What if Adam could talk? Not just any Adam, but the 15th-century marble statue that crashed to the floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art — all 6 feet 3 inches of him — one dismal October evening in 2002. The Adam that was recently, after a 12-year restoration project, installed in a special gallery for Venetian sculpture of the Renaissance. What might he say?
For three weeks starting Saturday, visitors can find out. Reid Farrington, a multimedia director, has brought the statue to life, on a six-foot-high video screen at the center of the Venetian Sculpture Gallery. As presented in “The Return,” the interactive installation Mr. Farrington has created for the Met, this newly imagined Adam is liable to offer up a learned disquisition on the use of fig leaves in Renaissance art or an irreverent “What’s up, dudes?”
Mr. Farrington’s creation appears to suffer from multiple-personality disorder, because he does in fact have three personalities: There’s Digital Adam, an avatar based on the 3-D rendering that the museum’s conservators ordered up in their effort to figure out how to put the fallen statue back together. There’s Tullio’s Adam, named after Tullio Lombardo, the Renaissance sculptor who completed the original work around 1495. And there’s biblical Adam, a rendering of the scriptural figure the statue depicts.
The performances are live, with all three Adams played by a single actor wearing a motion-capture suit, on a stage elsewhere in the building. Inside the gallery, a second actor plays a docent who talks with museumgoers, while engaging in a running dialogue with the three faces of Adam on video — not to mention the occasional on-screen guest. “Let’s hear from God how great Eden was,” the docent says at one point.
The statue itself, newly reconstructed from 28 large pieces and hundreds of minuscule shards, looms over the whole scene from its perch in a niche in the wall. Like much Renaissance art, it tells a story — a youth looking anxiously toward the heavens, an apple in his hand, his lips apart. But Mr. Farrington’s installation is much more in line with museum trends, which put a premium on engaging people directly rather than merely displaying artifacts behind a monolithic facade.
Digital Adam and Tullio’s Adam both have a certain kind of smarts — one thinks like a computer, and the other has long existed, first as stone buried within the earth, then as a block of marble in a Venetian studio, and finally as a sculpture representing man at his fateful moment. But biblical Adam “is a 17-year-old dude,” Limor Tomer, head of the Met’s concerts and lectures division, said as she watched Mr. Farrington and his tech team tinker with the installation earlier this week. “He knows nothing. He has no life experience.” Some may find this characterization surprising — the guy did eat from the tree of knowledge after being warned not to. And then, on being expelled from the Garden, he was, like, “huh?”
Since video can be confusing to museum visitors who have no idea how long it’s been playing or when it will end, “The Return” tells the story of all three Adams in modular fashion. Digital renderings of 26 of the 28 major pieces from 2002 appear on-screen, a few at a time; audience members pick one, setting off a scripted, three-to-six-minute exchange between the avatar and the docent.
The dialogue — written by Sara Farrington, Mr. Farrington’s wife — tends toward the dramatic, with the docent in particular at risk of overacting. Still, it conveys information about such subjects as the corrupt Venetian doge for whose tomb the work was commissioned, the accident that befell the masterpiece at the Met and, yes, fig leaves. And the overall effect, based on technology assembled by Todd Bryant, the project’s creative technologist, is remarkable.
Mr. Farrington first gained notice for “The Passion Project,” an unconventional blend of film and theater that was staged in 2008 at Performance Space 122 in the East Village. A veteran of the Wooster Group, he had created that half-hour theater piece by incorporating fragments from Carl Dreyer’s twice-destroyed silent film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” into a live solo performance that one reviewer called “luminous.” He has since worked repeatedly to combine movies and television with live performance. “I used to direct my brothers,” he said over lunch in the Met’s cafeteria. “I have a childlike desire to go inside a film and bring the audience with me.”
“The Return” is his first work to rely on motion capture. This technology has been used for years in movies and video games to record actors’ performances and map them to computer-generated characters — for Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” and the Na’vi in James Cameron’s “Avatar.” But only recently has the technology advanced to the point that a relatively affordable system can transform a motion-capture session into a live performance by a digital avatar.
Mr. Farrington and his team created “The Return” on a $70,000 hardware system that was lent by New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering. It relies on the Unreal Engine, a now classic software tool that was originally developed in the late 1990s for the video game Unreal and was adapted for “The Return” by Athomas Goldberg, a Vancouver-based game design and computer graphics consultant.
Of course, none of this will be evident to museumgoers watching the three Adams on-screen in the Met’s Venetian Sculpture Gallery. But anyone who wants a peek behind the curtain can head over to the Egyptian Wing to the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, take a seat and watch the actor who plays Adam firsthand.
Around Labor Day, after “The Return” has ended its run, this gallery will resemble others at the Met, with a Renaissance statuary — including a Madonna and Child by Pietro Lombardo, Tullio’s father — and a hushed contemplative feel. But for the next three weeks, the place will seem not quite so scholarly.
During a break in a rehearsal on Tuesday, Carolyn Riccardelli, the conservator who spent 12 years leading the effort to piece the shattered statue back together, looked at the screen and caught the sculpture’s avatar doing a little jig. “He’s dancing!” she cried in disbelief. “I can’t get over it.”