For thousands of years, the living have used death masks to memorialize their dead. Some, like those cast from the faces of Napolean Bonaparte and Nikola Tesla, clearly resemble their subjects. Others, like the funerary masks of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, favor ornamentation over physiological accuracy. Now there’s Vespers, a new series of spectacular, 3-D printed death masks currently on display at London’s Design Museum. The technicolor masks look exoskeletal—like someone crossed the head of Alien‘s Space Jockey with a bioluminescent jellyfish. In other words: They’re completely unlike any death mask you’ve ever seen.
These otherworldly headgear are the work of designer Neri Oxman and her team at MIT’s Mediated Matter group. Oxman and her colleagues work at the intersection of biology, computational design, and fabrication. For the Vespers series, the team used fluid dynamics modeling software, colorful, translucent resins, and a high-resolution, multi-material 3-D printer to produce hues, forms, and textures that look surprisingly organic—despite the masks’ association with death.
To achieve that look, Oxman’s team divided each mask into exterior and interior sections. The former they designed with algorithms to mimic symmetrical structures of historical and cultural significance—arts, crafts, architecture. They then selected colors based on their significance to world religions.
The interior structures are even more impressive. Oxman’s team modeled the delicate resin shapes after eddies of exhaled air—a sculptural representation of the eventual wearer’s dying expiration. To pull this off, Oxman’s team modeled the flow of human breath in an enclosed space (imagine exhaling a plume of colored smoke inside a translucent motorcycle helmet). “It’s guided by a velocity field, like one often finds in weather maps,” says Christoph Bader, a research assistant in Oxman’s group. To further personalize the structures, the team varied the density of the forms according to the contours of the intended wearer’s face.
Conceptually, Vespers is an exploration of the transition between life and death. “Each mask represents an imaginary martyr going through a metamorphosis from life to death or death to life,” Oxman says. Practically, it builds on her team’s on-going research. As with the group’s previous projects, the goal of Vespers is to merge the worlds of digital fabrication and biology in pursuit of materials and fabrication methods that can mimic the complexity and variability of nature.
For now, the masks in the Vespers series are static, but Oxman says future designs will be alive with motion. “They’ll re-engineer life by literally guiding living microorganisms through minute spatial features inside the artifacts,” she says. Like all death masks, Vespers isn’t actually about death—it’s about commemorating life.
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