The Inspiration for this Project

In the spring of this year, my art/design projects began to circle around mysterious artifacts that could be from the past or future. I got interested in looking at our place in the world as it appears from a distance – from an alien’s point of view or from thousands of years in the past or future. I wondered about looking at history as a cyclical looping of the same dramas again and again.

I documented one project that focused on creating such “ambiguous artifacts” here and you can see a video of me presenting one such artifact here

While staying in Florence for most of May this year, I was studying a lot of late medieval and Renaissance art. I got particularly interested in Leonardo daVinci, Giotto and the other figures who kicked off the Renaissance through their interest in humanism, naturalistic effects, and innovative art-making techniques.

Visiting Florence was also a rare opportunity to see works of art in the environments for which they were created. Figures in Giotto’s frescoes in Santa Croce appear to be lit by the window they surround. Sculpture, architecture, design and painting are integrated to a high degree. The materials that make up a painting were sometimes more significant than the image depicted, and gold leaf was used to make a wooden feature appear to be a panel of solid gold. 

Visiting the studio of Allison Wooley, a working artist in Florence, our group saw the water gilding process up close as the studio prepared some pieces for a client. Almost unnoticed on the floor in a corner was a painting of the artist’s son, which featured the kind of scribed and punched decoration of gold leaf that was frequently used in the late middle ages to embellish the background of devotional images. She had clearly spent many, many hours tracing precise, repetitive geometric patterns into the gold. 

Allison’s painting of her son, with gilded background
Detail of Allison’s painting showing punched and scribed decoration

The execution struck me as something that could be done by machine. I love the effect produced when  seeing a machine do something that appears goal-oriented. The machines somehow changes from being a thing to being an entity with its own objectives and motivation. (For example) The image in my mind of a robot diligently scribing patterns into gold leaf seemed like a sad, devoted preoccupation. Perhaps it is memorializing a story or a person in this beautiful/functional material.

This image inspired me to explore this theme further. What stories would robots tell? What kind of images would they make? How can the kind of images computers make depart from the digital and enter into the physical world by using these traditional artists’ techniques?

Allison’s daughter, also a professional artist, spent a day with me teaching me the traditional craft of water gilding. It takes a lot of practice, but is superior to other forms of gilding including using fake gold because of the option to burnish the gold to a shine, and inscribing decoration.