Science: Under the microscope - The changing face of technology

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The Independent Culture
WHILE I CONTINUE to insist that there is no special similarity between art and science, there has been strong science that has had great influence on some artists but little, if any, in the other direction. One striking example of this contribution of new technologies to the arts is the work of international artists on view this summer in Tokyo at the Museum of Photography, in an exhibition entitled "Electronically Yours", put together by Jasia Reichardt.

Reichardt has long had an interest technology and science, and a few years ago wondered whether it might provide a new kind of portraiture which could tell us something new about the subject. The result was this exhibition, which turned out rather different; instead of a new kind of portraiture, it gives us quite new images of the human face and body. As in theatre, the spectator has to suspend belief: the artists devise a scenario, select subjects to act them out, and use electronic technology to transform them. Their techniques include holography, video, interactive computer systems and digital animation.

Faces are at the core of the exhibition. Some of these animated portraits speak and introduce themselves; some gradually change into a cake, with a streak of orange icing for the smile. "Dissolution" is based on continuous transformations of the face. Paintings and drawings of heads, mainly of Christ, from such artists as Bellini, Masaccio, Botticelli and others are seamlessly transformed from one to another with quite new (and occasionally sinister) expressions appearing.

Other exhibits transform the face from young to old, and give us a feel of what constitutes beauty and the importance of symmetry. A robot face can interpret facial expressions in the visitor and respond appropriately; it emphasises how much of our communication of emotion depends on expressions. More disturbing are the transformations of the body, with an emphasis on pathology and skin maladies. We see multi-armed people with particles invading their faces, or elegant noses with holes in big enough to hold a tennis ball.

The swimmer is hypnotic. Twelve video monitors are placed in a line and one watches a swimmer move from one to another and when he reaches the end, swim back again. The movement of his body from one video to the next as one views it through the water - the waterline is halfway up the screen - is so unexpected. One almost feels that one is in the pool itself. A commonplace event becomes spectacular, even eerie.

A virtual family is available for conversation. Their faces and top halves are projected on to a screen and one can ask them questions from a list to which they respond; they even ask you questions, so a conversation is initiated with the exhibit. They are quite easily made bored or angry, so if your questions or answers are not found acceptable, they turn away and talk with each other.

The tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is represented in a project in which one enters a darkened space to the accompaniment of a shrill sound. As the noise rises to a peak, a flash of light casts an imprint of the visitor as a black silhouette on a large white screen. All bodily gestures appear as exaggerated, dramatic; then, in a few seconds, they turn into a ghostly white and slowly disappear.

Here, technology has changed the face of art. These exhibitions do not come cheaply. This one cost about pounds 300,000 for a two-month showing: the artists themselves must be there for the installation, for that is the way they earn a living - they don't sell their works but install them temporarily. Alas, I have only seen videos of the exhibition and there are no plans for it to come here - "Electronically Yours" would be an ideal package for the Dome.