The Visual Archive of Devotion and Taboo


Makkah 3D Puzzle produced by Wrebbit (1995)

In 1995, a puzzle company produced a 1038 piece architectural model of the Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, the expansive complex that contains the Kaaba. Upon delivery of 17,000 copies to Saudi Arabia, the construction toy was deemed idolatrous and the shipment destroyed. Little over 500 of the sets remained in Canada, and have since become collector's items. Ever since, the home construction of Islamic holy places has been an unspoken no-go zone in the field of toy production. A recent perusal of the Saudi Arabian Import Guide on banned and restricted products includes models or "prototypes" of the Kaaba[1]. However, as the axis mundi of the Islamic world and a non-figurative cuboid, the Kaaba is commonly reproduced in model form to decorate the dashboards or mantelpieces of devotees. Unlike other faiths, much Islamic devotional imagery hints at the experience or expectation of the physical act of pilgrimage. Popular devotional prints from Muslim South Asia reproduce the sculptural intensity of traversing the Kaaba through lenticular prints (two-dimensional images that portray a remarkable sense of three-dimensional depth through interlocking layers) as souvenirs of local shrines or promises of pilgrimage. Why then do construction toys or DIY-build models cross the line into profanity?  And to what extent does this also hold true for 3D printed objects?

South Asian Lenticular Print of Kaaba. (2D rendering: all layers visible)

Due to the taboo on construction toys of the Islamic Holy places of Mecca and Medina[2], and the Lego Group’s own reluctance to produce official sets of a religious nature, a number of Lego Kaaba and Masjid al-Haram creations have been improvised over the last couple of years and channelled through the superb blog GodBricks. Following the dissemination of such creations on sites such as Brickshelf, users can utilize open-source programs such as Bricksmith or Lego's own Lego Digital Designer (LDD), allowing for the virtual modelling and output of MOC (My Own Creation) plans for other users to build. One enterprising individual has taken to selling their Lego MOC plans for a Lego Kaaba on eBay. Despite evident fundamentalist distaste for construction toys, there are instances of Lego being used as a didactic tool to explore Quranic teachings and avoid depicting living forms, most notably Mezbauddin Mahtab’s blog "Read With Meaning". In a similar community spirit a number of Mecca structures have been designed by Minecraft users, with one user boasting a stunning visualization of the modelling process on YouTube.

Completed Lego Kaaba from Ebay Auction

 Mezbauddin Mahtab’s Sura 095: The Fig, from the blog "Read With Meaning"

Artist Morehshin Allahyari's ongoing project Dark Matter brings into being assemblages composed of objects that are considered taboo in Iran: such as Buddhist and Homer Simpson iconography, pork, dildos, or a satellite dish. In this re-contextualization of the forbidden, the rituals that these objects serve or suggest (masturbation, pork consumption, Westernization, etc.) are recombined as if to encourage the imagination of new, polymorphous forms of gluttony or sexual expression. 3D printing and digital modelling are posited as a "documentation tool" of restricted human agency in theocratic states, and a means for encouraging the imagination of new taboo-breaking rituals by reverse-engineering the archive as source and subject.

In his essay "Religion in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" the essayist Boris Groys argues that in relying on the reproduction of ritual, religion in the age of globalization must battle for its standardization amidst a networked, transnational community. In its more extreme form, this struggle can be seen in fundamentalist attempts to flatten out vernacular expression and ensure that the mechanical or digital reproduction of ritual remains uniform.

Morehshin Allahyari,#barbie #vhs from the series "Dark Matter." Work in progress.

Allahyari's latest work-in-progress is titled Material Speculation: ISIS, a project that compiles and collates visual data in order to reconstruct artefacts recently destroyed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Enlisting the help of academics across the world, Allahyari initially began by using open-source modelling software to attempt to render 3D visualizations from extant images of the artefacts pictured prior their destruction. Midway through the preparatory phase, Allahyari came across Project Mosul, an almost-identical project that aims to crowd-source enough imagery to digitally reproduce Iraq and Syria's destroyed cultural heritage. With the dearth of extant visual data relating to many of the artefacts (between 20 and 30 multi-angle, high-resolution images are required to create a reliable digital surrogate), Allahyari decided to intervene and remodel the objects in 3D from scratch, filtering and negotiating her work through various platforms before manifesting the finished objects in printed, 3D form. The results, printed in clear material, house an encased flash memory card, floating in mineral oil.

Of Material Speculation: ISIS Allahyari states,"I’ve never done a project like this before, where creation in my work is dependent on someone’s else’s destruction of something in the real world."[3] As the memory stick is embedded within the sculpture, one might infer that the possibility of further reproduction by agents other than the artist is dependent upon the statue being destroyed again. Yet Allahyari uses a sealing process that allows for the artwork to be prized apart with a sharp object, leaving both the re-embodied artifact and the flash drive unharmed. The .stl and .obj files will also be made available online for further reproduction and archiving. By differing her approach to that of Project Mosul, Allahyari sidelines academic demands for visual likeness and vraisemblance, allowing instead for the mechanical reproduction of the built form to act as a show of resistance and defiance against the ISIS campaign. Her commitment to preserving and embodying an infallible, persistent memory of the artifact and its material lifecycle even motivated her to include on the embedded flash drive a video of ISIS's destruction of it.

Morehshin Allahyari, King Uthal from the series " Material Speculation: ISIS." (Work in progress.)

Depending on the conditions of faith, destruction and restoration by constructive design are profane reactions to a moral taboo. Yet devotional imagery in its myriad forms, the materiality of vernacular Islam, acts in this manner as a promise of pilgrimage, a covenant with the future. These vivid and personal contracts, either improvised in the form of Lego MOC plans or as Minecraft worlds, or as mass-produced tokens sold at shrines, such as lenticular prints, are as tangible an address to the past and future as Allahyari’s use of 3D printing techniques to preserve cultural memory for posterity or Project Mosul's crowd-sourcing of cultural heritage. As a trace of a certain ritual, aniconic art, Islamic devotional objects, and 3D models of destroyed artifacts or taboo objects could all be used as a kind of algorithm to further encourage the reproduction of the divergent rituals they purport to embody. Here, the function of the DIY model and the mass-produced one diverge: the former invites construction and modification, while the mass produced object invites devotion and reflection. In both cases, the visual archive of shared devotion – secular or spiritual – is activated by a supplemental archive of received knowledge.

Morehshin Allahyari, Lammasu from the series " Material Speculation: ISIS." (Work in progress.)

[1] Saudi Arabi Import Guide 01, Banned and restricted products Ed. 1.5, Bureau Veritas, Government Services & International Trade (GSIT).

[2] The only notable exception to unease over such construction toys seems to be the Mosque of Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.

[3] Author interview with Morehshin Allahyari, June 2015.