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Matsui’s graceful robots evoke human emotion

by Tim Hornyak

It’s a truism that the Japanese are experts at dressing up unpleasantness in cute garb. The ubiquitous cartoon workmen characters bowing in apology at construction zones are meant to make months of jackhammering slightly more bearable. Ditto for robots and the future.

With a low birthrate and low immigration, Japan faces massive social problems as its graying population shrinks. While government and industry trumpet robots as a solution for the receding workforce, some foreign observers question the viability of a country with fewer and fewer people served by more and more machines.

Tatsuya Matsui embraces the vision of a robotic tomorrow and has evolved an interesting robot aesthetic. An architect, designer and roboticist, Matsui believes that robots are like flowers. They can be delicate and beautiful. They are endearing and need nurturing. At an exhibition of his meticulously styled creations at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, Matsui’s philosophy is laid out in a series of spacious rooms under the banner “Flower Robotics,” the name of his studio.

Matsui’s signature robot is displayed in its own space filled with clean white light. This is Posy, a wedding maiden designed “to express a 3-year-old girl’s pure view of the world and completely change the surrounding atmosphere.”

Posy can’t do much except proffer flowers, but the machine never fails to evoke empathy in viewers. This emotional response comes despite a slight creep factor in the blank face and dead eyes. Matsui is more interested in our projections of innocence and weakness onto his machine, the Platonic ideal of a child, than its usefulness. Robots are thus reflections of our own feelings and the environment we create. “Robot design,” Matsui writes in the exhibition catalog, “is nothing but landscape design.”

Matsui hails this field as a major new industry that will impact our 21st-century lives, and he brings a unique skill-set to it. He has worked for renowned architect Kenzo Tange, as well as Hiroaki Kitano, a prominent artificial-intelligence researcher and roboticist. The experience grounded him in the mechanics and psychology of humanoid machines, producing poignant droids such as Posy. A more recent experiment is Metri, a large grublike assemblage with a soft “skin” that gropes about in unnerving fashion. Matsui isn’t just playing mind games — he’s probing our way of thinking about inanimate objects that appear alive. Somehow, his machines have an odd soothing quality that mitigates their monochrome coldness.

The Mito exhibition encompasses his nonrobot projects, such as “total branding” for Kyushu-based airline Star Flyer, designing everything from the Airbus livery to the tickets and paper cups. Here, and in all Matsui’s works, there is a fetish for clean lines and achromatic tones.

His mannequin robot, Palette, is another example. A white humanoid figure set upon a spotlighted black dais, it seems another beautiful folly like Posy. But Palette does have a practical use — it can swing its arms gracefully and enhance the appeal of a blouse in which it is dressed. It has already modeled Louis Vuitton and Hane Mori designs. In addition, a vision sensor allows Palette to react to viewers’ presence.

The craftsmanship in these moving, reactive mannequins is exquisite. Much of the exhibition focuses on the design and production process at Flower Robotics, set up in 2001, as well as its own branding. Circuit boards, steel rings and arm assemblies are laid out in worshipful reverence; models for music-player robots stand on pristine white tables.

One gets the impression that Matsui seeks a utopia of dainty machines; his is not a messy cyberpunk persuasion. His visions recall those rosy depictions of futures with automobiles and airplanes — clean and hassle-free transportation, never the traffic jams or airport delays.

Taken as simple works of art, Matsui’s robots are both visually sublime and psychologically provocative. Machines can be beautiful and weak, just like people.

“We are designing an artificial object that can live together with us as a new partner,” Matsui writes. “The robot reminds us of human nature that we have almost forgotten.”

“Tatsuya Matsui: Flower Robotics” shows at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito, in Ibaraki Prefecture, until Jan. 27, 2008; 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (last entry 5:30 p.m.); closed Mondays except Dec. 24 and Jan. 14; also closed Dec. 25, Dec. 27-Jan. 3, and Jan. 15; ¥800, or ¥600 in advance; free entry for students through 9th grade, over-65s and registered disabled. For more information, call (029) 227-8111 or visit www.arttowermito.or.jp.