An ethereal web, fragmentary yet interconnected, frames the space of Nora Al-Badri and Nikolai Nelles’ exhibition, Not a Single Bone, at NOME Gallery, Berlin. The abstract images that comprise this series of ditone prints simultaneously evoke expansive constellations and microscopic organisms – with the full picture left ungraspable. Indeed, patterns accumulate, grow and reform, as though living. On an adjacent wall, the image comes together, the folds, curves and twists in data contouring the relationship between elements to culminate in a recognizable image: a face. The fragmented network is here accumulated into a rendering of the bust of Nefertiti.
Placed just before this, barely perceptible, a glass cube is displayed atop a white plinth. Within it, a three-dimensional engraving of the bust floats in alternate perspective to the print behind it. The multiple iterations of Nefertiti in different materials, scales and perspectives seem to mirror each other in a mise-en-abyme. The glass encasement itself reflects further copies onto the walls of its microcosm – at once contained and uncontainable in its transparency, bleeding into the space. The overall effect is a collaging of busts into a dynamic, multi-layered entity.
This is the impetus behind the project, The Other Nefertiti, and lays the groundwork for the exhibition as a whole. In 2015, the artists made open-source print data of the bust – which resides in Berlin – digitally accessible, in order to allow material reproductions to be made and the object’s visibility in other locations and contexts to become possible: particularly in Egypt, the place of its origin. Consequently, replications and reconstitutions have emerged, as its image data continues to diffuse through virtual space. Through this process, the artists have sought to demonstrate how the concept of ownership and authoritative superimpositions over narrative can begin to disintegrate, enabling other histories, mythologies and visualizations to take shape in the void – the reorganization of data structures in parallel with that of power structures.
Conjectured restructurings unfurl the image of another past in How an AI imagines a Dinosaur, in which a disarticulated dinosaur skeleton is materialized in the form of 3D prints. Situated next to a large-scale plaster sculpture of a bone, which rests on the ground before a wooden transport crate – a concretizing of its transportation history – the display recalls that of a natural history museum. The disconnected bones displayed next to each other, as a fragmentary whole, point to the speculative and incomplete nature of such objects – and of the dinosaur skeleton, in particular, as bodies whose physical, living presence remains beyond the scope of a human time scale, its image susceptible to shifts in our collective imaginations as a result. This image, as written about in a text by W. J. T. Mitchell which is featured in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, can itself be considered an ‘artificial species’ – always evolving, but always speculative – even within the scientific and historical contexts, which are often perceived in isolation, untouched by the influences of culture.
Returning to the glass cube iteration of ‘The Other Nefertiti’, the object itself seems to act as a metaphor for this open quality of the image; while also enacting and making visible the digital processes utilized by the artists in an evolutionary development through discovery, collection and display of such an artifact: in re-excavating it and facilitating its narrational reconstruction. In the inability to fully contain this image – as the external surroundings meld within it, and the image in turn projects itself onto the exterior – its porousness leaves no barrier to its access. It can be seen and seen through in the same instance. This manifestation, which evokes a mass-produced gift shop trinket, however, also serves to further distance it from the original, ‘real’ object: distinguishing between that which is embedded and that which is malleable within data structures and the histories they map out and define. The image ultimately opens up a digital space for the physical object, its presence articulated through the penetration of its surface – whereby a mode of institutional critique is offered in the process.