In 1913 Umberto Boccioni created a plaster cast with the intention of mass producing sculptures that still contained unique forms due to the imprecise process of metal casting. Three years later he would die, and never cast the metal himself, yet his casts were used to create bronze statues posthumously in various years. These statues came to be known as Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (Forme Uniche).
In 2010 Barry X Ball would scan Boccioni’s Forme Uniche and begin to reconstruct it in various 3D computer programs, including ZBrush. Three years later he would showcase his shiny, gold statue titled Perfect Forms, a recreation, completion and “perfection” of Boccioni’s unique forms, exactly 100 years after Boccioni first created his plaster works.
Ball did this because he believes that “art is humans doing their best.”[i] He would tell this to Angela Hesson, an Art History Lecturer, over Skype. Almost everything about Barry X Ball screams efficiency, the future, and perfection. In all his works he seeks to have perfection shown. He looks at art as a collaborative process, with artists bouncing off one another and inspiring greater works, leading art as a society to higher plains.
Due to the nature of Perfect Forms, it is imperative to look at Forme Uniche as to why Ball’s work looks the way it does. Boccioni’s work found its muse from football players running, ready to strike the ball. As such, when looking at the cast bronze statues, you can see a human shape within it. The legs are in stride and it is an obvious expression of fluidity and of movement.
Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (Forme Uniche)
Boccioni created the cast so that he could mass produce these sculptures, but due to the nature of casting, there still exist imperfections, flaws and miniscule differences between each statue produced. Thus, the works were given the title of Forme Uniche; Unique Forms. Despite their obvious similarities, there are differences. The works are unique, beause Boccioni was creating a “man moving through space, and the forces he creates.”[ii]
In his interview with Hesson, Ball expresses how he believes that Boccioni would not have wanted these imperfections and, as a leading mind in Futurism, Biccioni would gladly welcome any way to improve upon his works and prevent imperfections. Thus, Ball does this. He “perfects” the art that Boccioni created. He painstakingly scans various copies of Forme Uniche and stitches them together in a 3D modelling program. He smooths the edges, buffs out the catches and creates a perfectly smooth, rounded and beautiful statue, topped off not with fallible brass, but pure, 24 carat gold polished to shine and reflect.
Barry X Ball’s Perfect Forms, inspired by Boccioni’s work
The result is what Ball and his followers see as “the best” version of Boccioni’s work. He is not claiming to have created Forme Uniche but rather to have perfected the practice and made art. Ball even refers his sculptures as the “Ferrari of Boccionis”[iii], a reference to the beautiful and praiseworthy cars which to many are the pinnacle of cars.
Perfect Forms isn’t the only one of Ball’s artworks that takes historical inspiration. He has an entire series titled Masterpieces which seeks to create sculptures that are ‘more perfect’ than the previous historical ‘prototypes’[iv]. An interesting use of phrasing is to refer to Ball’s inspirations as prototypes. This is a potentially offensive statement, as many artists would not want to view their works as part of a process but rather as a finished product. In many ways, they might view them as their masterpieces, not to be improved upon. Some would even consider the originals to be better than Balls recreations. Boccioni’s Forme Uniche is quite important to many; so important that it can be found as the reverse side of the Italian 20 cent Euro piece.
The outlook that the historical muses are unfinished in their own right and waiting for Ball or someone else to provide the finished product continues Ball’s narrative that Art is humans doing their best, and further reinforces his viewpoint that it is a collaborative process
Whatever you believe, it is important to note that Perfect Forms has gained vast recognition. It was featured in the 2011 Venice Biennale and has been shown in various exhibitions all around the world, including the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences within the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. The outcome of Ball’s work has been wide acknowledgement of his work and processes.
This brings us to how Ball’s process differs from Boccioni’s. Umberto Boccioni found his inspiration watching sport. He admired the fluidity of the player’s bodies, how they stretched, flowed and transversed the field that they played on.
Christiano Ronaldo running compared to Boccioni’s Forme Uniche
Ball, on the other hand started in Switzerland, in a museum admiring Boccioni’s posthumous casts. He proceeded to (after gaining permission of course) scan the work and begin reconstructing it. He took some liberties, as the work contained its unique imperfections, and extended certain areas, smoothed out others, and created an even more fluid interpretation of Umberto’s original inspiration. His final alteration was to digitally flip the model so that it perfectly mirrors Boccioni’s.
He then uses a process called CNC (Computer Numerical Control) Milling, a reverse take on 3D printing which resembles the more convention approach to statue making by carving out of a piece of material rather than building up on or from it. The CNC milling technique is highly accurate and uses algorithms to translate the numerical values of the 3D model into the physical.
Ball and his team then use power and hand tools to refine down the milling machines result to a smoother form. At each step, a new material was added, polished and refined, and then another plate was also added. The solid brass base, another call back to the Forme Uniche which is the intellectual base for the work, is then plated with nickel, then a heavy layer of copper. Finally, 24 carat gold was coated upon it to provide that last appropriate perfection, and hand polished to the point that it appears to glow and, quite literally reflect the world around it.
It also happens to metaphorically reflect the world around it. While Ball’s practice of creating Perfect Forms is not cheap, it is indicative of the technological advances that the world has made. Where Boccioni ‘struggled’* according to Ball, Barry X Ball finds an ease, utilising the ability of machines to make manual processes much easier and bring into question the notion of authorship. Who constructed Perfect Forms? Was it the person who scanned Boccioni’s? Was it the person who manipulated the form in ZBrush? Was it the Milling Machine who manually constructed the work? Or was it the people who hand polished the Milling Machine’s result? It could be argued that Ball and his crew were simply muses to the Milling Machine, and it constructed the Perfect Forms after being inspired by them. It’s this sort of Futurist thinking that Boccioni was discussing 100 years before Ball created his statues.
*“My task was to realise what Boccioni might have intended to, and never had time to, nor the expertise.” (Ball, 2013)
Ball’s work, while inspired by historicized works, are unmistakably a part of their own time period. The lack of scratches betrays them as non-traditional statues, and the workmanship is too clean to have been done by human hands. It’s this reinterpretation of sculptures that captures audiences for his Masterpieces series. While he uses the tried and true techniques of polishing, hand sculpting and carving, he imbues his works with modern techniques such as milling, virtual modelling and 3D scans.
To conclude, Barry X Ball’s intent to reinvigorate Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (Forme Uniche) has resulted in a visually beautiful and metaphorically deep sculpture. From his use of Boccioni’s traditional bronze cast design as a base, to the reworked and mirrored 3D modeled statue that he ended with, Ball has walked hand in hand with Boccioni, working, reworking and arguably perfecting the longstanding Italian’s artwork. His attempt at completing the work that he believes Umberto could not have has resulted in an internationally recognised great work of the 21st century which poses questions on authorship and materiality, and successfully creates a work that can be mass produced, as Boccioni originally intended for his forms.
[i] Ball, 2015
[ii] Ball, 2013
[iii] Ball, 2013
[iv] Hesson, 2015
Barry X Ball: Materialising the Postdigital, Museum of Arts and Design, 2013 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79giVCovYCg
Barry X Ball’s Webpage http://www.barryxball.com/works_cat.php?cat=1&work=204
CNC Milling Process for Perfect Forms https://blog.sculpture.org/2015/12/02/barry-x-ball/
Umberto Boccioni’s Forme Uniche https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unique_Forms_of_Continuity_in_Space
Hesson, Angela, ‘Perfect Forms: Barry X Ball and the Art of Improvement’ in Neue Luxury, Issue 3, April 2015.