This Royal Academy exhibition asks how the latest technology – specifically the new crop of sophisticated 3D printers – fits into the artistic canon.
In one of the strangest shows of the year, the RA has borrowed a gigantic 96-camera 3D scanner – it’s come all the way from Madrid – in order to create lifelike busts of gallery visitors. These are displayed on the walls alongside various formally similar works from the RA’s own collection, inviting visitors to consider the place of this new technology in the age-old quest for truthful representation of the human form.
The so-called Veronica Scanner (a portmanteau of the Greek words “truth” and “image”) is a giant ball housed in a glass box. I was invited inside to be scanned, and after being locked in and strobed at for a few seconds, the process was complete. You then have to wait an hour for your image to be processed before you can see it on a bank of screens dominating one side of the room.
Visitors can book in to be scanned, and a lucky few will have their images selected to be printed and displayed as part of the exhibition.
There are various types of 3D printing on display – resin, alabaster, wood, metal – and one exhibit shows the same face printed multiple times, ranging in size from the length of your thumb to a metre in height. Another room shows how precise the technique has become, with a series of busts of a woman whooping for joy, her tonsils clearly visible deep inside her throat. Another of a girl sucking in her cheeks even shows her eyelashes.
The artistic relationship between classical marble and alabaster busts and these lightweight resin ones is largely implicit, with the majority of the space taken up with whirring machines and men in white coats pressing buttons. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the technical information won’t be new to anyone with more than a passing interest in this nascent technology.
But 3D printing has the potential to be the most disruptive presence in the charting of the human form since the invention of photography. This compact but fascinating exhibition is a great introduction for the uninitiated.