Living with masks: dealing with mask-induced pain in South Korea / by Jaehwan Hyun
“I packed my bag and in it I put… a mask, and then a few more, perhaps hand sanitizer…” this is how the popular car game might go in COVID-19 days. When I decided to take a trip to Seoul in mid-May, I packed three different types of face masks: three KF94s, two KF80s, and four surgical masks. A month before my trip, my family from Korea had sent me this assortment to equip me for my masked journey from Berlin Tegel Airport via Heathrow to the South Korean city of Incheon, my final destination. They could dispatch the masks via international shipping, as at that moment the Korean Customs Service was allowing Koreans to send up to eight masks to each family member living outside the country every month.
At the airports, I wore the mask with the highest level of protection, the KF94. (KF94 masks have 94% filtration of a 0.4 micrometer particle and perform similarly to N95 masks. KF80 masks filter about 80% of a 0.6 micrometer particle and offer an equal level of protection to N90 masks). Whilst in the air, I switched to the soft surgical masks. Waiting for my next plane at the airports, I longed to wear the soft surgical masks again, which were now tucked away in my bag, as I could feel the KF94 irritating the skin behind my ears. Dizziness was setting in as breathing became hard. When I finally reached Incheon and boarded the “quarantine bus” which transported me from Incheon Airport to a walk-through COVID-19 testing center near my house, I covered my nose and mouth with a KF80 mask, which allowed for easier breathing but still offered more protection than the surgical masks.
It was the conventional wisdom of wearing this protective gear, widely shared among Korean citizens, that led me to obtain my mask inventory. When it comes to the risk of viral infection, being in flight is much less risky than at an airport, as the air in the cabin is constantly filtered and circulated. The “quarantine bus” is sterilized and transports very few people (in fact, I was one of only three passengers in a bus with forty-seven seats), so the infection risk inside the bus is no higher than that of airports. Irrespective of the endorsement of scientific experts, the general public in Korea is now corroborating the vernacular knowledge of living with masks in their daily lives with scientific information online. My masked journey from Germany to Korea took me not only to a country where conventional wisdom about wearing protective gear is widely shared among its citizens, but also lead me to feel the pain of a mask—an experience that I share with the historical subjects of my research: Korean and Japanese diving women of the late nineteenth century. Unexpectedly, my research had coalesced with current affairs and inspired me to reflect on masks and pain in the context of Korean historical and contemporary experiences.
South Korean households are generally prepared to wear masks, but not for reasons of viral threat. American and European observers often describe South Koreans as being part of the mask-wearing culture of the “East.”1 Yet they have only begun to wear these types of masks over the last few years, mainly in order to protect themselves from breathing in micro-dust particles, rather than viruses.2 When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country in January 2020, the Korean public started wearing them as anti-virus masks for the first time. South Koreans have been struggling with the new normal and have started wearing KF94 masks on public transport, in markets, restaurants, and offices since a religious sect called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus became a hotbed of coronavirus in mid-February 2020.3 The South Korean government recommends that people with underlying medical conditions and those making hospital visits should wear KF80 masks, while KF94 masks should be reserved for those in contact with patients who are suspected of having the COVID-19 infection.4 Yet other Korean citizens also wear these types of masks and even prefer KF94s to KF80s because the latter is considered a low-level “yellow dust” mask used against the seasonal phenomenon of dust clouds containing industrial pollutants that come from the deserts of Mongolia and China in the spring.
It is not only the symbolic meaning of KF94/N95 masks that has changed over time, but also the physical conditions. Until last year, Koreans only wore masks outdoors for a limited time. But, to protect themselves against the highly infectious virus, Koreans are now even wearing them during working hours. As a result, more and more people have begun to complain about skin irritation, breathing discomfort, and headaches.
Figure 1. KF94 masks are marketed as the highest-level “yellow dust” masks in South Korea. Photo taken by the author.
As South Korea’s government and media outlets do not consider these mask-induced symptoms a serious issue and instead focus exclusively on stabilizing the supply of masks, citizens are left to find creative solutions to relieve those symptoms by themselves, making various technical improvements at the individual level. A DIY kit to make a breathing valve has become a major success, regardless of its questionable efficacy. Although public health authorities warn against the use of an exhaling valve that might increase the risk of users exhaling viruses, many people prefer this option. A variety of ear strap extenders has already been produced using 3D printers since last February. Traditional medical treatments or pain relief are the immediate solutions to get wearers through the day.
Figure 2. Jeju sea women wearing different types of diving masks in Busan, South Korea in 1952. Courtesy of the Bukyung Modern Historical Materials Research Institute.
A historical episode of mask wearers coping with the pain they induce might provide inspiration for how contemporary Koreans could adjust to face masks. The sea women (海女), called Haenyeo in Korean and Ama in Japanese, are free-diving women who harvest seafood and seaweeds underwater in a traditional way. From the 1880s, Japanese women divers began wearing diving goggles to protect their eyes and enable clearer vision underwater. Soon, they experienced the problems of face squeeze caused by the difference in pressure inside the mask and the ambient pressure of the ocean. To counteract this, in the 1890s, local artisans in the western region of Kyushu attached air-filled compressible rubber bags to their goggles. In other regions, divers devised a face mask with a mouth-straw to boost the air pressure within the goggles. Even before that, a nose-covered version was developed which increased air pressure by nose-breathing.5
Yet, technological modifications did not seem to be the solution that the sea women chose. Although today’s museum exhibitions describe how the nose-covered diving mask soon became the standard type, due to its technological superiority over other designs, a variety of diving goggles co-existed over the decades. This was especially true for the Korean sea women who had migrated to different provinces of Japan as cheap fishery laborers and, as a result, wore various types of diving masks during the period of Japanese colonial rule of Korea (1919-1945). After liberation from Japan in August 1945, Korean divers returned to Jeju Island in South Korea. Some of them wore eye goggles with compressible rubber bags attached, while others used diving masks which covered their noses as well as their eyes. The nose-exposed type continued being used until the early 1960s, when rubber diving masks made in Japan had just begun being introduced to the island. Even young divers wore the simple type of two-eye goggles.6
Instead of technological solutions, it was eventually an agreement within the community that alleviated the divers’ exposure to face squeeze. Regardless of which diving mask the women wore, most of them avoided the severe pain caused by pressure differences by limiting their diving depths as well as the time they spent underwater. In the early 1940s, Gitō Teruoka, the first scientist to study the physiology of the Japanese women divers, thought that modesty was the reason why the women did not endanger their bodies, by balancing their working hours and monitoring their diving depth.7 He did not consider that their restraint was, firstly, a way to manage the physiological risks and, secondly, a result of social circumstances, as the local fishery communities strictly restricted operating places and working hours. Even though the regulations were in place for economic reasons rather than concerns for the diving women’s health, those rules allowed the divers to work sustainably in terms of managing both their pain and resources.8
Current attention to the (temporary) success of South Korea’s fight against COVID-19 highlights the culture of mask-wearing in Korea, but commentators have not yet considered why South Korea became a masked society. South Korea is an “overworked society” in which laborers annually work 300 more hours than the OECD average.9 Although two years ago the government cut maximum working hours, working unpaid overtime until 9 p.m. is still common. Korean companies also discourage remote work and even force workers to wear the painful masks in the office for long hours. As a 24/7 society, many workers at convenience stores, drug stores, cafés, restaurants, bars, theaters, and delivery centers are expected to work through day and night wearing masks. In this respect, the social agreement to change the long working hours culture is an effective way to relieve the mask-induced pains of Koreans. As the case of the diving women shows, social agreement at the community level is needed to help individuals adjust to the new ubiquity of mask-wearing in a sustainable way.
