MEXICO CITY — The destruction of artifacts and artworks is always a subtext of war, and it’s difficult to calculate the value of lost culture until after the dust has settled. In the case of the ongoing war in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, incalculable numbers of priceless artifacts and ancient ruins have been destroyed, stolen, or lost. In his solo show at Galeria Mascota, Prologue: Digital Cenotaphs, Miguel Angel Salazar uses digital technology to rescue a cenotaph of King Uthal, destroyed by an ISIS attack on the Mosul Museum in Iraq, repositioning the monument in a way that recalls its own violent destruction. Using 3D printing and digital rendering to reimagine the cenotaph under fantastic, alternative circumstances creates a show of conceptualism stacked with layers of multiple historical contexts.
Salazar’s revived cenotaph serves as an effigy for all the artworks lost to violence or the destruction of culture, but it also calls up interesting points about the nature of how we preserve history in the 21st century through collecting antiquities. Despite the destruction of the originals, these digital reproductions still ensure that the object stays with us, which is hopeful for the future and also indicative of a new relationship with material, where the past can be reproduced physically with new technology. Because the power to manipulate and recreate antiquities is at our fingertips, it’s both easier than ever to rewrite history, and more difficult to erase it.
Angel Salazar borrowed the open source, digital model for the cenotaph from artist Morehshin Allahyari, who undertook the reconstruction of a dozen artifacts destroyed by ISIS in her project Material Speculation: ISIS. The model of King Uthal that Salazar used for his show in Mexico City was made available by Allahyari to anyone who wanted to download it from her website for any purpose — countering ISIS’s attempt to destroy the artifact by making it live again in multiple iterations.
Salazar didn’t just appropriate Morehshin’s digitally rendered recreation, instead he used the computer to break the cenotaph into segments and displayed it like an artifact that had been uncovered already in pieces. There’s a head, a foot and a hand displayed separately, creating a new narrative about the destruction of the monument. Unlike the crude breaks that occur with the original sculpture forcefully toppled over by bearded ISIS fighters, Salzar’s fragments, made from copperFill — copper material for 3D printing — are cleanly separated into squared off sections. The square, printed fragments seem somehow pixelated even though they’re three dimensional.
Because these objects are imperfect reproductions, I thought about the reproductions kept in Mexico’s national anthropology museum, while the originals, stolen during conquests, sit in museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Or maybe the originals are in Mexico — in many cases no one knows. Pre-Columbian antiquities have been some of the most contested museum relics in recent history, generating a slew of Hollywood-style heist mysteries that make headlines. Why all the consternation and drama about what is or isn’t original? With the digital reproduction, as Salazar shows, even artifacts destroyed by war can be resurrected from the ashes.
Toppling over a few sculptures hasn’t been front and center in my mind as the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan grind on. Of course, the purposeful destruction of heritage by ISIS has been overshadowed by their ruthless acts of terrorism carried out against innocent people. ISIS uses civilians as human shields and kidnaps women for use as sex slaves, so, of course, the destruction of artifacts has slipped by in the stream of horrifying headlines. Still, the recreated sculpture of the Mesopotamian king makes visible a fraction of the collateral damage caused by a war that can pass out of sight and out of mind for many who are not directly affected.
But rather than simply lament the attempted destruction of culture, the digitized cenotaph celebrates reinvention. However, something is lost in the digital recreation of original artifacts, and that may be why we value the original over the copy. Prologue Digital Cenotaphs points out the degradation of information through reproduction. The reproductions in the gallery space at Galeria Mascota reveal details lost in the 3D printing process and imperfections in the digital file sourced from the last known images of King Uthal’s effigy. Like it is with war, sometimes the damage done is permanent and sometimes what’s lost cannot be recovered.