To the British Museum, to see the scanning of the statue of King Idrimi of Alalakh. The king, pictured above in his livery of scanning-stripes, is a splendidly pop-eyed chap with magnificent hat, who was exiled from Aleppo in the mid-second millennium BC and returned from exile to capture and rule for 30 years or so the city of Alalakh in the Hatay, a little way from the Orontes river. He died in about 1450 BC and is a rather a poignant symbolic figure at the moment, as an exile from Aleppo (albeit quite a privileged one) who came back as a relatively junior king, vassal of King Parratarna of the Mitanni, who was an altogether bigger fish. King Idrimi, once scanned and then perfectly reproduced, will form the centrepiece of an exhibition on the long history of Syrian culture and its dismal but proudly defiant present – an antidote to the devastating news and awful imagery that we see constantly in the media, and a hopeful note, perhaps, for those leaving Aleppo now – testimony that three and a half thousand years ago people were exiled from the same city by war, and came back. The exhibition, called Making Light, is being developed by a small charity of the same name, of which I am privileged to be a trustee.
A wonderful foundation – the Factum Arte Foundation – based in Madrid and run by its remarkable British founder, Adam Lowe, is generously doing the scanning for Making Light, and it is fascinating on many levels. Factum had an exhibition at the Royal Academy late last year, which then moved to Waddesdon Manor, of its amazing technical procedures. Heads – those of visitors and security staff – were recorded in an elaborate rig that had cameras moving slowly around them like planets in an orrery, establishing a very high level of minutely recorded detail. The photographs were then turned into computer coding and the file was used to drive a 3D printing process that produced images of astonishing fidelity in materials from resin to glass and chocolate.
The exhibition began with a three-dimensional image in wood, made by an early version of the same process – in about 1850. Less sophisticated cameras took multi-angle photographs which were then used to make slim slices of wood, which once bound together, made a faithful reproduction of the subject’s head. Deliberately provocative in asserting that this extraordinary high-tech process has its roots in the early days of photography and chiselled craftsmanship, it set the tone for an hour’s thought on what constitutes the recorded image, why photography is different (supposing that it is) from more ‘creative’ representation, and what these superb, fine-grained images, existing as coding on a file, and stepping out from the virtual world when summoned, as infinitely reproducible, but utterly eloquent avatars, actually are.
In practical terms, the technology has been used to make three-dimensional images of extraordinary precision – including the full scale reproduction of Tutankhamun’s tomb which visitors now enter, preserving the fragile fabric of the original. But there has also been work in Iraq, West Africa, Dagestan and elsewhere, a voracious recording of the world’s material heritage made ever more urgent by the wholesale destruction of recent years. Factum has brought together the fragments of Nimrud scattered across the world’s museums, and pieced together many parts of works separated for centuries. It trains local technicians to operate the equipment, with a centre developing in Upper Egypt at the Stoppelaere House (a mgnificent building by Hassan Fathy which they have restored with love and precision) on the West Bank of the Nile near Luxor, where the recording of the tomb of Pharaoh Seti I is currently being undertaken. These enterprises are imagined and created as self-sustaining, the copyrights in the precious data files owned locally, their commercial exploitation funding the continuing charitable work of saving, recording and publishing. And the staff chosen not for the bureaucratic positions they occupy, but for their aptitude – so that many of the best are site-labourers and drivers chosen and trained. It is a very good, and very impressive project in human as well as historical terms.
Idrimi is symbolic too of that drive to preserve, because although himself now as safe as houses in the British Museum, he is achieving today a different and more reliable immortality – a virtual existence in binary code from which he can be recalled at will, and reproduced perfectly. In this he is a demonstration of the potency of the project and its technical magic – an extraordinary testimony to man’s ability to reclaim and preserve his own past.