When television appeared in Japan in the 1950s, most people in that still-poor country could only satisfy their curiosity about it by watching the display models in store windows. But by the 1980s, the Japanese had become not just astonishingly rich but world leaders in technology as well. It took something special to make Tokyoites stop on the streets of Akihabara, the city’s go-to district for high technology, but stop they did in 1990 when, in the windows of Sony Town, appeared Infinite Escher.
Produced by Sony HDVS Soft Center as a showcase for the company’s brand new high-definition video technology, this short film caused passersby, according to the video description, to “gasp in amazement at the clarity and sharp crisp focus of the picture.”
Running seven and a half minutes, it tells the story of a bespectacled New York City teenager (played by a young Sean Lennon, son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono) who steps off the school bus one afternoon to find M.C. Escher-style visual motifs in the urban landscape all around him: a jigsaw puzzle piece-shaped curbside puddle, a transparent geometrically patterned basketball.
When he goes home to sketch a few artistic-mathematical ideas of his own, he looks into an awfully familiar-looking reflecting sphere and gets sucked into a completely Escherian realm. This sequence demonstrates not just the look of Sony’s high-definition video, but the then-state-of-the-art techniques for dropping real-life characters into computer-generated settings and vice versa. In addition to the visions of the Dutch graphic designer who not just imagined but rendered the impossible, Sony also brought in two of the other powerful creative minds, Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto to create the score and Korean video artist Nam June Paik to do the art direction.
Watching Infinite Escher today may first underscore just how far high-definition video and computer graphics have come over the past 27 years, but it ultimately shows another example of how Escher’s visions, even after the artist’s death in 1972, have remained so compelling that each era — with its own technological, cultural, and aesthetic trends — pays its own kind of tribute to them.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.