When looking at an individual artwork in an exhibition, there are several defining elements that will combine the work with the artworks around it and to the exhibition as a whole. The main linking element is usually its theme, but it can also be its medium or process. The exhibition Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital is currently being displayed at the Museum of Applied Art and Science (Powerhouse Museum) in Sydney and it demonstrates these ideals. It “explores the increasingly important role of digital manufacture in contemporary art, science, fashion, design and architecture.” (Museum of Applied Art and Science 2017) and displays the technologies disrupting traditional manufacturing practices. This exhibition examines how media, materials and technologies define new possibilities, expectations and understandings of design practice and contemporary art.
Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital is a very engaging exhibition that can challenge our perception of what contemporary art is and is an exploration of this, “in the light of ever-evolving technologies, processes and materials. Such technological advances are changing the way we conceive of and work with materials, and blurring boundaries.” (Museum of Applied Art and Science 2017). This means that the exhibition is exploring the possibilities of combining art, materiality, technology and technique. These ideas can be executed in many different ways and this becomes very clear when you visit the exhibition.
The exhibition at the Museum of Applied Art and Science is organised in a circular or ’o’-shaped fashion; there are works lining the external walls, a wall like division down the centre, as well as in the centre of the isles. There is a lot to take in when you first enter the exhibition space and as you walk around, you begin to understand that this isn’t just a ‘standard’ art exhibition; there is furniture, machinery, clothes, jewellery, artificial body parts, models, sculptures and more. You begin to recognise things from an everyday environment – however most have some kind of modification from the norm. For me, the piece that caught my attention was, given the nature of the exhibition, a more reserved and artistic piece, however, when we begin to look a little deeper it becomes evident that this work is, at its core, just as technologically based as every work in the exhibition.
Figure 1: Powerhouse Museum / Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Sydney, Australia. Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital, Originating from the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, 3 September – 25 June 2017.
Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski, courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, Australia.
Perfect Forms (2010 – 16) by Barry X Ball is a digitally rendered sculpture inspired by Umberto Boccioni’s Futurist work, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). The sculpture is situated in the centre of the isle, it is encased in a glass box and is placed atop a metre-high table, together it stood more than two metres high; for many, this meant that they would come face to face with the sculpture. The sculpture itself is about 50 centimetres tall, it is bright gold to the point where it is literally shining and true to its intention, exactly replicates the familiar work of Boccioni.
Boccioni was a Futurist, which meant that he “rejected artistic and cultural tradition in favour of a technologically oriented future…celebrated war as a liberating force, freeing the present of the weight of the past, and admired speed, machines, youth and violence.” (Buchanan 2010). His work was, according to The Metropolitan Museum, an emphasis on the Futurists celebration of the innovative mechanical revolution in the modern world, “the figure’s marching silhouette appears deformed by wind and speed, while its sleek metal contours allude to machinery.” (The Metropolitan Museum 2017).
Figure 2: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Umberto Boccioni, 1913, cast 1950, bronze, 121.3 x 88.9 x 40 cm, sculpture, Bequest of Lydia Winston Malbin, 1989.
Boccini’s work was created during a time of great technological change; the passing of time, fluidity of time and expression of time was paramount in art, particularly in photography. The statue is a frozen moment in time that could be said to be striding into the future. According to McKever (2017), Boccioni made several sculptures out of different mediums, with his original work being made out of plaster; the recognisable bronze casts were not made until after Boccioni was killed in action in 1916.
Barry X Ball wanted to complete the Futurist work that Boccioni never could. “The rough, hand-hewn character of the Unique Forms bronzes stands in inelegant opposition to their advanced conceptual genesis. Boccioni’s Modern Man has heretofore been realised with ancient methods in an antique material.” (Barry X Ball 2014). Barry X Ball is therefore saying that the technologies available when the work was created were inadequate for producing Boccioni’s overall objective. Therefore, he is not only carrying on the work Boccioni was unable to create before his death, but is also taking it to new heights with contemporary technologies.
The process required was a huge and extensive task that took several years to complete, but utilising the available and concurrent technologies, it was made possible. “The challenge I set for myself was to transform Boccioni’s extremely familiar artwork, a Modernist icon, into something completely new – to bring together form, material, technique and concept.” (Barry X Ball 2014). According to Strasnick (2013) and Barry X Ball (2014), the first step was to scan a bronze edition of the sculpture, he did this using a state-of-the-art Breuckmann 3D white-light scanner. The artist and his team then altered and enhanced the 3D scan using a digital sculpting and painting program, ZBrush. They removed any nicks and scratches, sharpened its angles and edges and smoothed the surface; the sculpting alone took almost three years. “I believe the cumulative impact of those thousands of subtle changes yields a work simultaneously familiar and fresh.” (Barry X Ball 2014). The final step was to digitally flip the model so that is matched Boccioni’s work exactly.
