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Eastern Promises: Preserving Orientalist Painting Through Data Science by Orkhan Mammadov

Premiered at ArtDubai 2023 
Art in Space Gallery 

The Eastern Promises: Preserving Orientalist Painting Through Data Science is an exhibition showcasing the work of new media artist and AI researcher Orkhan Mammadov, whose large scale installation is a series of AI-powered paintings, inspired by Orientalist art. Projected onto a translucent 10-meter by 2.7-meter curved LED display, with a soundtrack emanating throughout the space, a climate-imitation machine and a vibration system on the floor, Mammadov’s immersive artwork draws our attention to the topics of cultural preservation through computer-based art and data analysis; the representation and misconception of the East in Western art; the relationship between humans and machines, and the blurry line between reality and fantasy. This data-driven imaginary experience in which a series of paintings created using a combination of AI techniques such as object recognition, and cluster data, image classification and data analysis visualisations, serve as a metaphor for the illusional nature of Orientalist art with Mammadov underscoring the delicacy of that thin line between what is real and the unreal.

The beginning of Orientalism coincided with the Romantic age. 19th-century European painters from England, France and especially Germany visited the areas we now know as the Near East, Middle East and North Africa, depicting what they saw with wide-eyed admiration. Mammadov’s work celebrates the long history of Orientalist artists like Eugene Delacroix, Jean-Léon Gérôme, John Frederick Lewis, Gustav Bauernfeind and Ludwig Deutsch – artists whose legacy has provided an invaluable documentary narrative of regions that have since been transformed by modernisation and, in many cases, conflict. Furthermore, set against the artist’s own background, the exhibition draws on the rich cultural heritage of the East exploring how its representation in Western art often blurred the line between fantasy and reality constructing a romanticised and exoticized image of the East. Labelled as the “Orient,” this movement hardly captures the broad swath of territory to which it aims to refer, such as the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. Considering how the discipline of Middle Eastern anthropology became entangled with contemporary politics in the past two decades, Mammadov’s work pays homage to the scholar Edward Said, who for the first time used the term in his 1978 book “Orientalism”, in which he argues that Orientalism tends to rely on a binary opposition between the West and the East that most of the time is misleading and destructive.

Preservation involves acts of translation; thus, preservationists are not without their own biases. When a Western or Orientalist gaze comes into play, an act of preservation might end up more like an act of projection or distortion. In an era of computational creativity, we witness AI becoming an extension of the human mind, rendering it prone to human prejudice. Machine learning models can replicate or exacerbate both conscious biases and those unconscious biases deeply engraved in our memory. Through the use of data and algorithms, Mammadov has been able to capture the illusionary essence of Orientalist painting, viewing it though the lens of the 21st century.

 

Treating data archives as humanity’s collective memory, Mammadov’s work sits at the intersection of digital media and machine learning. This mesmerising, multi-sensory display of a series of AI-powered paintings inspired by over 8,000 images of Orientalist work, explores the intersection of traditional art and modern technology. The use of AI to create these paintings allows for the generation of new and unique visual expressions, reinforcing that relationship between machines and the human mind, allowing for simultaneous existence in multiple realities - experiencing and being experienced.

 

The Eastern Promises: Preserving Orientalist Painting Through Data Science invites us to consider the role of technology in art and the ways in which it can be utilised to engage in new forms of artistic expression. Art as a meta-discipline is “an umbrella encompassing history, philosophy, nature and science.” The AI-powered paintings presented by Mammadov offer a fresh and innovative take on a timeless artistic tradition, provide a glimpse into the future of art-making in the digital age, and raise crucial questions about polarisation, redefining our rapidly developing world as well as exploring and preserving the social and cultural heritage of humanity, with its own intricacies, in a way that has yet to be decoded by future generations.

Farah Piriye 

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