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Sculpture: Martin Sjardijn and The Weightless Sculpture Project

Traditional sculpture
According to Merriam Webster's more narrow definition, sculpture is "the action or art of processing (as by carving, modeling or welding) plastic or hard materials into works of art."  According to Wikipedia we get the less narrow definition "sculpture is a three-dimensional artwork created by shaping or combining hard and or plastic material, sound, and or text and or light, commonly stone (either rock or marble) metal, glass, or wood."  But even these definitions fall short of what new media artists are doing presently.  How has traditional sculpture changed in the presence of developing new technologies?  How has new media expaned the historic definition of sculpture?

File:Michelangelo Petersdom Pieta.JPG
Michelangelo's Pieta

Sculpture in new media: the digital and the virtual                        
Digital and virtual sculpture is a relatively new field in the art world. In Christiane Paul's article, Fluid Borders: The Aesthetic Evolution of Digital Sculpture, she states that the new area of art and research came about in the 90s. While she says that there was a lot of experimentation in the field before, it really developed into something definable during the 90s. She lists a few categories of digital or virtual sculpture, such as infosculpture, robosculpture, and telesculpture. Definitions, once again vary. Infosculpture, according to artist Aristarkh Chernyshev, pertains to "the modern phenomena of information overload, Web 2.0, and information aesthetics." This sculpture runs a stream of real-time news coming directly from the internet.



Urgently! 2007

Other views of digital and virtual sculpture also exist. Many artists accept pieces of sculpture that appear to fall under the traditional definition of sculpture, but that were made with digital technologies. According to Dan Collins' (Associate Professor of Art at Arizona State University) article, The Challenge of Digital Sculpture: Or how to become better tool users, the three tools that digital sculptors may use in the process of creating their artwork are data acquisition techniques, computer visualization, and rapid prototyping technologies. These correspond, relatively, to input technologies, CAD (computer aided design, modeling, and visualization), and CAM (computer aided manufacturing). Collins' main point states that a digital sculpture must master the use of these tools. While this definitely makes up one facet of digital sculpture, the other more conceptual, and debatable, type of digital sculpture is that which exists only on the screen of a computer and in a virtual reality. As Dan Collins describes the distinction is his own words:

"I do think it is important to distinguish between work that is strictly "computer-based" (as with any CAD object, VRML, etc.) and is experienced THROUGH the computer screen (Virtual Sculpture) versus objects that have been produced using computer-controlled manufacturing machines (CNC, STL, LOM, FDM, etc.) and are experienced THROUGH the body (Digital Sculpture)."

There is still much debate about whether virtual sculpture really falls under the realm of sculpture, or whether the techniques of digital sculpture are not traditional enough to place it under the category of art.  Some view 'sculpture' that uses computers in its manufacturing just a sort of "technology on display."  While critiques will always exist in the art world, most artists and critics accept this new media.  And even though many artists have fallen into digital or virtual world to produce their art, most had their beginnings in a traditional training, making it hard to deny the inherently sculptural aesthetic to their work.  However, with a new generation of artists arising, we may see a conceptual changes that push the boundaries of this aesthetic.  As Paul concludes:

"None of the artists, however, feels that the reception of their art is predominantly defined by the technology they are using. After all, none of them has discovered sculpture through the digital medium -- working outside of the technology for a number of years has already established some reception for their work independently of the reference frame of digital or virtual sculpture.

Some names that Paul mentions as being well known for their digital or virtual art achievements in the art and technology communities are
Keith Brown, Dan Collins, Christian Lavigne, Michael Rees, Robert Michael Smith, and Derrick Woodham.  This project is going to take a case-study attempt to analyze some of the work by digital and virtual sculptor Martin Sjardijn.  It will focus on his virtual artwork in an effort to force one into analyzing and articulating an opinion of whether or not his work can be described as sculpture.   

Christiane Paul's article Fluid Borders: The Aesthetic Evolution of Digital Sculpture 


Martin Sjardijn
Brief biography

Martin Sjardijn was born in the Hague, Netherlands in 1947. He attended the Royal Academy of Art where he studied fine arts. After he studied Cultural Science and Philosophy. He taught for some time at the University of Amsterdam. Sjardijn currently teaches at the Royal Academy of Art. While he painted for many years, he started to get involved in the digital art world quite early on. In the late 80s he worked for a year with astronomer Dr. Wim Bijleveld at the Omniversum Planetarium. He also collaborated with professors at the Technical University of Delft, working with a "head
mounted display system with data glove and tactile force feedback."