About the author: Jaehwan Hyun is a historian whose work explores transnational connections of scientists from Japan, South Korea, and the US as well as the role of materiality in shaping such exchanges. One of his projects investigates how the materiality of diving masks and other equipment shaped trans-pacific science and the lives of the sea women after World War II. Jaehwan believes that narrating the living experience of the diving-mask users will help us seek a way to live with masks “wisely” in the corona pandemic. Now he is making an effort to create a research collective in studying the making of “masked societies” in East Asia with other East Asian historians of science and scholars of science and technology studies (STS).
1 Tessa Wong, “Coronavirus: Why Some Countries Wear Face Masks and Others Don’t,” BBC News, March 31, 2020.
2 For a criticism of the use of “yellow dust” masks, see Jae-Yeon Jang, Konggi p’anŭn sahoee pandaehanda [Against the Society Capitalizing Air Pollution] (Paju: Dongasia Books, 2019). As a previous colony of the Japanese empire, in South Korea cloth masks have also been used to guard against the flu in winter, but not as widely as in much of today’s Japan.
3 The cult’s full name is the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony. See “Coronavirus: South Korea Sect Identified as Hotbed,” BBC News, February 20, 2020.
4 From late May, there has been a new demand for KF80 masks for the upcoming hot and humid summer. See the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The Use of Masks Recommendation Revision,” March 3, 2020, accessed April 22, 2020.
5 Satoru Tanabe, Ama [*The Sea Women]* (Tokyo: Hosei University Press, 1993), 190–99.
6 According to local artisan Jong Soo Koh, interviewed by the author in Seogwipo, Jeju Island, South Korea, January 8, 2020.
7 Gitō Teruoka, Sangyō to ningen: Rōdō kagaku no kaiko to tenbō [Industry and Humanity: Retrospect and Prospect of Labor Science] (Tokyo: Risōsha, 1940).
8 For the Japanese government’s early regulations of diving fisheries in relation to resource management, see Kjell David Ericson, Nature’s Helper: Mikimoto Kōkichi and the Place of Cultivation in the Twentieth Century’s Pearl Empires (PhD Dissertation of Princeton University, 2015).
9 “Remarks by President Moon Jae-in at a Meeting with Presidential Senior Secretaries to Discuss New Working Hour Regulations,” The Office of the President, Republic of Korea, July 2, 2018.
The Mask-First Aid Kit / by Regina Maria Möller
The idea for “The Mask – First Aid Kit” came from the fact that there was a shortage of protective masks and PPE for healthcare workers worldwide when the corona pandemic broke out. Due to this situation, the public in Germany started to collect and share DIY information on how to create face masks. These self-made items were officially renamed “community masks” to avoid any conflicts with the law, because such DIY face coverings do not guarantee the wearers’ protection.
Above all, I assume that we need to learn to live with microbes, that the mask will become our ubiquitous companion and therefore, it will also find a place in the “First Aid Kit”.
In this example, kids can create their own first aid box and a mask made of one A4 sheet of paper. But of course, you can replace the paper with fabric and quickly produce a wearable mouth and nose mask.
About the artist: Regina Maria Möller is a German artist, founder of the magazine “regina” and the art label “embodiment”. Her artistic projects are exhibited worldwide such as 47thVenice Biennial, Manifesta 1, 3rdBerlin Biennial of Contemporary Art, Secession, Vienna, The Lab / NTU Center for Contemporary Art Singapore, among many others. Parallel to her art practice she has given talks at international platforms and taught in a number of academies and universities, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge / Boston; Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim; Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, among others.
One mask fits all? Gender and care work in the Covid crisis / by Marianna Szczygielska
Surgical face masks and filtering respirators are standardized protective gear that accommodate a wide variety of users; they ought to fit any body. Even though these devices were designed as universal and seemingly neutral, they cling to specific bodies differently and signal gendered aspects of care work and vulnerability amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. The embodied gender differences might not be revealed directly in the materiality of the mask itself, but remain deeply coded in the guidelines of use and visual representations of this anti-epidemic technology.
While surgical masks and cloth face-coverings serve as a loose-fitting barrier between the user’s face and the external environment, the N95-type respirators require a very close facial fit to properly seal off the mouth and nose and ensure efficient filtration. As such, properly fitting the respirator might pose a problem for persons with facial hair because it can interfere with its sealing surface. For this reason, in 2017 the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a chart that catalogs various beard and moustache styles according to their suitability for workers who regularly wear tight-fitting respirators.
Image Source: Center for Desease Control
While sporting a soul-patch, Zorro or Zappa moustache should be fine, mutton chops, chin curtain, and French fork beard are not recommended. Sometimes the human body needs to adapt to the mask, not the other way around. This humorous infographic contains an important message for ensuring safety of the medical staff, especially given that the latest research on the development of the COVID-19 pandemic shows that men are more vulnerable to infection than women.1
At the same time, women make up 70 percent of the global healthcare workers that are at greatest risk. According to the WHO Health Workforce Department, “women comprise seven out of ten health and social care workers and contribute US$ 3 trillion annually to global health, half in the form of unpaid care work.”2 This means that the vast majority of primary users of medical face masks and respirators are female nurses, residents, and doctors. The current coronavirus pandemic puts their bodies on the frontline. Healthcare workers across the U.S. and Europe are protesting the critical lack of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) with messages such as: “Don’t send us to battle without weapons! Get me PPE!”. Adopting this kind of military vocabulary that presents the counter-epidemic technology as weaponry against the invisible enemy, echoes the historical context in which some of the first modern respirators were developed, namely, the chemical warfare of the First World War. Even prior to this major stimulus for engineering better respiratory devices to protect soldiers against chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas in combat, modern respirators were designed for other male-dominated professions, specifically for miners and firefighters, whose working conditions expose them to hazardous dusts, smoke, and carbon monoxide. Just like with most other modern technologies and medical models, their assumed user is a “Reference Man” that is hailed to represent all humanity. In other words, respirators were designed for male bodies in industrial settings and warfare. This stands in stark contrast to care work performed by predominantly female medical personnel battling the coronavirus pandemic at the moment.
