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Artist Generates Controversy Around 3D-Printed "Stolen" Chinese Columns

He’s made rainbow-colored busts of Sun Tzu, printed 3D-scans of Malandry grave slabs, and manipulated images of missiles so they look like choreographed disorder. Now, artist Oliver Laric has continued his archive of the 3D-printed past by making 3D-scans of marble columns from the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) in Beijing—seven copies of the real (and prized) columns which will be returned to China this fall for the first time since 1860.

The story goes something like this: After the Anglo-French lootings of the Second Opium War in 1860, the columns were taken from their home—alongside a donation of over 2,000 other artifacts—and donated to the KODE Art Museum of Bergen, Norway, by Johan W. N. Munthe, a Norwegian general in the Chinese army. The $1.63 million donation has since become a major point of contention, as members of the Yuanmingyuan Society want the relics back in China.

Recently, Huang Nubo, a real estate developer and former official in the Chinese Communist Party's Propaganda Department, visited the columns in Norway, and was dismayed when he saw the relics. He told the museum they shouldn’t be on display, and after some negotiationing, these historic columns are set to be returned to Peking University this fall. 

Oliver Laric, however, has given his own spin on the contentious situation, as his 3D-printed replicas are housed nearby the KODE museum at Entrée Gallery in Bergen, until July 13. Even though generating 3D models of the pieces is primarily a form of archival documentation, Laric is by no means hiding the results. He’s uploaded the 3D scans to the web and made each available for download, in order to give anyone the opportunity to “own” a digital form of these historic emblems, rendering the altercation somewhat moot.

The original columns from Yuanmingyuan.

The actual scanning of the columns was done by museum and gallery officials, but Laric was allowed to touch them. “When I got to see them live the first time, it felt like what I would imagine a pilgrimage feels like,” he said. “As much as I love documentation, it was moving to touch them.”

In an attempt to inspire dialogue over the parameters of “authenticity,” Laric has invited users to take these 3D scans and alter them however they please, “[They] are starting points, made to be used,” said Laric. And unlike the models they’re based off of, “[t]hey are beginnings as opposed to finalities without an end.”

By offering these scans to the public, Laric flips the concept of single-author authenticity on its head—directly in the face of the controversy over the columns’ return. “I think the authenticity of the scans will develop as more and more people use them and potentially claim ownership over them,” he said.

It seems like a backwards way to reify history, but in the age of crowdsourcing and Internet piracy, Laric’s project makes a salient point: when the original lootings tore these objects away from their homeland, it was during a time when the concept of theft was dependent on the physical removal of an object’s only form. Today, theft doesn’t just imply looting. Scanning and uploading replications of the columns is simply a process of dissemination, without doing any damage to the originals. Copying, yes, but not theft.

Unlike those concerned with the final resting places of the original columns, Laric isn’t worried about the potential accusation that his project is undermining their cultural value. “I’m making them accessible,” he said. “[T]he scans don’t belong to anyone. I’ve given up ownership.”

Whether the columns are on display at the KODE Art Museum of Bergen, or guarded away at Peking University, its not the way they were captured, but the way they capture an era, that makes them worth the conversation.

Oliver Laric’s exhibition 圓明園 3D runs at Entrée Gallery in Bergen until July 13.

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