Brave new world of the post-human

by

Special To The Japan Times

Tobias Klein’s “Augmented Mask,” an installation that incorporates an elaborate 3-D printed mask, colorful projection mapping, a virtual reality headset and references a popular Chinese opera, looks a lot like future art as imagined in science fiction.

Appearing at the small The Container venue in Meguro, which has the same dimensions of a shipping container, the piece is designed so that it can only be fully experienced by one person at a time. That experience, afforded by the VR headset, places the user into a continually morphing 360-degree landscape in which a bodiless insectoid-looking head, also continually changing in shape, hangs in the air and moves in sync with the viewer’s own head movements.

There are direct visual similarities to the giant floating head in the dystopian sci-fi film “Zardoz,” and the color-inverted landscapes in the final scenes of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” However, at a more general and conceptual level, “Augmented Mask” resembles instances when filmmakers have tried to imagine art for fictional audiences who are accustomed to technology, forms and abstractions as yet beyond our understanding. A recent example of this would be the opera scene in the Star Wars prequel “Revenge of the Sith.”

Apart from giving us a fantastically odd and beautiful object based on Cantonese opera headgear, Architecture-trained artist Klein’s work addresses the idea of transformation on a number of levels. There’s an illusory transformation that occurs with the 3-D model of the mask as it seems to change color and shape from projection mapping. There’s also the morphing in the virtual reality, and then beyond that the speculation of what art may be like when we can give form to our thoughts in collaboration with artificial intelligence.

The literary reference that Klein bases this work on is “The Flower Princess,” by Hong Kong playwright and film writer Tong Dik Sang (1917-1959), which is set during the Ming-Qing dynasty transition. To cut a long story short, the eponymous princess ends up in a love-suicide with her sweetheart, in defiance of the implacable new regime’s attempts to regulate their private lives.

Klein, who is based in Hong Kong, may be appropriating the popular Cantonese writer’s work for a number of reasons, the historical setting of political and social change, for example, but from the point of view of focusing on the mask as a cultural artifact, rather than narrative — there is no language, let alone exposition in Klein’s piece — again we are brought back to transformation.

There’s a lot going on with “Augmented Mask” — visually, technically and in terms of intertextuality. However, its complexity is chillingly inhuman. Perhaps due to the difficulty of convincingly rendering human characters, the only visible inhabitant of the grand mountainous coastal landscape depicted in the virtual reality is the silent otherworldly pseudo-organic entity. It, and Klein, raise the issue of what will happen to us, and to art, if there comes a time when technology erases even the desire to distinguish between reality and artifice.

“Augmented Mask” at The Container runs until Sept. 25; Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Free. Closed Tue. the-container.com