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teamLab: The 'ultra-technologists' of Tokyo

Black room. Swirling patterns descend from overhead, surrounding, enveloping. Birds of light perch on branches. Suddenly they take off. I chase after them through space. The trails are bathed in light, now purple, now green. Florae emerge where the light trails remain, rays forming and dissolving into complex patterns. Then a great explosion. Gigantic flowers blossom in mid space. I am no longer in the human realm. I am one with the cosmos, at one with birds and flowers.

The mastermind behind my interstellar journey at the Mori museum in Tokyo this summer is the ultra-technological art collective known as teamLab. Founded in 2001 in Tokyo by Toshiyuki Inoko, the group defines itself as a team of “ultra-technologists” composed of CG animators, mathematicians, architects and artists whose goal is to ‘achieve a balance between art, science, technology and creativity.’ Since the group’s formation they have gained recognition not only in Japan but also across Asia, Europe and North America, with works featuring in the permanent collections of museums in San Francisco, New York and Istanbul. They most recently exhibited at the Frieze Fair under Pace Gallery.

teamLab seeks to create a digital visual feast that inspires and impresses. Their projects are known for their interactive aspect; vast empty rooms are transformed into fantastic dreamscapes inhabited by florescent flora, fauna, animals and birds that react to the viewer’s every touch. teamLab’s projects are known for their interactivity. Their previous exhibitions have seen audiences interacting with flowers in bloom; standing in water with koi swimming around their feet, or allowing them to compose calligraphy in mid-air while wearing VR headsets. Visiting a teamLab exhibition is to be spirited away to a mystical realm.

With their focus on visual stimulation, teamLab could appear to the Western art critic as lacking in nuance and depth of thought. One could potentially dismiss the swirling lights and blossoming flowers as superficial, and one might even deride teamLab for exhibiting in non-traditional spaces such as the Lotte World; a theme park owned by the multinational conglomerate Lotte Group in Seoul. One might apply the Marxist model of the ‘spectacle’ to teamLab and claim that the group’s emphasis on sensual animations serves the interests of the elites by distracting the audience from realising their oppression.

But to reduce teamLab’s work to mere spectacle would be imposing a Eurocentric perspective onto something that is situated in an utterly different cultural context. The pursuit of surface beauty and recognition of its transient nature are themes inherent to the Japanese artistic tradition. The expression of these themes can be found in a range of media; from poetry and calligraphy to painting and print. Appreciation of the surface-value is deeply rooted in a culture governed by strict social etiquette and codes of conduct. On the other hand, Japanese literati have long been fascinated by attempts to capture a fleeting moment of beauty.

The themes of transience and superficiality can be seen in an earlier Japanese artistic tradition that rose to great fame – the Ukyio-e. Literally translated as ‘images of the floating world’, Ukiyo-e is a woodblock printing tradition that rose to prominence in Japan (and later in the West) in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although Ukiyo-e is often associated in the West with scenes of nature, like Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Hanagawa, Ukiyo-e of the seventeenth century primarily depicted urban life in Edo; the seat of the military Shogunate government. These seventeenth century works depict scenes from the nightlife in Edo: portraits of famous courtesans or Sumo wrestlers were created alongside scenes depicting packed Kabuki theatres. It is in these works that qualities associated with the genre – contrast of bright colours and animated patterns, and the flattening of the pictorial plane – developed and matured.

Shibai Ukie by Masanobu Okumura, depicting the Kabuki theater Ichimura-za in its early days.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai.

Yet it is not just the skilful juxtaposition of vibrant colours that teamLab shares with Ukiyo-e. Both art styles in a sense arose on the periphery of the dominant culture: Ukiyo-e came from the mercantile class in a city and society dominated by the military elite while teamLab emerged in an elitist and insular contemporary scene centred on the West. By depicting scenes of Kabuki, Ukiyo-e advanced a subculture based on pleasure, which presented an alternative way of living to the strict moral codes and hierarchies of the martial elites. In the same way, teamLab challenges the Western definition of fine art by pursuing sensory beauty for its own sake. Where in western art the status of the artist as individual is paramount, teamLab prefers to be known as a group, stressing the collaborative effort in their creation of art rather than the individuality of the artist.

As such teamLab’s decision to exhibit works in unconventional spaces like carnivals or theme parks should be understood as a way of liberating art from the physical confines of the museum or gallery and their elitist associations, and thus as bringing art to a much wider audience. Because there is no underlying message that must be decoded to appreciate teamLab’s works, the audience is freed from the constant need for references to the catalogue tags and the nagging fear of not really ‘getting’ the art. Their role is no longer that of the passive observer, but to participate in and become part of the artwork. Their only task is to experience and enjoy in whatever way occurs to them. Whereas in contrast soberly dressed figures gazing silently at objects hanging on blank white walls populate the London gallery scene; one must wonder what percentage truly enjoy the experience (on a personal level) As a result of this difference of approach teamLab’s projects attract children, parents and seasoned museumgoers alike.

While most of their contemporaries are still working with age-old media such painting, sculpture or film, teamLab’s 3D projections, animations and movement-sensory technology herald a new age in artistic innovation. In an art scene that is western-centric and insular, teamLab’s works offer a fresh breadth of diversity, showcasing the talents of artists beyond the blinkers of Europe and America and bringing to light a completely new approach to the creation of and, crucially, the enjoyment of art.

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