These 3D-Printed ‘Death Masks’ Fuse Ancient Art and Modern Technology

Installation view of 'Vespers'
Installation view of 'Vespers' | © Tom Ross
MIT’s Mediated Matter Group has unveiled the third and final series of its Vespers trilogy of 3D-printed ‘death masks’.

Vespers, a series of 3D-printed ‘death masks’ created by Israeli-American designer Neri Oxman and her team at MIT’s Mediated Matter Group, explore the themes of life, death and rebirth.

Inspired by ancient death masks molded from clay or other materials, Oxman’s series of 15 masks were created using custom modelling software and were then printed on multi-material 3D printers.

Since 2016, the works have been released in a staggered series made up of three collections of five masks each: Past, The Natural World, Present, The Digital World and Future, The Biological World.

‘The death mask has historically originated as a means of capturing a person’s visage, keeping the deceased “alive” through memory,’ explains Oxman. ‘Vespers’ death masks, however, are designed to reveal cultural heritage and speculate about the perpetuation of life, both cultural and biological.’

Installation view of 'Vespers' on display in NGV Triennial at NGV International, 2017 © Tom Ross

Past, The Natural World, presents the death mask as a ‘cultural artefact.’ The works draw on the ancient idea that the final breath of the wearer would be trapped inside the masks they were buried in. To create the pieces, Oxman and her team used bespoke software to create swirling patterns to represent the flow of air.

The second series, Present, The Digital World, ‘marks the process of “metamorphosis” between the ancient relic and its contemporaneous interpretation,’ writes the team on their site.

Vespers, Mask 3, Series 2, 2016. Designed by Neri Oxman and her team as part of "The New Ancient" Collection by STRATASYS and 3D Printed on a Stratasys Objet500 Connex3 Color Multi-material 3D Printer. Photo credit: Yoram Reshef

The final series, Future, The Biological World, explores the concept of rebirth.

Inhabited by microorganisms, ‘the living masks “re-engineer” life by guiding living microorganisms through minuscule spatial features within the artefacts of the dead,’ writes the team. ‘Combined, the three series of the Vespers collection represent the transition from death to life, or from life to death, depending on one’s reading of the collection.’

Vespers’ designs are entirely data driven, digitally generated, 3D printed, and – at times – biologically augmented,’ says Oxman. ‘By pushing the boundaries of cusp technologies – such as high-resolution material modelling, full color multi-material 3D printing, and synthetic biology – they express the death mask’s deeper meanings and possible future use, thus bringing it back to life.’