But does this history make any difference for contemporary designers and users? Would a respirator modeled on a female body look or function differently? According to a scientific paper on pregnant users of N95 masks, “filtering facepiece respirators developed to meet the respiratory limitations of pregnant wearers might offer a universal design that would improve the comfort and tolerability for all users.”3 Perhaps this perspective and retiring the “Reference Man” could help in designing better equipment for all. Certified facepiece masks are tested for their biocompatibility, or an “ability to be in contact with a living system without producing an adverse effect.”4 This scientific term is typically used to describe the interaction between a biomaterial (for example one used in protheses or implants) and the human body. Even though the face mask is not corporally-integrated in the same way as artificial joints or pacemakers are, it serves as an extension of the body and becomes part of the biological respiratory system. Face masks and respirators come in different sizes but, apart from this variation, their basic form remains the same for differently-gendered bodies. It is the discourse and iconography around the use and availability that is often gendered. Treating a mask as an extension of the body helps to see through different layers of the functionality that this artifact holds for different users.
The performative capacity of the face mask as a lifesaving device can even extend beyond the physical materiality and functionality of the artifact itself. The metonymical face mask is featured in the “Mascarilla-19” campaign launched by the Canary Islands Institute for Equality to combat another global pandemic, that of gender-based violence. This time the mask functions as a code word: asking for a “Mask-19” at a pharmacy allows women who experience abuse or sexual assault to access help. Restricted movement and social distancing rules under lockdown bear gendered consequences, with a reported surge in domestic violence cases. As home is not always a safe space for women, the symbolic mask is being mobilized to save lives. The campaign has started to spread to other Spanish provinces and was also adopted in France. The mask is a powerful symbol: the most desired and inconspicuous object, that quickly became part of everyday life around the globe, helps women who experience violence to voice something that might be difficult to admit and escape.
Image source: Gobierno de Canarias
The idea that faces behind masks are equal can be misleading. In the current COVID-19 crisis, public health experts highlight the importance of keeping track of sex-disaggregated data, but also of gendered behavioral patterns (such as smoking or diet) that can affect immunity.5 Whether it comes to higher fatality rates, design and distribution of lifesaving technologies, or labor regimes of care, gender is one of the key factors that make certain bodies more vulnerable than others during health crises.
About the author: Marianna Szczygielska is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin where she works on human-animal relations and materialities. A feminist researcher, she also looks into the gendered aspects of artifacts, technologies, and practices that we encounter in our daily lives.
1 Nanshan Chen et al., “Epidemiological and Clinical Characteristics of 99 Cases of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia in Wuhan, China: A Descriptive Study,” The Lancet 395, no. 10223 (February 15, 2020): 507–13.
2 Boniol M, McIsaac M, Xu L, Wuliji T, Diallo K, Campbell J. “Gender Equity in the Health Workforce: Analysis of 104 Countries.” Working paper 1. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2019 (WHO/HIS/HWF/Gender/WP1/2019.1). Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.
3 Raymond Joseph Roberge, “Physiological Burden Associated with the Use of Filtering Facepiece Respirators (N95 Masks) during Pregnancy,” Journal of Women’s Health 18, no. 6 (June 1, 2009): 819–26.
4 Michel Vert et al., “Terminology for Biorelated Polymers and Applications (IUPAC Recommendations 2012),” Pure and Applied Chemistry 84, no. 2 (January 11, 2012): 381.
5 Clare Wenham, Julia Smith, and Rosemary Morgan, “COVID-19: The Gendered Impacts of the Outbreak,”The Lancet 395, no. 10227 (March 14, 2020): 846–48.
The transformation. A short history of masks / by Jan Henning
In 2020, masks are everywhere. Images of healthcare workers wearing surgical respirators are all over the media. Shoppers encounter masked cashiers in supermarkets. In Germany and Austria, grocery buyers are obligated to wear “homemade” masks themselves. Worldwide, governments and hospitals are racing to stock up on reliable protective gear. The Trump administration went so far as to request 3M—one of the main producers of N95 masks—to cease exporting US-manufactured masks to Canada and Latin America in April.1 The N95 respirator—highly sought-after because of its efficiency in filtering viruses in droplets and aerosols—may well become the symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic. Masking has become a contemporary phenomenon. One is inclined to think that masks have never acquired such a cultural meaning before.
Masks were, however, some of the earliest human artefacts. One of the oldest recorded cave paintings, for instance, depicts a man wearing a deer mask. Likewise, death and funeral masks can be traced back to Ancient Egypt (as early as the fourteenth century B.C.) and were also used in the rituals of Germanic tribes. Moreover, theater masks were central to Ancient Roman and Greek plays. While theater masks lost much of their importance throughout the early medieval ages, masks did not disappear. The image motif of using a mask to scare others appears in various artworks of the last two thousand years. More recent and well-known examples of masks are the Venetian carnival masks that gained popularity during the seventeenth century. Indeed, masks have been important cultural products throughout most of human history.2
All masks share the idea of transformation.3 Death masks, for instance, facilitated the deceased’s smooth transition into the afterlife. Theater masks, in the spectators’ eyes, transformed the actors’ actions into those of the figures their masks portrayed. Thereby, they helped the characters come to life. Beak masks, which were used by a small fraction of plague doctors in seventeenth-century Europe and were stuffed with aromatic substances such as myrrh and mint, transformed foul smells into fresh scents. (Note: these doctors did not have a concept of bacteria but believed that miasmata, foul substances from the earth, caused disease.) The N95 mask’s function and symbolism also draws from the notion of transformation. It transforms “bad air” into “good air.” The N95 mask allows a vulnerable being to work in contagious environments such as the COVID-19 assessment centers. In addition, for many of my friends, wearing a mask transforms them into a responsible citizen who respects other people’s health.
