Can AI Push Art Beyond Human Capacity?

Ministry of Nomads
Apr 5, 2019 3:34PM

British artist Nachev uses algorithms to create art like we’ve never seen it before. Stimulated by his background in medicine, neuroscience and engineering, he uses the capacities of artificial intelligence to create ethereal artworks - too real to be true. A pioneer of the moment of AI in art, Nachev dramatically reverses how we think about artistic conceptualisation.

'Reflection' - All of Rembrandt’s self-portraits.

'Thought'- All known photographs of Wittgenstein.

'Hope' -Thirteen million dollars’ worth of paintings containing the image of Christ sold at auction.

Artificial Intelligence has been argued by some as the next great art movement that is upon us today. Since a portrait created with an algorithm was sold for nearly half a million dollars at Christies last October, machine-made artworks are becoming all the rage. The realms of engineering and art are wielded together as artificial machines enable artists to achieve results that are beyond human capacities of cognition and creation.

This is exactly what artist and neurologist Nachev had in mind when creating ‘Canonical’, a striking series of portraits made by an algorithmic machine under Nachev’s direction. Nachev sought out thousands of portraits of individuals from different social or historical clusters that have a common characteristic and then submitted these arbitrary particulars to an algorithm that generated a combined portrait for each group, a ‘canonical’, if you will. Using a machine, Nachev presents us with the single portrait of the wealthiest one hundred women, a portrait of all American gangsters of note, of all the US soldiers who have died during one week of the Vietnam War, or even of thousands of women at the moment of self-reported climax. The artist does this by training an entity of self-organising mathematics called a deep autoencoder to extract the inexistent, essential and ideal human form from thousands of arbitrary instances.

'Money' - Wealthiest one hundred women.

'Innocence' - One week of Americans dead in Vietnam, May 28-June 3, 1969.

'Ecstasy - Twelve hundred woman at the moment of self reported climax.

‘These canonicals are both inexistent and more real than any actual, individual instance, for they distil them into one’ – Nachev

'Charm' - All winners of Best Actor.

'Ritual' - All Cardinals of the Catholic Church.

'Death' - Post-mortem masks of notable men.

This artistic pursuit has no other intention but to reverse its initial conceptualisation, taking subjectivity out of the process of creation for a result that is closed to questions of taste, opinion and point of view, as it is fully generated by an impersonal machine on the basis of real and arbitrary particulars. Nachev remarks that an artwork’s subject must be general to appeal to a wide audience and daringly violates this notion by reversing the arrows of creativity and arriving to a generality with brute force. The resulting images are inexistent yet not only are they grounded in reality, they are exhaustive of it, they represent a more accurate generality than any human could dream of achieving.

In 2018, Nachev pushed this idea further with ‘Koinia’, a work that was shown at Goldsmiths’s second ‘Creative Machine’ show. This time, he creates portraits not only to condense families of objects into their canonical centroids but to transfer properties between them. Here he takes the same portrait of the all Cardinals of the Catholic church (see above), and mixes it with 681 portraits of males at a self-reported moment of sexual climax. The machine re-imagines the faces of those who may have never experienced sexual ecstasy. The choice of the notions of religion and sexuality are a recognition that the most potent expression of our commonalities has been religion (including its negation), and it involves rationality and is, therefore, susceptible to rejection whereas emotion cannot be rejected and the moment at which we are all uniformly one is surely that of sexual union. This way, ‘Koinonia’ is an expression of human commonality through the creation of something unreal that nonetheless is fully grounded in reality.


Ever since the arrival of artificial intelligence some fifty years ago, we have feared the taking over of the machines, the well-known dystopia of a machine-led world. By working with algorithms and setting them up to create something, however, it seems we can learn from them as we see our conceptions widen to new possibilities. In uniting art and science, we watch as something unfolds that is beyond our native human capacity and therefore undeniably confuses and astonishes us. It is a way to push art beyond the limits of human cognition - and what is contemporary Art, if not a challenge to human concepts?

Nachev studied at Oxford and Cambridge and was trained as a physician and a neuroscientist in London, where he is now an academic neurologist. Stimulated by his clinical and academic work, he continuously finds striking ways of producing a form of communication stripped from subjectivity through the means of science and art. Delighted to have and unconventional artist such as Nachev as part of their platform, commercial, educational and philanthropic art platform Ministry of Nomads has been working with this artist extensively, creating a stunning exhibition of his ‘Canonical’ series at UCL in 2014 and involving him as a main artist in the collaborative exhibition ‘Revelata’ where Nachev produced a light instillation and a magnetic sculptural piece.

To find out more about the 'Revelata' show and other works, visit our online exhibition about Nachev.

Find more works by Nachev on his artist page on Artsy or Ministry of Nomad’s website.

To follow his artistic as well as neuroscientific work, visit his online platform.

- Anna Lisa Brouet

Ministry of Nomads