Stephen Bayley

The great pretenders

In an age of advanced technologies, copying might not be a deviant variant, but the essential thing. But does that mean the beauty of Palmyra can be reproduced by robots?

There is fakery in the air. And maybe the French are done with deconstruction. A drone operated by a French archaeology consultant called Iconem has been languidly circling Palmyra, feeding back data about the rubble with a view to reconstructing the ruins and giving the finger to Daesh. Cocteau said he lies to tell the truth. Iconem flies to tell the truth.

In April, an exhibition called The Missing: Rebuilding the Past opened in New York which examined ‘creative means to protest preventable loss’. It was timed to coincide with the temporary erection of a frankly underwhelming two thirds-scale replica of the Palmyra Arch in Trafalgar Square, London. It goes to Times Square, New York, in September.

And opening today at the Venice Biennale is the V&A’s A World of Fragile Parts (until 27 November), which looks at how new technologies of scanning and additive manufacturing can help preserve — or give new life to — buildings and artefacts threatened or destroyed by environmental decay, the depredations of tourism or the nihilistic vandalism of fundamentalist whack-jobs.

They say that in our post-postmodern condition, nothing is new and everything is just a version of something else. And the V&A certainly has form in this quizzical arena: its stupendous 19th-century Cast Courts are a masterclass in cultural appropriation, imperial patronage and shameless repro. But when Victorian adventurers built wooden shuttering, poured plaster of Paris around Santiago’s Portico della Gloria and shipped the result back to Kensington, they did not ask the questions about purpose and authenticity we need to ask today.

There is a distinction between fake, copy and forgery, although sometimes that distinction is blurred, especially so with advanced technology. Certainly, advanced reproductive techniques have made real the theoretical musings of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.

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