The transformative meaning of masks is closely related to their protective function. Theater masks, for instance, shielded an actor’s face from the viewer’s eyes. Grimm’s historical dictionary reminds us of the protective use of masks in a more literal sense. One use of the German word Maske in the sixteenth century described a weather guard for the face.4 Similarly, military helmets can be considered masks. A late variation here is a bulletproof mask from the 1980s which—drawing from Philip Zimbardo’s psychological studies—intensified the deindividuation of soldiers into machines of war (see Fig. 1).
Figure 1: Bullet-resistant mask, 1989. Source: Stephen Armellino. Bullet-Resistant Face Mask. Gift of American Body Armor & Equipment, Inc. Courtesy of Saint Louis Art Museum.
Some early military masks resembled today’s medical masks. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Leonardo Da Vinci pictured sailors “hav[ing] [their] nose and mouth covered over with a fine cloth dipped in water so that”5 they would not be harmed by the toxic weapon he had invented. During the First World War, British soldiers initially used simple cloth masks to protect themselves from German chlorine gas attacks. Besides their application in times of war, masks were also developed to serve the purpose of firefighters, miners, and industrial workers. Particularly the second half of the nineteenth century saw the invention of numerous masks, ranging from small charcoal masks to clunky respirators worn on the back (see Fig. 1 and 2).6 These inventions should, however, not obscure the point that many of these devices served techno-positivist fantasies, such as the utopia of healthy industry, rather than day-to-day work. Most firefighters and miners would never have encountered such a device. In British coal mines, for instance, miners were rarely equipped with effective masks until well into the 1970s.7
Figure 2 (left): Charcoal mask, 1850. Source: Edward L. Youmans, A Class-Book of Chemistry (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1863), 217. Figure 3 (right): Respiratory apparatus, 1870s. Source: Conrad Dietrich Magirus, Das Feuerlöschwesen in allen seinen Theilen (Ulm, 1877), 173.
Tracing the history of masks in mining demonstrates how perceptions of risk and safety changed over time. In mining, acceptable risks were negotiated between workers, doctors, politics, and industry. In Britain and the U.S., the acknowledgement of occupational diseases such as pneumoconiosis was gravely delayed by attempts to balance the needs of industry and the health of workers. Ultimately, the agency of miners themselves and progressive doctors motivated the creation of safety acts and the obligation to provide respirators in the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, growing concerns about legal liability preceded the increasing provision of single use respirators.8
Current FFP and N95 standards are the results of “a series of societal agreements about what is safe enough.”9 While the company 3M began experimenting with polymer masks in the 1960s and 1970s, their early products were what one would now call dust masks. They only filtered larger particles. Today, industries have varying requirements towards certified respirators which, in some instances, even filter gases. In the U.S., the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has regulated the classification of respirators since the 1970s. It approved the medical use of N95 masks during the 1990s tuberculosis crisis, as these respirators were rated to filter at least 95% of airborne particles.10
From a historical perspective, the development of the “N95 standard” during a resurgence of tuberculosis in the 1990s reminds us of another transformation. For most of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis in the U.S. was considered a hereditary, rather than a contagious disease. Those who suffered from tuberculosis lived a more active lifestyle and were closely cared for by family members, compared to in later years, when many were isolated in sanatoria and asylums. Indeed, towards the end of the century, the gradual acceptance of germ theory and the growth of public health authorities – mixed with racial and social prejudice at the time – led to a public response of fear, isolation, and blame that was prevalent until well into the twentieth century.11 There is no reason to romanticize tuberculosis regimes of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, this transformation holds a crucial lesson for the current crisis.
Our knowledge of the contagiousness and severity of COVID-19—a viral disease—must not divide us. For many of us, sidewalks have transformed into risky spaces. Physical encounters with strangers are laden with fear. The accusations and attacks against Asian-Americans in the U.S. today resemble early twentieth-century depictions of Chinese-American communities as a source of contagion. While considerate public health measures are crucial, it is up to us to discuss how we want to survive a global pandemic. Compassion and care, not fear and blame, should be the reasons why we wear our masks.
About the author: Jan Henning is a historian of technology and medicine at the University of Toronto. He studies the history of risk and disaster. In his work, he argues that the technologies employed by emergency services materialized the values that guide society’s response to risk. Jan joined The Mask-Arrayed because the project demonstrates the deep meaning of seemingly mundane “things.”
1 Leyland Cecco and Julian Borger, “Trump and 3M Reach Deal to Allow N95 Face Masks to Be Exported to Canada,” The Guardian, April 7, 2020.
2 On the history of masks, see Richard Emanuel Weihe, Die Paradoxie der Maske (München: Fink, 2004), 16f, 32; Eckhard Leuschner, “Maskenschrecken: Persistenz und Adaptionen eines Bildmotivs zwischen Mantegna und Picasso,” in Maske, Maskerade und die Kunst der Verstellung vom Barock bis zur Moderne, ed. Christiane Kruse (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2014), 195f.
3 Weihe, Paradoxie 2004, 16f.
4 “Maske,” In Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm, vol. 12 (Leipzig, 1703). Online version.
5 Quote taken from Stefan Klein, Leonardo’s Legacy: How da Vinci Reimagined the World (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2010), 72.
6 On the development of military and civil respirators, see Jeffrey K. Smart, “History of the Army Protective Mask” (U.S. Army Soldier and Biological and Chemical Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, 1999).
7 Arthur McIvor and Ronald Johnston, Miners’ Lung: A History of Dust Disease in British Coal Mining (London: Routledge, 2016), 257f.
8 McIvor and Johnston, Miners’ 2016, 180, 312; Alan Derickson, Black Lung: Anatomy of a Public Health Disaster (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 110.
9 Arwen Mohun, Risk: Negotiating Safety in American Society (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 259.
10 Yinge Qian et al., “Performance of N95 Respirators: Filtration Efficiency for Airborne Microbial and Inert Particles,” American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal 59, no. 2 (1998): 128f.
11 On the social and cultural history of TB, see Samuel Roberts, Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease, and the Health Effects of Segregation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Katherine Ott, Fevered Lives: Tuberculosis in American Culture Since 1870 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); Sheila M. Rothman, Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
Masking the senses: our sensorial world through the layers of the mask / by Noa Hegesh
“O make me a mask” is the ubiquitous call we hear all around us, echoing the opening line of the Dylan Thomas poem. Let us survey the prototype of a human face wearing an N-95 mask. Our mouths and noses are covered, our voice muffled and all scents except for that of our own breath—blocked. Our ears and eyes take in the sounds and sights around us. The eyes, head, and limbs become our main sources of expression toward others.
