Over the last year, I have been experimenting with combining 3D capture, 3D design, and 3D printing with traditional lost wax bronze casting techniques. I’d like to use these technologies to develop a reliable method for producing large-scale traditional, artisanal bronzes faster and less expensively than has ever been possible in bronze’s 5,000 year history.
The first metalworkers likely were potters who discovered pieces of ores refined into flecks of precious metals embedded in their fired clays. It was the first alchemy, refining and changing substances from one to another, creating bronze alloys, silver, and gold from raw earth. Metalworking eventually became entwined with chthonic cults. Chthonic: having to do with the subterranean, fertility, and deities of the underworld — Hephaestus, Hades, Persephone, and Demeter — and the interface between the living and the dead. It’s a strange word and concept that evokes both abundance and the grave, so it seems fitting that my own experiments with new, Promethean technologies that allow light to be refined into bronze are being influenced and constrained by modern rituals and mysticism surrounding death and the afterlife.
In my 3D capture/print-mediated casting process, there is no original to be transported, handled, disassembled, or stored. There is no mold. There is no wax casting. Instead, the design goes from photography, to digital wireframe, to 3D printed PLA (plastic), then undergoes special preparation before investment and a slightly modified burn-out. Molten bronze or stainless steel is then cast in the normal fashion. Based on my tests so far, I believe I can go from 3D capture, to onscreen design, to a finished, patinated bronze the size of a bust in about seven days, maybe less. A torso in ten. (I’d like to find a client to commission such a piece so I can give it a try.)
My first test, in late 2012, was a small detail of my 3D capture of the British Museum’s marble Portrait of Alexander the Great.
Whoever made the “original” portrait of Alexander has been dead for around 2,200 years, so there has never been a copyright holder to claim the design, and it is available for anyone to copy, reuse, or repurpose. I put “original” in quotes because even in his own lifetime, Alexander’s face, features, and clichéd expression had been reproduced in countless iterations. Endlessly re-purposed for millennia, I’m continuing the tradition by appropriating it here, in my own small way, to promote my own work.
This cast bronze 3D-printed test piece is about 2 3/4″ tall. I’ll have it with me at the London and Paris 3D Printshows next month.
In early 2013, I produced a life-size bronze adaptation of my capture of the Getty Villa’s marble portrait of Caligula. In the onscreen design, I added a fracture to his neck to match that of the Met’s bronze portrait of his grandfather, Marcus Agrippa.
I also deleted his eyes, an important detail. When a bronze or marble has its eyes intact, the viewer can put themselves in the center of the sculpture’s field of view, as though it were looking back at them. The overall effect is proximity and familiarity. But when the eyes are lost, the piece never looks back. It is always looking through, or past, the observer. The subject becomes distant and enigmatic, even glamourous. Or perhaps dead, ghostly, or lost — a vacant, uninhabited shell of what once was, suggesting a previous life. It becomes an artifact.
I patinated the piece in an attempt to create another illusion of remoteness — age:
Caligula in bronze will be on display at the London and Paris 3D Printshows in November 2013.
The original, idealized image of Caligula borrows from portraits of Augustus and barely survived the iconoclasts that destroyed Caligula’s portraits following his assassination. It is 2,000 years old, which means that everyone involved in its creation is long dead and forgotten, and the design is in the public domain. Anyone is free to copy it, adapt it, make it more haunting by cutting its eyes out, or bring it back to life in plastic, stainless steel, or bronze.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve completed three additional bronzes, all derived from 3D captures. I have yet to have experienced a failed burn-out or casting, or even a significant defect.
I digitally cut away the damaged surfaces of my 3D capture of the British Museum’s famous colossal bust of Ramesses II, the size, face, and incompleteness of which were the inspiration for Shelley’s Ozymandias.
