When the celebrated sculptor Bruce Beasley was invited by the software platform Autodesk to host a 3D-printed exhibition in San Francisco back in 2013, he was thrilled; after all, it’s not every day that an artist gets the chance to come face to face with breakthrough technology. “Computer modelling and 3D printing give me the ability to make sculptures I could not execute in any other way. The creative impulse remains the same whatever tools an artist uses, but it is liberating and exciting to explore a new vocabulary of shapes – part mechanical, part organic – made possible through innovations in technology,” he said.
Since the increased supply of consumer-grade printers in the early 2010s, 3D printing has become much more accessible for artists and designers. Many artists who previously struggled in bringing specific concepts to life due to material and production limitations are now free to explore the new land of opportunity that is 3D printing. From customisation and versatility to sustainability and cost-efficiency, 3D printing has proven to be uniquely beneficial to many in the creative world.
With its advent, many artists replaced or supplemented their primary medium to explore its massive possibilities. In one example, the Dutch artist Eric van Straaten – who previously worked with wax and resin – now exclusively works in 3D printing.
Read on to discover some of the experimental works that contemporary artists and 3D print studios have created over the past decade.
3D Printed Art Projects
3D Printing in Contemporary Art
The role of experimentation in contemporary art is crucial – a massive pillar in the research process. In artmaking, 3D printing makes much of the impossible feasible, bringing in an entirely new medium for artists to tap into. And many contemporary artists have been doing just that. In his 2020 work Black Luncheon, the New York-based artist Jacolby Satterwhite scattered 3D printed resin objects to supplement his neon pieces – bringing in contemporary motifs in a mission to “appropriate” the 19th-century French modernist Édouard Manet.
3D printing also brings surprising textures to works of contemporary art that would be difficult to achieve otherwise. The artist Phoebe Hui used functional 3D printed parts for her installation at Tai Kwun in Hong Kong – Selenite (2021) – to add in a moon-like texture. To do this, she collaborated with the studio MetaObjects who used a multijet fusion powder printing procedure in charcoal black.
3D Printed Sculpture Art
Because of the potential of dimensionality, 3D printed sculpture art is perhaps the most compelling artistic exploration of the technology. Sculptors and mixed media artists alike have been delving into its many prospects. In his mixed media installation Untitled 2013, the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija used 3D printed plastic to create the leaves of a bonsai tree, later using the same technique for Untitled 2017i.
In collaboration with The Smithsonian, the bioartist Amy Karle used a 3D scan of a Triceratops skeleton to print a series of six 3D printed structures that “imagine new forms based on extinct species, exploring hypothetical evolutions through technological regeneration.” The acclaimed French sculptor Marguerite Humeau (who designed the first-ever 3D printed Lady Dior) also frequently uses this new technology in her work.
And these sculptures are making it to space, too. In February 2022, the Netherlands-based Moon Gallery sent a collection of miniature artworks to the International Space Station. Amongst them? The 3D printed artwork Structure & Reflectance by Singaporean artist-designer Lakshmi Mohanbabu and Assistant Professor Matteo Seita, designed to “embody the unity of mankind”.
3D Printed Wall Art
For painters struggling with time and those looking to scale their sales, 3D printing can be used to raise production efficiency, too. Original paintings can be reproduced with 3D textured printing techniques, where each and every texture is replicated to look dimensional and like the original. To do this, layers of an image are extracted and turned into a “heightmap”, and then developed with printers. The result is a replica that is almost true to the original.
3D Printing Art Reproductions
When 3D printing technology first became more affordable and accessible, many were worried about the problematic authenticity-related issues it might bring along. In 2016, two German artists went to the Neues Museum in Berlin and secretly 3D scanned the bust of Queen Nefertiti – a high-value, prized object from ancient Egypt that Egyptian authorities had always believed should be restitute to its country of origin. The artists later released the 3D model online for all to download, hoping that museums in Egypt would 3D print the bust and place it “where it belongs”.
Angelo Atzei, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons
3D Printing for Art Accessibility
However, 3D art reproductions aren’t always so scandalous and can be used in more ways than one. For example, can 3D printing help rewrite a more accessible timeline of art history? In 2015, the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain created replicas of six different famous works in partnership with Estudios Durero, a studio specialised in 3D printing. The brushstrokes of works like Velázquez’s Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan and Goya’s The Parasol were accentuated with additional volume for visitors who are blind or have low vision impairment in order to create a mental map.
And more recently in 2021, Getty Images partnered with the National Federation of the Blind and Tactile Images to transform textual information in more than 45 million images into 3D tactile prints using raised surfaces.
3D Applications in the Creative Industries
For interior designers, 3D printing lifted many technical limitations in what can be done in the real world. For their design of EGEO – a Greek restaurant in Valencia – the design studio Masquespacio used the new technology to recreate columns, later embedding LED tubes to add a contemporary appeal.
For architects, 3D printing revolutionised the model-making process by cutting down the manual work involved and allowing for high accuracy in the details. But the possibilities of 3D printing go way beyond architectural models. In 2021, luxury house Dior created a pop-up store in Dubai, fully printed by the Italian 3D printer company WASP using natural materials including clay, sand, and rice husks.
Could you even print an entire neighbourhood? The designer and founder of Fuseproject Yves Béhar certainly seems to think so. In 2019, he announced plans to design the world’s 3D printed community in collaboration with the non-profit New Story Charity to “deliver high-impact housing solutions for underserved populations,” aiming for 400 houses in total in Latin America.
Theatre and Movies
Both costume and set design are also finding infinite possibilities with new printing methods, even helping cut costs for specific props that are difficult or impossible to secure. In 2017, WASP took on a massive feat and 3D printed the entire scenography for the 19th-century play Fra Diavolo at the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome.
3D Printing in Art and Heritage Preservation
Has 3D printing advanced society in art preservation? That’s certainly up for debate. The technology of replicating cultural masterpieces via 3D printing continues to raise questions of authenticity, but in many instances, it might be the most viable option compared to the alternative: destruction and extinction.
Under the project name “Ouroboros”, the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil used 3D printing to recreate lost artefacts when a large fire destroyed more than 90% of the museum’s 20 million pieces.
The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London has long been committed to advancing the conversation on critical issues in 3D printing in art. In 2016, the Biennale di Venezia along with the V&A presented the exhibition “A World of Fragile Parts,” exploring the potential of “copying” heritage sites and cultural artefacts, especially when they’re in some amount of danger. “The increasing accessibility of 3D scanning and printing couldn’t be timelier in the context of cultural preservation, as the threat of destruction and damage of our global material heritage rises,” wrote curator Brendan Cormier.
The “art” of copying isn’t necessarily a new practice, and we can look towards history at traditional practices like mould making and casting – around since ancient Egypt – while contemplating our definitions of authenticity.
Cover Credit: Tom Claes/Unsplash
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat