Disobedient Objects

Nasher Sculpture Center
Jul 25, 2019 8:57PM

In light of the themes found within A Tradition of Revolution, we thought it would be interesting to explore the technological and material ways that sculpture is changing at this moment. To that end, we asked the New York-based Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari to describe one of her latest projects. Her modeled, 3D-printed sculptural reconstructions of ancient artifacts destroyed by ISIS, titled Material Speculation: ISIS, have received widespread curatorial and press attention and have been exhibited worldwide.

Morehshin Allahyari, Dark Matter (First Series): #pig #gun, 2013. 3D printed plastic resin, 4 x 8 x 2 inches (approx.)

Sometime in 2011 and somewhere on the internet, I came across a video of an object getting 3D printed. I remember being mesmerized by both the technological potential and poetic possibilities of a digital model becoming a physical object layer by layer. Ever since, I’ve been working on different projects that explore the 3D printer as a metaphor, as a point of departure, as a machine for resistance, and as a tool in making “disobedient objects.”

In 2012, I started to work on a body of work called Dark Matter, which was a series of combined, sculptural 3D-printed objects brought together to form humorous juxtapositions. These objects were all chosen because they are forbidden or taboo to own or use in Iran. What if one could 3D-print these objects by having a 3D printer in their house (as guerrilla/DIY/resistance acts)? How would that change our relationship to the forbidden and censored? Dark Matter then became an inspiration for a three-year collaboration with writer/artist Daniel Rourke in building a movement called Additivism (a portmanteau of additive and activism). In 2015, we released a manifesto encouraging artists, activists, scientists, and engineers to “interfere, and reverse-engineer the possibilities encoded into the censored, the invisible, and the radical notion of the 3D printer itself. To endow the printer with the faculties of plastic: condensing imagination within material reality.” Then we published a book called The 3D Additivist Cookbook: a compendium of imaginative, provocative works from over 100 world-leading artists, activists, and theorists. It contains.obj and .stl files for the 3D printer, as well as critical and fictional texts, templates, recipes, (im)practical designs, and methodologies for living in this most contradictory of times.

Cover of The 3D Additivist Cookbook (published 2016), devised and edited by Morehshin Allahyari & Daniel Rourke. The Cookbook can be downloaded for free at additivism.org/cookbook

History and Concept

On February 26, 2015, ISIS released a video online showing ancient artifacts at Mosul museum in Iraq being destroyed by its militants. As you watch the video, you see ISIS members pushing, drilling, and hammering artifacts with performative and symbolic gestures. The video and the detailed documentation of the destruction by ISIS members was a big shock for archaeologists and archivists from and of the Middle East. ISIS takes pride in destruction, while for example, the U.S. military, which destroyed many historical and cultural sites in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade, the act of destruction is almost an incidental consequence of the larger, and spoken intention to bring “democracy” or “freedom” to these regions.

Responding to the destruction of the artifacts in Iraq felt like a relevant and natural position as it related to my previous research and interest. Over the course of 18 months, I worked on reconstructing 12 destroyed statues from the Roman-period city of Hatra and Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh. I was never interested in this work from a nationalistic point of view, but rather as a way to respond and activate an alternative space in a personal, political, and poetic way—a process for repairing history and memory in a space where plastic, 3D printing, Petropolitics, Technocapitalism, and Jihad meet to create dialogue around systems and realities around us that are nonbinary and complex. This is where I find thinking and working around a technology like 3D printing really important and exciting, when it’s about both functionality (how) but also criticality (why), and when it’s about both resistance and inclusion. Material Speculation takes different shapes in that realm.


To begin working on this project, I started to do a lot of research (in Farsi, Arabic, and English) about the destroyed artifacts and their historical narrative. I got in touch with many historians, scholars, archivists, museums, and, finally, the former staff of the Mosul museum, which helped me greatly in gathering information and allowing me to compare resources. Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of this project was the lack of information and the mismatched resources—from the names and stories told about these sculptures to finding images of them before destruction. Therefore, the gathering of these resources became a vital aspect of building this project, equal to the construction of the artifacts themselves.

Reconstruction Process

Using modeling software such as ZBrush and Maya, Rourke and I 3D-modeled and reconstructed the artifacts based on a limited number of images we found of them. Then we worked to correct errors and get the model ready for 3D printing in Meshmixer.

All the sculptures were then 3D-printed in a resin clear material using Autodesk/Pier9 machines as part of my one-year artist residency with them.

Then they were sanded, polished, and sprayed to accomplish a shiny surface.

At the end of this process, I embed a memory card/flash drive inside of each object, which contains all the information I had gathered in one year, including PDF files, images, documentation of the process of making the work, my email correspondence with historians and scholars as well as .obj/.stl files that would allow for reprinting of the objects. I think about these 12 sculptures as time capsules.

Download Series Folder and Dead Drops

After one year of reconstructing/remodeling, 3D printing, and post-processing the artifacts, the releasing of the information that was embedded inside of them became really important to me and how I thought about the extension of this work outside of the white walls of the gallery and into a more open/available space. In February 2016, I released a folder as part of Download series curated by Paul Soulellis on Rhizome, that contained all my research material and also the .obj/.stl file of King Uthal, which meant that anyone who has access to a 3D printer machine could re-create him. In a way, the more people who know or read about the history of these artifacts or have access to the 3D models, the more their aura is kept. The more people circulate them, the more we resist their erasure from our memories.

In addition, I recently worked on three heads as part of the Material Speculation series that I didn’t get to work on before, and I think I was specifically interested in them as a way to bridge the physical and digital gap more practically. The dead drops (2017) are an extension of Material Speculation: ISIS series. The three heads in the series are reproductions of reliefs that were originally at the ruins of Hatra, an ancient city in Iraq in South Ivan. Hatra was one of the ancient sites targeted by ISIS, and in 2015 a video was released of a fighter shooting these heads with an AK-47. These heads were above ground and visible in ancient times. They survived for thousands of years in the open air. Gertrude Bell photographed them in April 1911 before major excavations took place at Hatra. Each dead drop that I have made contains a USB drive, which the viewer can connect to in order to download my openly available research material and the 3D-printable object file of the piece King Uthal.

Written by Moreshin Allahyari

Nasher Sculpture Center