The N-95 mask is an ergonomic feature “designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth.” It protects those who wear it from inhaling small airborne particles, while also preventing the contamination of others. The macro perspective of this situation is mirrored in the way our surroundings these days are forcing us to separate from each other, creating a virtual border aimed to help us avoid infection. Much like the iconic Cone of Silence featured in the confidential conversations between Maxwell Smart and the Chief in the 1960s’ American sitcom “Get Smart,” this dual mechanism forces us to communicate with our senses muffled.
Figure 1: The “Cone of Silence” from the TV series Get Smart, Season 1, Episode 1 “Mr Big,” NBC, aired September 18, 1965. Source: “Cone of Silence,” Wikipedia.
The individual wearing a mask, concealed and protected by an object of use, can be described as “choked.” This sensorial limitation made me think of a passage in the Zhuangzi, an early Chinese philosophical text, which addresses the obstruction of what it defines as six senses (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, mind, knowledge). It treats them figuratively, arguing that dulling the keenness of perception makes room for harm.
Acute eyes make for keen vision;
acute ears make for keen hearing;
an acute nose makes for keen smell;
an acute mouth makes for keen taste;
an acute mind makes for keen knowledge;
acute knowledge makes for integrity. Whatever is the Way [dao 道] does not like to be obstructed.
If it is obstructed, then it becomes choked.
If it is unceasingly choked, then it becomes stagnant.
If there is stagnation, a host of injurious effects are born.
(Translated from Chinese by Victor H. Mair)1
The English intellectual Al Alvarez (1929–2019) is a bit more subtle. In the chapter “The Problem of Consciousness” in his book Night: An Exploration of Night Life, Night Language, Sleep and Dreams, he argues that subjective perception is an infinite intricate amalgam of the mental and the physical, the internal and the external. The individual wearing a mask, according to Alvarez’s viewpoint, would experience a mental change because “mental” is not a material entity but the way we experience our lives. But these days, our consciousness remains. Our senses are muffled, but we still, for now, have our minds.
COVID-19 and its prevention methods are a sorrowful sensorial feast. Its onset symptoms may include a loss of smell and taste. Numerous testimonies by people diagnosed with the virus are starting to appear on social media. On April 6, CNN International Senior News Editor Sarah Dean Tweeted: “It’s now been 19 days since I lost my sense of smell. Starting to wonder if it will ever return?” On April 27, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added the loss of smell, taste, or both to the list of COVID-19 symptoms.
Figure 2: Sarah Dean, Tweet Post, April 2020, 12:29 PM.
Scientists at the Weizmann Institute in Israel have developed an online platform to help individuals assess their olfactory sense in a five-minute test using household items, such as spice and vinegar. The platform, called Smell Tracker, “enables self-monitoring of an individual’s sense of smell—for the purpose of detecting early signs of COVID-19 or in the absence of other symptoms.” Currently, there are eight active strains of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. One of the goals of this research is to determine whether the loss of smell is a symptom of any of these strains. Struggling to breathe remains a main feature of the disease. The irony is noticeable, since its object of prevention, the N-95 mask, obstructs these two senses, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, warns us that the mask “can make it more difficult for the wearer to breathe.” Thus, the mask and the virus unify healthcare workers and patients under a similar symptomatic umbrella.
Our tactile sense is also affected [video]. According to Martin Grunwald, a psychologist at the University of Leipzig, Germany, touching ourselves is a “fundamental behavior of our species” (read the complete interview in Spanish here). It seems that, next to apes, human beings are the only species who spontaneously and incessantly touch their mouths, noses, and eyes—no less than twenty-five times an hour. While other species touch their faces for reasons such as hygiene, humans and certain species of apes may do so as a fundamental method to control emotions, autoregulate, concentrate, and even as a form of social signaling. This behavior is cardinal in our cognitive and emotional processes. Unfortunately, this is also how we transmit the virus from a surface onto our hands and into our bodies. The use of masks and gloves prohibits us from touching our face and narrows these innate behaviors.
Video 1: “Coronavirus: Why we Touch our Faces and How to Stop It - BBC News,” March 16, 2020, YouTube video, 2:31, posted by “BBC News.”
Professionals in various fields are making their best efforts to turn the N-95 mask into a quotidian, unobtrusive, easy-to-wear item. In addition to the highly-regulated mask, in Spain and Argentina, product designers and architects have constructed a face shield, an additional piece of protective equipment, aimed to “comfortably” fit the mouth, nose, and eyes. Others have designed special extension straps called Ear Savers, which aim to mitigate pain to the ears caused by the extended use of face masks. The Czech 3D printer company, Prusa Research, has created an open source face shield model for healthcare personnel, urging anyone with access to 3D printers to make them. In Italy, the physician Renato Favero has improvised an emergency ventilator mask for patients by converting a Decathlon Easybreath scuba mask. But no matter how comfortable the mask, our sensorial communication remains severed.
Those fortunate healthcare workers who are provided with sufficient protective gear have nearly complete sensorial obstruction. They wear tight-fitting goggles and masks, their grip pitting the face, indenting marks across it. Images of nurses and doctors in Wuhan and elsewhere in China taking their gear off after long shifts, their faces bruised and marked, have been published in People’s Daily, China and circulating on Chinese social media and news sites (see an article in English here). Similar photographs of healthcare workers around the globe, including the now-famous photograph of Italian Doctor Nicola Sgarbi, have also been published in European and American news outlets. For a moment it seems that it is not patients, but healthcare workers and their gear, that are functioning as the very personification of the virus.
Figure 3: People’s Daily, China, Tweet Post, February 2020, 02:00 AM.
Figure 4: Photograph of Dr. Nicola Sgarbi. Source: Fernando Alfonso III, “The Many Faces of Health Workers Around the Globe Fighting Coronavirus”, CNN online, March 22, 2020.
In her 1978 book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag argues that the very name of a disease, for example “cancer,” symbolizes death with all its imagery, signifying a permutation between meanings. In the case of “COVID-19,” the N-95 mask becomes a metaphor for the loss of senses, it makes the virus tangible, draws an image of its perilousness, while making contagiousness visible. All of these are paradoxically manifested on the body of the healthy healthcare worker, rather than on the patient.