Figure 3: Digital Model of Perfect Forms, Barry X Ball, 2010 – 16.
Once they had finished digitally modelling the work, according to Strasnick (2013), they printed a 3D plastic prototype from a Viper Pro SLA 3D-printing system. This prints a cream-coloured object layer by layer which causes the model to be produced with thousands of vertical ridges. These ridges need to be removed and they do this using sandpaper as a buffer; they occasionally spray water on the sandpaper as it helps to give the sculpture a matte finish. There were many choices made throughout the process of creating prototypes that were adapted and improved, one was the use of different materials. Initially, the sculptures were made of plastic, but they are not very sturdy and are sensitive to heat and light. To combat these undesirable effects, they mounted the model upside-down, fitted it with a stainless-steel framework and filled the sculpture with resin to make it more durable and support the metal coatings.
Figure 4: Hand refinement of SLA rapid-prototype of Perfect Forms, Barry X Ball, 2010 – 16.
Figure 5: Resin filling of SLA rapid-prototype of Perfect Forms, Barry X Ball, 2010 – 16.
Strasnick (2013) and Barry X Ball (2014) describe the coating process; “the sculpture and its integral CNC-milled solid brass base plate were then plated with nickel” (Barry X Ball 2014) to create a completely smooth surface. They then applied a heavy layer of copper, which they polished with vinegar. At every stage in this intricate procedure, the sculpture was extensively hand refined. Ball then sent the work to Michael Dunlap to finish the polishing and then perform the final step, coating the work in a perfect 24-karat gold.
Figure 6: Perfect Forms, Barry X Ball, 2010 – 16, mirror-polished 24K gold on nickel on copper on SLA rapid prototype model and solid brass with stainless steel armature / fittings and resin filling, 53.4 x 41.7 x 17.8 cm.
The final step in the procedure was the presentation. “The sculpture’s pedestal/vitrine displayed assembly was designed to be an integral, permanent accompaniment to the work.” (Barry X Ball 2014). The sculpture sat within a glass box atop a metre-high table, meaning that the whole structure was about two metres tall. The sculpture is very well lit, the light bounces off the sculpture, casting a gold glow on both the audience members and the white base beneath it. “Perfect Forms’ painstakingly polished mirrored surfaces glow in the daylight and scintillate with the movement of viewers around it. The dance of reflections across and around its surfaces renders it ethereal, melting its crisp contours. Light reflected from the sculpture plays across walls, floor, and ceiling.” (Barry X Ball 2014). The decisions made to create this presentation is just as important as the decisions used to create the work itself.
Figure 7: Perfect Forms, Barry X Ball, 2010 – 16, walnut, ColorCore, aluminum, low-iron glass, 213.4 x 80.0 x 55.9 cm.
Process is a major component to Perfect Forms (2010 – 16), and this becomes very evident once the procedure is understood. This idea is reflected in the exhibition as a whole, “In many respects, [it] is an exhibition about process…Prototyping has long been part of the designer’s methodology and now a number of scientists and artists are embracing it as part of their creative practice. For some artists, the process plays a crucial role in the presentation of the final work. Digital manufacturing technologies are transforming traditional processes and leading towards entirely new methods.” (Museum of Applied Art and Science 2017). Every step taken in the hugely extensive and complicated procedure of creating Perfect Forms (2010 – 16) was integral to the overall outcome of the work, and the artist’s expectations of the final product.
Understanding how the artist came to make this incredibly complicated work helps us to understand about how important testing and experimenting is. Every choice that is made is governed by some kind of reason, whether it is style, practicality or need. Ball details his reasons behind his choices, such as the materials he chose; plastic was too susceptible to the elements so they filled the sculpture with a stainless-steel framework and resin, nickel was used as it creates a completely smooth surface, the final coating was chosen because it is “appropriately perfect” (Barry X Ball 2014) in nature; mirror-finished 24-karat gold. The purity of the chosen material could be said to be another element of tribute to perfecting Boccioni’s original work.
