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Egypt detains artist robot Ai-Da before historic pyramid show

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: David Parry/PA</span>
Photograph: David Parry/PA

She has been described as “a vision of the future” who is every bit as good as other abstract artists today, but Ai-Da – the world’s first ultra-realistic robot artist – hit a temporary snag before her latest exhibition when Egyptian security forces detained her at customs.

Ai-Da is due to open and present her work at the Great Pyramid of Giza on Thursday, the first time contemporary art has been allowed next to the pyramid in thousands of years.

But because of “security issues” that may include concerns that she is part of a wider espionage plot, both Ai-Da and her sculpture were held in Egyptian customs for 10 days before being released on Wednesday, sparking a diplomatic fracas.

“The British ambassador has been working through the night to get Ai-Da released, but we’re right up to the wire now,” said Aidan Meller, the human force behind Ai-Da, shortly before her release. “It’s really stressful.”

According to Meller, border guards detained Ai-Da at first because she had a modem, and then because she had cameras in her eyes (which she uses to draw and paint). “I can ditch the modems, but I can’t really gouge her eyes out,” he said.

She was finally cleared through customs on Wednesday evening, hours before the exhibition was due to start, with the British embassy in Cairo saying they were “glad” the case had been resolved.

Both Ai-Da and her sculpture had been sent in specialised flight cases by air cargo to Cairo before the Forever Is Now exhibition, which runs until 7 November and is presented by the consultancy firm Art D’Égypte in partnership with the Egyptian ministry of antiquities and tourism and the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs. The exhibition will showcase works by leading Egyptian and international artists including Stephen Cox, Lorenzo Quinn, Moataz Nasr and Alexander Ponomarev.

Ai-Da’s 2 x 2.5-metre sculpture is a play on the riddle of the sphinx – “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?” – the answer to which is a human.

“Four legs is when you’re a toddler, two legs is when you’re an adult, and three is when you’re elderly and need a walking stick,” Meller said. “So Ai-Da produced an enormous version of herself with three legs. We’re saying that actually, with the new Crispr technology coming through, and the way we can do gene-editing today, life extension is actually very likely. The ancient Egyptians were doing exactly the same thing with mummification. Humans haven’t changed: we still have the desire to live for ever. But all of that comes to nought if we can’t get her released.”

Named after the computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, Ai-Da was built by a team of programmers, roboticists, art experts and psychologists. The multimillion-pound project was completed in 2019 and is updated as AI technology improves.

The robot’s artwork, including “the first self-portrait with no self” has been displayed at the Design Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and she has previously spoken to the Guardian about her own inspirations.

Meller, an Oxford gallerist, said he always hoped his project would prompt debate about the rapid rise of AI technology. “She is an artist robot, let’s be really clear about this. She is not a spy. People fear robots, I understand that. But the whole situation is ironic, because the goal of Ai-Da was to highlight and warn of the abuse of technological development, and she’s being held because she is technology. Ai-Da would appreciate that irony, I think.”

He added: “We’re well aware that the fictions of 1984 and Brave New World are now facts. AI is developing rapidly. For the first time tens of thousands of graduates will have degrees in machine learning. The supercomputer can use vast data and process extraordinary algorithms. We predict by 2025 there will be big disruption with technology, and Ai-Da is trying to use art to bring attention to that.”

Meller thanked the British embassy and Art d’Égypte their “amazing work” in trying to get her released.

Other artworks seized or impounded by authorities


An artwork by the British artist and war veteran Bran Symondson was seized at Houston airport and banned from entering the US in 2016. The work – three decommissioned, non-working AK-47s embellished with dollar bills and butterflies – was to have been shown at a pop-up exhibition at La Colombe d’Or gallery. “All the paperwork needed was in order, but they still refused to release his art,” the gallery director said at the time.

In 2018, Belgian authorities seized more than £12m worth of art by the British graffiti artist Banksy over claims it was being displayed illegally. Bailiffs took 58 pieces, including Girl With Balloon and Kissing Coppers, from the Strokar Inside art gallery in Brussels. The work was loaned from a German company called On Entertainment, but Banksy’s former manager said it should never have been transported. A lawyer for Strokar Inside said his clients had been caught up in a “crazy story”.

Earlier this year, a statue looted from Libya in 2011 was seized by border officials at Heathrow. The second-century BC statue, which depicts the goddess Demeter or her daughter Persephone, was illicitly excavated from an underground site in Cyrene.

Also this year, German custom authorities seized a Roman bronze bust of Hercules on the grounds that it did not have an export licence from the country of origin, a requirement for all archaeological treasures imported to Germany. The Viennese antiquities dealer who bought the bust from a US dealer and was taking it to Austria only retrieved it after taking legal action.

Last year, a painting by the French surrealist artist Yves Tanguy, reportedly worth more than €250,000 ($340,000), was thrown away by crew at Düsseldorf airport after the owner forgot the painting at a check-in counter. It was recovered by German police at the bottom of a recycling bin.

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