Inspired by the creation of collective archives, Morehshin Allahyari (she/her/hers) makes 3-D printed sculptures, videos, and virtual reality experiences that challenge social and gender norms and explore cultural contradictions. She is the recipient of the United States Artist Fellowship (2021), and her work has been shown in venues such as the New Museum, New York, NY; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; and Centre Pompidou, Paris, France. Allahyari is currently a Visiting Guest Professor at Sarah Lawrence College.
Material Speculation: Isis, 2015–16
Four 3-D printed plastic sculptures with embedded portable data-storage devices
Courtesy of the artist
“I love them in a way that I haven’t loved any other works of art I have created. They are part of my culture, my people, my history. And I want to protect them [. . .] not only from ISIS, but from Silicon Valley, from Google, from all the tech companies in the West, from all the white men and their colonialist technologies.”
—Morehshin Allahyari, “Physical Tactics for Digital Colonialism”
These translucent, ghostly sculptures are reproductions of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts that were destroyed by ISIS at Iraq’s Mosul Museum in 2015. Each began as a digital model that was then 3-D printed using plastic. Because plastic is made from crude oil, the sculptures point to the complicated politics of oil in the region, which were shaped by the West’s colonial extraction of its natural and cultural resources, including the looting of artifacts.
After the destruction of the original objects by ISIS, Western tech companies promoted the idea of using 3-D modeling to recreate them. Morehshin Allahyari (she/her/hers) grew up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, when the United States sold arms to Iraq, and lived through the ensuing decades of US intervention in the region. In her eyes, this transformation of Middle Eastern heritage into Western intellectual property amounts to what she calls digital colonialism. By embedding her sculptures with memory cards that contain their source files and other archival materials but are inaccessible to us, she emphasizes that the politics of digital tools are not transparent and that access to them is not universal. For colonial subjects in particular, being visible is not the same thing as being free.
South Ivan Heads, 2017
Two 3-D printed sandstone sculptures with embedded portable data-storage devices and data cables
Courtesy of the artist
“I was approaching this project not just as an archaeology project, or as an historian, or as a new media artist, but as a combination of those things. So it was important for me that these sculptures were like time capsules, with multiple layers.
These 3-D printed sandstone sculptures by Morehshin Allahyari (she/her/hers) are reproductions of sculpted faces that once gazed out from the south side of an ivan [iwan], a vaulted structure open on one side, in the ancient city of Hatra in modern-day Iraq. In 2015, ISIS uploaded footage of one of their fighters destroying the originals with an AK-47, continuing their strategic use of the internet to shock, intimidate, and recruit.
These seemingly silent sculptures bear witness to their past: each is a dead drop embedded with a memory card that contains various archival documents pertaining to the original objects, as well as the digital model of King Uthal from Allahyari’s Material Speculation: ISIS (a related series of 3-D printed sculptures that here surrounds these works). Although we cannot see the cards, we can access them by using the provided USB cable to download their files onto our own devices. The sculptures thus circulate their files stealthily, rejecting ISIS’s viral sensationalism. By giving the sculptures a digital “memory” and the ability to preserve and share their own histories (but not, crucially, their own 3-D models), the artist stresses the importance of maintaining control over the creation of our cultural identities—including control over our digital doubles.
You can connect your own personal device to the artwork through the USB cable.
Physical Tactics for Digital Colonialism, 2019
Can the internet resurrect the dead? The lost art object—be it speculative, missing, or destroyed like a statue smashed by ISIS—now circulate as JPGs, PDFs, and YouTube videos. Untethered from physical matter, these files work to extend life.