The execution of the presentation of the work is another important component that governs how the work will be received. As an audience member, despite the large volume of works in the exhibition space, this work stood out for me. This is due to intense planning and testing, but it comes together to create a specific atmosphere, “the work both affects and is affected by its environment.” (Barry X Ball). This construction is very specific and, again, it is to form an extension of Boccioni’s work, “Boccioni strove to depict a striding figure, at one with its surroundings and the forces released by its movement.” (Barry X Ball 2014). The way that Barry X Ball executed the presentation through the use of a glass box – which enforces the idea that we can look but not touch, the height at which the statue stood, the use of light and the location of the work in the exhibition all help reinforce his overall message and the message of Boccioni.
One of the most interesting aspects of this work is the process, it raises thoughts such as: Imagine if Boccioni were here today, would he be building sculptures out of 3D printing machines? This entire exhibition and Perfect Forms (2010 – 16) is showcasing how contemporary art will always be influenced by the technologies available at the time. Realistically, Ball could have created a sculpture in the same way that Boccioni did, but the level of accuracy and perfection that has been created utilising new technology has created the immaculate version that Ball strived to make. “The gleaming form towers above me, yet cascades around itself. Its gleaming curves and angles form a modern masterpiece – the handwork far exceeds what even Bernini and Borromini devoted to their masterworks.” (Castro 2015).
The cumulative result of process, prototype, medium and materiality come together to create an incredibly well executed work. “My intention is that Perfect Forms radically expand and complete the unification of form, space, and action my Futurist forebear initiated almost exactly a century ago.” (Barry X Ball 2014). Ball’s inspiration is twofold, he is trying to complete the work that Boccioni never could, due to his untimely death and the lack of technical resources from his time, “I did what Boccioni would have done in his dreams.” (McKever 2017). The sculpture has moved from plaster, to the millennia-old process of bronze casting, to a digitally scanned 3D printed sculpture that has been coated in perfect twenty-four karat gold. Through an incredibly judicious procedure, Barry X Ball has been able to bring Boccioni’s Futurist dream of to life through the technological gains that have occurred through the passing of time and by literally bringing the work a century into the future; the figure really has moved through time.
Ball, B X 2010 – 16, Figure 1: Perfect Forms, photographed by M. Kojdanovski, image, Barry X Ball, viewed 26 April 2017, http://www.barryxball.com/about_exh.php?type=gallery&exh=112
Ball, B X 2010 – 16, Figure 3: Perfect Forms, image, Barry X Ball, viewed 26 April 2017, http://www.barryxball.com/process_cat.php?cat=1&process=41
Ball, B X 2010 – 16, Figure 4: Perfect Forms, image, Barry X Ball, viewed 26 April 2017, http://www.barryxball.com/process_cat.php?cat=1&process=41
Ball, B X 2010 – 16, Figure 5: Perfect Forms, image, Barry X Ball, viewed 26 April 2017, http://www.barryxball.com/process_cat.php?cat=1&process=41
Ball, B X 2010 – 16, Figure 6: Perfect Forms, image, Barry X Ball, viewed 19 April 2017, http://www.barryxball.com/works_cat.php?cat=1&work=224
Ball, B X 2010 – 16, Figure 7: Perfect Forms, image, Barry X Ball, viewed 19 April 2017, http://www.barryxball.com/works_cat.php?cat=1&work=224
Boccioni, U 1913 (cast 1950), Figure 2: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, image, The Metropolitian Museum, viewed 19 April 2017, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/485540
Buchanan, I 2010, “Futurism”, Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory, vol. 1, Oxford University Press, New York.
Castro, J G 2015, Barry X Ball: Technical Aspects of Crafting “Perfect Forms.”, International Sculpture Center, weblog post, 2 December, viewed 21 April 2017, https://blog.sculpture.org/2015/12/02/barry-x-ball/
McKever, R 2017, Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Khan Academy, viewed 20 April 2017, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/wwi-dada/art-great-war/a/umberto-boccioni-unique-forms-of-continuity-in-space
The Metropolitan Museum 2017, All Collection Records: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, The Metropolitan Museum, viewed 19 April 2017, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/485540
Museum of Applied Art and Science 2017, Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital, Museum of Applied Art and Science, viewed 19 April 2017, https://maas.museum/event/out-of-hand-materialising-the-digital/
Museum of Applied Art and Science 2017, Store: Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital, Museum of Applied Art and Science, viewed 19 April 2017, https://maas.museum/product/out-of-hand-materialising-the-digital/
Strasnick, S 2013, ‘Barry X Ball Makes a 3D-Printed, Digitally Altered, Gold-Plated Sculpture’, ArtNews, 19 November, viewed 19 April, http://www.artnews.com/2013/11/19/barry-ball-makes-a-3d-printed-sculpture/