies can ensure that things last. Yet at our feet the cabinets were filled with dust and debris. Above our sight lines the panels looked like they’d been torn to pieces. The brick walls of the Arsenale building in which the exhibition was held left traces of more dust on my arm as I walked past. What about all these 3D printed copies, will they ever crumble? What does a ruin look like in a 3D printed world? Does our visual vocabulary for cultural destruction have to change now that we are faced with these new methods of documenting it? What do we do with the copy that falls apart? When do we start making copies of copies for the sake of documentation? Or is that what all the nineteenth century plaster cast makers were already doing when they made copies of those objects that today museums like to label ‘Roman copy of a Greek original’.
There were many more examples of ways of creating copies throughout the exhibition and they all approached the theme from a variety of angles. As someone who studies ancient Greek and Roman archaeology, the copies of Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte made of glass, wax and resin made me realise how different drapery can look when made of different materials – I’m used to stone and metal, but these captured the light in a completely different way. Elsewhere in the exhibition, a stone copy of a refugee shelter by Sam Jacob Studio played with the idea of transience by making the makeshift monumental. Soft Ruin by Andreas Angelidakis showed that a digital ruin can become material, but confused my expectations when it was described as ‘soft’ and ‘plush’. All of these works created by known artists mean a conundrum for the message of the exhibition. We can create copies for the sake of documenting and learning about the past – that is what plaster casts of ancient sculptures have been for a long time. This is not the same, however, as an artist creating an artwork which also happens to be a copy of something else. If we are to document the world through copies more and more, who is to be in charge? Is it to be an artistic pursuit or a historical one? Or can the two be mixed?
I found it interesting that though the exhibition was about copies and their potential for recording material heritage, it was the idea of destruction and the fragility of the material world that stayed the most in my mind. We can document and document, but what if our methods of documentation are not as stable as we might think? Once we have copied the whole world, should we live in the facsimile to preserve the original, and how long will that last? In addition, can documentation be a harmful thing? These big questions may not yield an answer, but any exhibition that can inspire us to ask them has achieved its goal. This one also certainly lived up to its name, since the copies and the files used to create them may one day reveal themselves to be just more of the world’s ‘fragile parts’.
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