The pretty design is 3,200 years old, originally part of a mortuary temple in Thebes. Fittingly, of course, all involved in its creation are long dead, unable to interfere with or protest its reuse and new life as data, plastic, or bronze. I printed and cast only the intact parts, creating a decorative bronze bauble, broken and patinated with age, worn bright where it has been touched. It’s 1/10th scale, about 10 inches tall.
Ramesses II / Ozymandias will be at the 3D Printshows, and even though it’s a smaller piece, I hope its bright face will catch people’s eyes from across the room.
Like the ancient Egyptians, we still bury treasure with our dead.
“Death plus seventy years” is the magic spell that buries most art from the modern era along with its creators. It’s one of the reasons we sometimes don’t get to know artists’ best (or worst) work until long after they’re gone.
You have seen Eric Gill’s typographical art everywhere, in no small part because typefaces can’t be copyrighted in most countries. To appreciate Gill’s sculpture, though, until recently you had to travel to see it in person.
Fortunately, if that’s the right way to put it, he’s been dead just long enough for all his work to have passed out of limbo and into the public domain. Gill has been dead since 1940, so his work no longer has to be buried with him, or confined to a single place, instance, or iteration — or displayed in mausoleum-like museums.
I captured Gill’s 1910 limestone Ecstasy at the Tate Britain in August 2012, and have cast it in bright bronze, 21 inches tall. It’s already on its way to the London and Paris shows.
Given the technologies coming online these days, it’s a pathetic reality that one of the first, most salient questions about art created in the modern era won’t be “What does it mean?”, “Isn’t it pretty?” or “How will I alter it or make one for myself?” but “When did the artist die?” An arbitrary, legalistic burial ritual will be the only thing keeping people from having the art they want.
Proving that those rituals are arbitrary, and navigable only by a select priesthood, one more bronze that I’ve reproduced — but which won’t be on display at the London and Paris shows — is Henri Matisse’s 1909 Back I.
Matisse worked on the Back series from 1909 to 1930, reworking the form over and over, ultimately producing a quartet of larger-than-life plasters. It’s hard to find a straightforward account of their provenance and multiple iterations, but what does seem clear is that the final three were not shown publicly until late in Matisse’s life, and that all four were cast in bronze posthumously.
But the plaster of Back I was exhibited in Paris and Lausanne in 1913.
As far as I can tell, that makes the design of Back I subject to a quirk of US copyright law that holds that any work produced anywhere in the world prior to 1923 is now in the public domain. I think that means I can do what I want with this design, at least in the US.
I captured the Back series in UCLA’s Murphy Sculpture Garden. Using my 3D-print-to-bronze casting process, I’ve made a 1/5th scale copy of Back I in bronze, about 15 inches tall, with a brown patina to match the original.
Unfortunately, the EU does not recognize the US 1923 rule. If I were to use my copy of Back I outside the US, or even within it, could whoever holds the copyright in the EU go after me? I have no idea. Faced with a similar ambiguity with a Picasso, even James Cameron eventually buckled.
There is to some, apparently, a clear, meaningful moral distinction at work in the ether surrounding all these works, something other than arbitrary, haphazard legislation and vague, modern mysticism concerning dead people’s “rights” that puts a 1910 Gill in the public domain but keeps a 1909 Matisse beyond reach.
I don’t know what to do with my Matisse, but I definitely won’t be exhibiting it in Paris or London. For all practical purposes, it’s off limits to art lovers in the EU, all because there are slightly different burial rituals there than in the US.
Henri Matisse died in 1954, so my copy will probably gather dust for 11 years until, in 2024, all spells and copyrights in his work expire worldwide. Then I’ll finally be able to unearth my bronze and bring it back from the dead.
UPDATE 11/20/2013: While I didn’t exhibit it in Paris, I did bring it with me. Because when’s the next time I’m going to be alone, after hours at the Louvre, with Vangelisish muzak playing on the PA system, with a 3D captured, 3D printed bronze-cast bootleg of a Matisse? I found a buyer too…