COVID-19 has rendered us immobile. Hospital patients struggling to survive are immobile. Those of us who remain in our homes by order are confined. But this immobility can also become a call to examine a new perspective. In his 1902 book The Intelligence of Flowers, Flemish Nobel Prize-winner Maurice Maeterlinck marvels at the plant, bound to the ground and condemned to immobility. He praises “the energy of its obsession, as it rises from the shadows of its roots to organize itself and to blossom in the light of its flower” (p.2). This is the opportunity that lies in what may feel like stagnation, limitation. The invitation to reorganize our sensibilities, to act, to keep in motion and transcend, engaged together with our new friend, the mask.
About the author: Noa Hegesh is a postdoctoral fellow the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, where she works on the history of sound in Early and Early Medieval China. Her research explores musical thought and the use of sound measuring as a technology in astronomy, metrology, and prognostication. She is interested in the ways we think about sound and the many ways we experience it.
1 Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu, trans. Victor H. Mair (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1998), p. 275.
Exquisite masking. A collaborative art project / by Regina Maria Möller and Dinu Bodiciu
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, one item has quickly become prominent around the world – the face mask. While healthcare workers are running short on high-tech protective face devices such as N95 respirators (equivalent to the European FFP2) most citizens are concealing their mouth and nose area with simple face masks made of cloth, or protecting their face by pulling a shawl or turtle neck pullover up to the bridge of their nose. All in all, this little item is changing our public appearance and behaviour. It certainly needs getting used to for many people, while for others it is already common practice to wear face masks on a daily basis, although for different reasons. But from now on this little piece of cloth in front of our face will become our ubiquitous daily companion. The mask itself has many faces—it is an extension of our face, protection, a signal of empathy, an accomplice, a silent speaker, a symbol, camouflage, an incognito masquerade, a loss of identity and bodily senses, a message, a force, a fashionable accessory—Exquisite Masking.
We, Regina Maria Möller, an artist and scholar based in Berlin, and Dinu Bodiciu, a designer and educator living in Singapore, have started brainstorming in a chatroom about transforming a face mask into another useable garment which encompasses and addresses a variety of readings, similar to the mask. The closest item we came about with is headgear, given that both serve a different function around the head. Due to the challenge of the geographical distance between us, we have simultaneously been experimenting with the format of “collaboration”. After exchanging our ideas, we drafted sketch drawings, which we “handed-over” in the digital forum. These drawings were the basis from which we separately extended or intertwined our vision for the object that each of us was about to create. We did not know what the other side was about to construct until we shared our first models. This project development followed a similar journey to the drawing game called “exquisite corpse”, which Surrealist artists frequently used to generate new and unexpected ideas.
When we are talking about communication over digital platforms, whose presence in our lives has intensified in these times of isolation, we should also talk about miscommunication. While developing this project and chatting from opposite parts of the globe, Berlin to Singapore, we discovered how the flat digital images that we have produced as the outcome of this collaboration become alienated. Furthermore, the intended purpose of the pieces we have designed disappears when a receptor perceives these objects as just a bi-dimensional representation.
The alienation of a liminal object—is it a mask or not a mask? is it a hat or not a hat? is it an artefact or not an artefact?—is opening up territory for endless possibilities of interpretation far removed from our original scope. This continuous unfolding of reality in each person’s imagination under the influence of our existing knowledge of material culture might lead to a possible future where we will be all connected, whilst all lost in translation.
The results are two different interpretations of a mask which transforms into headgear—the Exquisite Masking.
© Regina Maria Möller / Dinu Bodiciu: “Exquisite Masking, #6 & #1”, 2020
#2 © Dinu Bodiciu
#3 © Dinu Bodiciu
#4 © Dinu Bodiciu
#5 © Regina Maria Möller, VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
#6 © Regina Maria Möller, VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
#7 © Regina Maria Möller, VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
#8 © Regina Maria Möller, VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
Image credits: Regina Maria Möller / Dinu Bodiciu, „Exquisite Masking“, #1–#8, 2020
#2–#5 created by Dinu Bodiciu, material: felt
#6–#8 created by Regina Maria Möller, material: cotton embroidered and starched
About the artists:
Dinu Bodiciu is a Romanian-born designer, currently living and working in Singapore at the Lasalle College of the Arts, where he leads the BA in Fashion Design and Textiles. Some of his works have been famously worn by Lady Gaga or featured in the “Hunger Games” movie series, episodes 3 and 4. He designs garments and hat accessories that challenge the way we think about the relationship between the human body and clothing.
Regina Maria Möller is a German artist, founder of the magazine “regina” and the art label “embodiment.” Her artistic projects are exhibited worldwide such as the 47th Venice Biennale, Manifesta 1, the 3rd Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art, Secession, Vienna, NTU Center for Contemporary Art Singapore, among many others. Parallel to her art practice she has given talks at international platforms and taught in a number of academies and universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge/Boston; the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
Thinly-masked: What the Japanese can tell us about facing uncertainty / by Jadie Iijima
When it came to pandemic-preparedness, you could say I was one of the lucky ones. As others scrambled to source the necessary protective equipment (how many of us had even heard of an N95 or FFP2 respirator before all of this?), I just needed to reach into my suitcase to find an unopened pack of surgical masks. These will, as the bright pink bubble letters assure me, not only protect me against pollen and PM2.5 air pollution, but keep my throat hydrated and skin moisturized as well—“perfect for the dry winter months!”
Later that day, my mother phoned with a frantic offer: she wanted to send me a few more, since, as she put it, “do they even have masks in Germany?” She didn’t relax until I told her that I’d brought enough with me from Japan to last the lockdown, but makes a point of reminding me every now and again that her offer still stands, should I happen to change my mind. Her insistence, however absurd it may seem, reflects her deep reliance on masks that was, in part, reproduced in my own nagging need to maintain a small reserve of them “just in case”—although “just in case” of what, I can’t quite say.
Some might call it the Japanese obsession with hygiene, applauding the diligence of a well-informed mask-wearing population. Others may cite population density or a culture too considerate to do things any differently, given this convenient tool for wordless communication. Whatever the diagnosis, the message delivered by Western media outlets has always been clear: the Japanese wear medical masks in non-medical settings, and while the rest of us can speculate about the reasons behind this choice, we’ll never be able to understand or relate to it.
