Art-Cloning Is Making It Possible For Cultural Artifacts To Be Saved From Total Loss

Millions of people around the world flock to museums every year to get a brief connection with the past and other cultures. Preservation efforts make this possible, but nothing lasts forever. So, what if we could replicate statues and paintings to be certain future generations will be able to appreciate and learn from them just as we do?

Cloned Cultural Properties, a 20-person team of artists, researchers, and digital developers at Tokyo University of the Arts in Japan, is doing just that with new technology that can significantly change our cultural inheritance in the future.

“Tradition or culture can easily be lost as time goes by,” says Professor Miyasako Masaaki, the project’s leader. “It can be altered or become obsolete. Now we can stop this, and successfully pass down the traditions whose nature is subject to change.”

The organization — sponsored by the Japan Science and Technology agency, a government institution — received a patent for their method in 2010, and since then has created a number of stunningly accurate cloned works.

“The university has a very long tradition of studying art techniques,” says Masaaki. “We thought we needed to add a more contemporary aspect to the program.” The team created a process that combines well-established restoration techniques with extensive research on how the original work was produced and digital technology such as high-definition photography and 3D printing.

Their first production was based on a mural from Korea’s Goguryeo dynasty, extending the life of the imagery and its cultural existence since the original was at risk of complete disintegration. They’ve also produced a version of a mural found on the ceiling of the East Great Buddha in Bamiyan, a house of worship in Afghanistan. That building has since been destroyed during a war, but its ceiling was replicated with the help of a photograph from the 1970s.

Masaaki thinks this technology not only has the ability to ensure cultural artifacts are kept relevant for future generations, but also makes them accessible to more people around the world. Cloned Cultural Properties’ works are already on display in several locations across the globe.

The technology’s global implications has come criticism though. Some argue that the reproductions are inauthentic and represent a giant leap of separation from all the culturally based intentions behind a given work of art. Is that ceiling from the building in Bamiyan a piece of Afghani culture, even though it was made by a team in Japan?

“In Japan, there is a tradition of utsushi,” Masaaki says, addressing those concerns. Literal English translations of utsushi range from “copying” to “emulation” to “appropriation” as well. Historically, the Japanese have handed down reproductions of artifacts that carry with them the religious or artistic values of the original. In the East, the reproduction is considered a new work of art. “Some people might copy an original artwork and it gets better in terms of quality,” the professor continued. “That is OK in our cultural concepts. In Japan the idea is probably more readily acceptable than it is in other parts of the world.”

Masaaki insists the regeneration methods of Cloned Cultural Properties sees a coexistence of traditions and innovation.

“Technology alone cannot conserve cultural heritage,” he says. “An artist — who has ideas, wisdom, experience, techniques — should also participate in the process of cloning. We are aware that people are not necessarily happy with [the combination of] technology and art, but we want to challenge ourselves, and give this to future generations.”

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Kate McCartyart, education, media