The Weightless Sculpture Project
Throughout much of his life Sjardijn has focused on one project that originated in the mid 80s.
  Overtime it has morphed into many.  A 1987 article in a Dutch newspaper that interviewed the artist states the beginnings of the project:
"The positive reactions of artists on his press release, “A line in outer space is visible,” pushed the artist to believe he was on the right path.  The line was replaced by a space mirror, and that idea took part in the prized competition for the birthday project of the Eiffel Tower.  The jury, however, gave the prize to a group of Frenchmen who had made a ring around the earth.  Sjardijn believed them to be “party-lights,” and found it “sad” that he didn’t win, but in the mean time he did not just sit still.  Even stronger, after months of hard work, along with the help of the TU in Delft and the astronomer Bijleveld from the Omniversum, his plan has already come into effect.  Thanks to the advanced computer of the Omniversum, the mirror in space exists."

Translation by Klaas Hinderdael

In 1985 he released the press statement:


A chronology of his projects are viewable on his online studio at:


"You can use math equations to make art these gives art more possibilities, more fantasy, more danger, and yet it is largely unexplored."

-Sjardijn, translated by Klaas Hinderdael

The predominant technology that Sjardijn uses to create his virtual sculptures is VRML.  Virtual reality modeling language is a computer language, that according to Wikipedia, "represents 3-dimensional interactive vector graphics, designed particularly with the World Wide Web in mind."  The newer version of this language is X3D.  As opposed to raster graphics which use and array of pixel to display images, vector graphics use mathematical formulas to display "geometrical primitives such as points, lines, curves, and shapes or polygons."  The use of mathematical equations to display images has an important implication in computer technology.  It means that vector graphics can be scaled indefinitely without losing definition or clarity.     

Three person line drawing.
Bitmap image (left) and vector image (right)

Three person line drawing, one head only.
Scaled image of man's head
bitmap image (left) and vector image (right)

What it is?
The Weightless Sculpture project began with the press release that was originally though up in 1984 and released in 1985.  Up until 2004 Sjardijn had been working on creating sculptural images that exist in a 3-dimensional virtual reality.  These images appear on the internet and in physical galleries.  He has work on as well as in the Groninger Museum.  Another project that is a facet of his Weightless Sculpture Project is Art Space Lab.  The idea is focused upon what he calls a "near earth outer space," this is where he turned for the future of art instead of "nature" which was a popular trend when he began to paint.  Art Space Lab is a "proposal for the development of an interactive 3D Multi-user Art World as an internet based virtual communication center and art-lab between the International Space Station, the Groninger Museum, and the Art World."  I put this up since this is where most of his images can be seen.  For most of his artwork on his official site, one needs additional plug-ins to run the art. 


Images that accompany proposal
Viewable models:

While a lot of his work is not very well defined, either in objective or conceptual idea, what he puts in galleries is usually a print out of what he creates on the computer.


The Virtual Groninger Museum
The Virtual Groninger Project was started later in his career.  From 2001 to 2004 he worked on creating virtual worlds, including that of the Groninger Museum.  From 2004-2006 he worked on creating a virtual Groninger Museum that users can visit.  This museum is 'attached' to the International Space Station.  The Groninger Museum is also an actual museum in the Netherlands. 

Is this sculpture?
I think we can all agree that this is new media, but is it sculpture?  If it only exists in a virtual world which we can navigate through using technology, but doesn't exist in the 3-dimensional world that we physically move in, can it be considered sculpture?  Or is it just another form of "technology on display?"

"It was easy to doubt oneself, and many people act like this style came out of nowhere.  But I’ve been working on this art for over 20 years, and in a sense I’ve created a new art  culture on my own when others doubted it.  That is only because I was willing to look outside of the parameters of what has already been done.  I looked vertically, when most people look horizontally.

-Sjardijn, translated by Klaas Hinderdael