The truth of the matter is as layered as the mask itself: while none of these individual interpretations are wrong per se, it’s impossible to deny that the aggregate of these concerns has grown into something greater than the sum of its parts. Today, the mask has been elevated to have symbolic meaning far greater than could be provided by any one of its particular uses. Sociologist Horii Mitsutoshi, author of マスクと日本人 (Masks and the Japanese), has coined the term “risk ritual” to describe this exact phenomenon.1 He characterizes the usage of masks as a protective reaction triggered by an amalgam of ambiguous and often invisible threats and uncertainties, over which the mask wearer attempts to gain a sense of control.
His choice of the word “ritual”—a word entirely at odds with the supposedly practical aim of using a mask—reveals how the significance held by a scientific instrument can become distorted through its popular usage. The psychological effects of creating a barrier between the wearer of the mask and the outside world has transcended the mask’s original raison d’être. Its aficionados have discovered that, not only is the mask an easy protective measure against hay fever and the flu, it can also shield the wearer from the dagger-like looks shot at any visible symptom. It isn’t difficult to see why some people would choose to use masks to prevent other judgmental glances as well, hiding anything from bad breath and acne to a face without makeup. In any case, as Horii writes, “[the mask] absorbs a sense of vulnerability provoked by the threat or uncertainties of risks.”2
As the term “risk ritual” suggests, the surgical mask has been demoted from its former seat of scientific authority. While those introduced to the mask during the Spanish flu may have thought it a revolutionary precaution, in our bio-technical age, the mask can seem slightly outdated. This change in sentiment is most evident in the temporary disappearance of medical masks in the 1970s, when the “more reliable” flu vaccine came to the fore. According to Horii, it was only once flu vaccinations saw a decline in popularity in the late 1980s that the mask, no longer upstaged, was recast as the last line of defense against pathogens.3 Now, more than two decades later, all signs point to the mask retaining its position as an indispensable cultural instrument, entangled as it is with various notions of self-care.
In Western countries formerly dismissive of the use of masks in non-medical environments, a similar shift in public perception can be seen. Even as official advice on mask usage continues to differ, the demand for masks among private buyers has skyrocketed around the world. Even those without masks are often seen attempting to mimic their function by using shirt-collars, sleeves, or handkerchiefs to cover their mouths upon noticing a stranger within a 1.5-meter radius. This, combined with the clear divide in mask use by age group, leads me to think that, despite the consensus that informal face masks are better at preventing the infection of those exposed to the mask wearer rather than the other way around, those who do wear them are doing so as a means of personal protection.
This observation is, at least in the case of the Japanese, corroborated by the results of this survey by Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai. Of its 310 respondents, 97.1 percent believe that masks are capable of protecting their wearers from the flu and other illnesses. More worryingly, the same survey finds that 73 percent of them have habits, such as touching the filter or pulling it down to their chins, that could essentially nullify the protective properties of the mask.
These findings show that, although many people idealize Japanese mask culture as a shining example of pandemic-preparedness, there are major pitfalls to the risk ritualization of mask use. By creating a non-specific and unscientific dependence on masks as a barrier between the body and invisible threats, the mask as risk ritual can lull its wearer into a false sense of security, as long as it is the symbolic significance of the mask, rather than its correct usage, that people find comfort in. This may be fairly benign under normal circumstances, but COVID-19 is no normal circumstance—to both the wearer and those nearby, such a false sense of comfort has the potential to spell the difference between life and death.
But crises have a way of shifting the status quo, if only temporarily. In a pandemic, the mask wearer can agitate rather than reassure those nearby. Given a highly transmittable pathogen like COVID-19, the thinly-masked dimension of fear is stripped to its core, leaving the question in full view: What’s that person hiding beneath their mask, and should I be afraid? This widespread uncertainty has caused some mask wearers in Japan to adopt a new communicative tool in their risk ritual: these message cards can be sewn into a cloth mask to relay the reason for its use. These “statement pieces” are straightforward: one reads, “to prevent hay fever,” and another, “I have asthma.”
This is a stunning reversal of the usual norm, where the mask wearer seeks to hide all manner of ailments behind a standard signal of personal responsibility. Whether or not the cards will “go viral” is beside the point—their existence is enough to show that, even for the Japanese, mid-pandemic mask use is far from business as usual.
Unfortunately, the Japanese government seems to have missed the memo. On April 1, the Japanese public was left wondering whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe actually meant his announcement—that the government plans to distribute two cloth masks per household—as some sick April Fool’s joke. Besides the obvious factors—the belatedness of response, the lack of any other notable measures—it appears to be the materiality of the mask itself that is to blame for the backlash. For the government to cling to such measures of last resort provides little reassurance to anyone. It doesn’t help that this meager plan will cost roughly 46.6 billion yen ($424 million) to implement. To even the most mask-loving Japanese, many of whom have the means to make two masks of their own, this is an insulting waste of money.
Japan isn’t the only country responding poorly to the pandemic. Especially in its earlier days, the policies of many countries left something to be desired. Even well-meaning governments must resort to experimentative policy-making in order to navigate uncharted territory. As a result, citizens are made wary and weary by the never-ending uncertainties and, like these protestors in Brazil, many have openly voiced their concerns. I wouldn’t be surprised if, post-COVID-19, a new “risk ritual” of mask wearing expands its domain overseas. This new ritual may continue to lack scientific vigor and remain subject to interpretation, but regardless of fact or individual belief, it will be our collective uncertainty that shapes our behavior. Every masked face will serve as a reminder: it is up to us to keep ourselves safe.
About the author: Jadie Hokuala Iijima Geil is a bachelor student of the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University, currently studying abroad at the Free University of Berlin. A self-identifying hermit since long before social distancing rules came into place, she has settled perhaps a little too comfortably into home-office research assistantship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. On the odd occasion that she does go out, she can’t help but notice the cultural curiosities of the cities she’s lived in—Honolulu, Tokyo, Berlin—and she returns home inspired to begin her next obsessive research project.
1 Mitsutoshi Horii, “Why Do the Japanese Wear Masks?,” The Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies 14, no. 2 (2014), accessed April 8, 2020.
