A World of Fragile Parts

The Victoria & Albert Museum grapples with art, architecture, and authenticity at the Venice Biennale

Art International Preservation
(Courtesy Andrea Avezzù  via La Biennale)
(Courtesy Andrea Avezzù via La Biennale)

As the Palmyra arch—destroyed by ISIS and recreated by archeologists and scientists—tours the world, preservation has been a hot topic this year. Building on this fervent global discussion, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) from London exhibited A World of Fragile Parts at this year’s Biennale in Venice.

Located in the Arsenale, the exhibition was designed by London architecture studio Ordinary Architecture and curated by Brendan Cormier. This was also the first time the V&A and La Biennale di Venezia had worked together. A World of Fragile Parts focuses on the phenomena of copies and raises questions about authenticity and the act of emulating artifacts. Does copying result in fakes? Rip-offs? Or acts of cultural preservation?

(Courtesy Andrea Avezzù via La Biennale)

(Courtesy Andrea Avezzù via La Biennale)

The exhibition illustrates how museums have long been displaying duplicates. The V&A itself did so from the 1800s onwards by creating plaster casts of art and sculpture work. In 1867, “The Convention for Promoting Universally Reproductions of Works of Art” was set up by the V&A to aid the exchange of such copies (a reproduction of which is on show). “The [V&A] founding director, Henry Cole, had a mandate to bring examples of great art and architecture to a British public,” Cormier told The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) over email. “Since certain pieces were unmovable, especially architectural details from churches across Europe, he instead decided to commission plaster cast copies of those details and bring them to London.” The practice allowed locals to view artwork from across the globe, however, it eventually fell out of favor in the 20th century, with public opinion swaying to view such copies as unauthentic.

On display in the exhibition is the head of the former Egyptian queen, Nefertiti. Originally discovered in 1912, the bust has been on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin since 1924. Despite many calls from Egypt to return it, the German museum has refused and has blocked access to the artifact. That didn’t stop artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, though. Without the permission of the museum, Al-Badri and Nelles scanned the head of Nefertiti using an Xbox Kinect controller and made a 3D print.



(Courtesy Andrea Avezzù via La Biennale)

“For the design, Elly and Charles [Elly Ward and Charles Holland of Ordinary Architecture] wanted to recreate this ambiance of gradual decay and preservation, while referencing the cast courts,” said Cormier. The colors of the walls and tables reference the “old color palettes of the cast courts and worked as an organizational principle for the show.” (Courtesy Andrea Avezzù via La Biennale)

The artists’ 3D-print—exhibited in Cairo but also publicly available under a Creative Commons License—is the most precise scan ever made public of the original artifact. “With the data leak as a part of this counter-narrative we want to activate the artifact, to inspire a critical re-assessment of today’s conditions and to overcome the colonial notion of possession in Germany,” the two artists said on their website.

A World of Fragile Parts doesn’t just cover this passage of history: Cormier has sampled modern reproductions too. Part of the remade Palmyra arch can be found in the exhibition. The arch was fabricated with precise stone-cutting tools and information from a 3D model built using photographs of the original. In this example, and indeed many others, a sense of urgency is installed throughout the exhibition. “Despite best efforts to preserve originals, there will always be a level of uncertainty—the potential damage of violent attacks, environmental disasters, and accidents—that put our material culture at risk,” said Cormier. “Compiling a vast database of digital backups, which then can be reconstituted physically, offers an immense opportunity.”

(Courtesy Andrea Avezzù via La Biennale)

To further create an ambiance of decay, the display tables feature broken and fragmented edges completed with with acrylic. (Courtesy Andrea Avezzù via La Biennale)

Working with Cormier, architect Sam Jacob created a full-size mock-up of a refugee camp from Calais, northern France. Using, wood, plastic, and CNC milled synthetic stone, the installation referenced the camp which has become a talking point between France and the U.K. as refugees camp on the border between the two countries.

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