2 Horii, “Why Do the Japanese Wear Masks?”
3 Horii, “Why Do the Japanese Wear Masks?”
We can keep silent, but that doesnt mean we dont care / Interview with artist Tran Tuan
“We can keep silent, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care”
In early April 2016, a devastating environmental disaster happened along the central Vietnamese coastline. A steel mill constructed by the Taiwan-based industrial Formosa Plastics Group in Ha Tinh Province was said to be responsible for having leaked chemical toxic waste into the ocean. This incident had a tremendous impact on sea life, leaving an enormous number of fish dead and causing illness amongst the Vietnamese people who had been exposed to the ocean and fishes. The disaster was reported to the Vietnamese government, which did not respond until April 25—it kept silent for far too long. Silence is a key(word) of an interactive project initiated by the artists Tran Tuan and Ngoc Tu Hoang in reaction to the government’s lack of response to this huge environmental disaster. With this project, Tuan and Hoang reached out to communities most affected by the spillage to create face masks with fish decorations, to accompany the slogan: “We can keep silent, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care.” Originally, the bodies of dead fish served as imprints, and were later transferred into the face masks, depicting the double death of silencing – a dead toxic fish placed over one’s mouth. Regina Maria Möller has spoken to one of the artists on behalf of the Mask–Arrayed team to reflect on this provocative project in the face of the current return of the mask as a symbol of another disaster.
RMM: Tuan, perhaps you can firstly give us a little bit more background information about how it began, and the idea behind this project and its slogan.
Tuan: The project started with a group exhibition I curated, “Quay II,” which took place in “Then Café” in Hue from May 5–May 12, 2016. I invited sixteen artists, all working with different art forms and media, to respond to this environmental disaster, which caused this tremendous fish death. Hoang Ngoc Tu created the artwork “Day 32” for this exhibition, which was thirty-two face masks with imprints of a fish between their layers. These thirty-two masks reference exactly thirty-two days of silence about this crisis due to Vietnam’s censorship of information. With the opening of the exhibition, we broke this silence.
“Day 32” by Hoang Ngoc Tu. Image source: courtesy of the artist.
As the curator of the exhibition, I came up with the idea to expand Hoang’s contribution to an interactive project involving communities across Vietnam. We planned to have over 10,000 masks created across the country for a (silent) protest. This mask was the ideal tool to help the protestors to stay anonymous, to hide their identity, to protect them from tear gas, but also to send our message that we want to protect the health of the Vietnamese, our families, and friends. Our slogan was: “We can keep silent, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care.”
Image source: courtesy of the artist.
We were hoping to run this project undercover, but it was impossible to do so. We needed to spread the word by using social media to reach out to participants across the country and to be able to collaborate and connect with various activist leaders and organizations. Due to our public call in a country with information censorship, we were, of course too visible and eventually got arrested. Yet, we were able to reach out, and more than 8,000 face masks were produced and distributed by various organizations in major cities across Vietnam, for example, Hanoi, Saigon, Danang, and many others. Unfortunately, most of our production was confiscated by the authorities, and more than sixteen organizations were busted and their members arrested. Also, Hoang Ngoc Tu and I were questioned by the police.
Hoang Ngoc Tu. Image source: courtesy of the artist.
RMM: What is it about the symbolic or artistic value of the face mask that attracted you to choose it as your instrument of expression?
Tuan: At a time when man-made production is endangering the health of humankind, the mask is the new symbol of our future, where our identity is obscured, and health is affected.
MA: You transformed the face mask into a powerful instrument to aid the silent political act of protest. Wearing face masks in Vietnam is a common practice—aside from medical reasons, in what other ways is the face mask used?
Tuan: As mentioned above, the mask can be used to hide one’s identity, which is quite strange, in my opinion, considering our vast global networking and worldwide communication with ever more advanced technologies. Humans seem to become lonely together—a communal solitude. Human bonds are very weak—immensely fragile. Imagine a society as a collective in which everyone is wearing the same single outfit—like the mask which we wear for health issues. But at the same time this “health issue” could also become (in some countries) a national strategy to silence voices—don’t protest because you are about to risk your life. I am obsessed with the concept of “singularity” in the spirit of Georg Cantor: “Great innovations only come true when people are not afraid to make a difference.” As an artist, I am interested in challenging the universal categories by exploring the internal paradoxes of our physical being. And it seems we are now approaching the era of technological singularity, which is being introduced with the concept of the “global mask.”
RMM: How did the community respond to your idea? And was there any reaction from the government?
Tuan: The community responded very strongly, even though our project was cut off. Many friends all over the country wore masks and took photos which were posted on Facebook and Instagram.
RMM: In the wake of the corona crisis, do you think that the face mask has emerged as an object that can or should be re-interpreted by artists, either for similar or different political reasons?
Tuan: Of course, after this pandemic the world will change, so as I said, the first step is the emergence of the concept of a “global mask.” It challenges the idea of “connectivity” and globalization.
RMM: Your project was dealing with the problem of toxic waste and industrial pollution, and you used the mask as a material and symbolic medium to draw attention to an environmental disaster that affected different communities in Vietnam. Now, four years later, these kinds of single-use face masks are in high demand globally and are slowly becoming a waste problem themselves. How do you position the materiality of the mask in relation to issues of waste? How can artists and community organizers respond to these most recent environmental threats that are resulting from the global state of emergency?
Image source: courtesy of the artist.
Tuan: In my opinion, the question needs to rely on a philosophical point of view. The mask itself is an artificial product. It serves the needs of human consumption—our consumerism. It separates us from each other, and at the same time, it can bring us closer in terms of solidarity. Humans are creating disposable masks, as well as billions of other disposable products for millions of people in isolation at home. After this pandemic, this will be a significant problem that needs to be addressed by many governments. There will be technological solutions to handle it satisfactorily, for example, to find ways to reuse some of these articles. The question will be whether or not governments are willing to spend large amounts of money to invest in the disposal of waste that we produce in the future. Also, it is a question of whether we, as consumers, appreciate the value of the material we are using. This relates to a philosophical point of view, as I said. When people do not learn to appreciate the “true” value of the material they are using, then it is solely a commodity, and by adding more “virtual” value, it suits the consumer market even more.
For a long time, the world has suffered from a “supernumerary” crisis in rich countries and a “shortage” crisis in developing countries. Does this have anything to do with the actual value of the material we are using? And the masks raise the question: what is the most important for human beings nowadays: our health? Our identities? Or our immediate needs? Every individual will have a different answer.
Image source: courtesy of the artist.
About the artist: Tran Tuan is an artist born in Hue in 1981. He graduated from Hue College of Art with a degree in Traditional Decoration in 2006. His art practice is influenced by the untold stories of his family. Tuan has participated in many local and international exhibitions, such as “Nang Bong Nhe Tech” in 2011, “Altered Clouds” in 2012 and “Emperor Mushroom” in 2013. His series “Two Forefingers” was selected for the Singapore Biennale 2013. Throughout he has actively contributed to promoting art to a broader community in his hometown by establishing “Then Café,” where many art activities take place.
We would like to thank Veronika Radulovic for her help in contacting the artist.