The Blockbuster Avant-Garde

Visitors to teamLab Planets, an art venue in Tokyo run by the eponymous art collective, can wade in a knee-deep pool of water, where images of koi fish projected onto the water’s surface dart around their legs, leaving trails of multicolored light in their wakes. Reach down to cup a koi, and it bursts into flowers—cherry blossoms in the spring, sunflowers in the summer—that scatter in the pool. The artwork, as teamLab understands it, is not the structure of the pool or the projected animations, but the whole experience: the koi flitting past other visitors’ calves, the flowers slipping through your fingers, the shimmers of calligraphic light across the pool’s surface, the undulating and almost operatic music, the feel of water on your bare feet. Drawing on the Water Surface Created by the Dance of Koi and People—Infinity (2016–18), as the work is titled, is rendered in real time by a computer program, using sensors that respond to visitors’ movement. No moment in the space will ever be replicated. The work is constantly in flux, and each person’s encounter with it is unique.

This enveloping experience, replete with light, sound, nature imagery, and animation, is the kind of work that teamLab has become known for since its founding in 2001. The largest and most prolific art collective working with interactive digital technology, teamLab has hundreds of employees, who include artists, architects, programmers, engineers, mathematicians, and CG animators. They operate a network of their own permanent spaces, and regularly participate in exhibitions at museums and galleries around the globe. Given the scale and success of their independent operation, their continuing collaboration with other institutions raises the question: what do they need from the art world?

The answer could be that they aspire to transform it. “We are redefining the relationship between artwork and visitor,” Michaela Kane, a member of teamLab, said in a recent interview. (She doesn’t have a specific job title; the organization is nonhierarchical and eschews such labels.) The collective prefers “visitor” to “viewer” because the point of their immersive works is not to look at the landscape so much as be part of it, both affecting its contours and experiencing its effect. They have called their art “borderless,” and it’s both a conceptual proposition and a literal one, as their artworks float down hallways and interact with each other.

The refracted silhouettes of two people can be seen in an installation of colored lights that radiate through a gridded structure

teamLab: Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders in the Crystal World, 2018, interactive LED installation with sound by Hideaki Takahashi.

At teamLab Borderless in Tokyo there’s a room called the Butterfly House filled with digital butterflies that hatch from chrysalises that form on visitors’ bodies. “If you touch one, it will fall and fade away,” Kane said, “but if it lives, it will fly out of the room and into the hallways.” The animated insects drift throughout the museum, crossing into other works, moving from projections to monitors. Other imagery stays in fixed locations, but reacts to visitors’ bodies, like waterfalls of light that part around hands or feet.

Kane declined to comment on the specifics of the technologies that undergird teamLab’s interactive works, but many of their effects are achieved with a network of projectors and sensors running generative code that respond to movement. The collective often retrofits their own hardware, as in a room at teamLab Borderless Shanghai with a sculpture of about one thousand moving lights. Normally, such a density of light would cause a room to overheat, so they designed lights that would stay cool. They also experiment with new materials. One of their latest works, not yet on display, uses a foamy substance to simulate clouds that visitors can walk into.

Premodern art from Japan and other parts of Asia is an important aesthetic influence. This is particularly apparent in works like Black Waves (2016), a CG-animated projection in teamLab Borderless Tokyo. “Many people enter this room and think to themselves, ‘oh, this is very Japanese,’” Kane said. That has partly to do with how water is represented using a series of lines—something you might see in a woodblock print like Under the Wave off Kanagawa. The work also draws on a perspective used in classical Japanese art, where objects are depicted at a similar scale in both background and foreground, which can look “flat” to today’s viewers. It may seem paradoxical to marry this flatness with immersion. But teamLab effectively blends them. In Black Waves, the mesmerizing movement of waves, drawn flat against each other as shifting groups of lines, creates the sudden sense of being not quite in the ocean but somehow surrounded by it.

 

teamLab has helped expand what’s possible for artists who are operating both outside the art world’s traditional channels and within them. Since 2018, they’ve opened two museums in Tokyo, and one in Shanghai; their permanent Tokyo museum had 2.3 million visitors in its first year, making it by their calculation the most popular single-artist museum that year (beating out the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which reported an attendance of 2.1 million). The collective has more than six hundred full-time employees, which dwarfs the number who work at other ambitious, tech-driven art collectives. For comparison, Refik Anadol, who produces immersive projections for public spaces and venues like Artechouse in New York and Light Art Space in Berlin, has seventeen full-time employees at his studio, while the Amsterdam-based Studio Drift has sixty-four. This summer, the R&D Platform at the Serpentine Galleries in London released its first Future Art Ecosystems report, a trend forecast detailing the latest developments in the visual art world’s engagement with advanced technologies. The report identifies teamLab as a pioneer of a model it dubs “art stacks”: artist-led collectives that produce every aspect of the art experience in-house, from code to venues, and draw revenue from ticketed experiences.

A digital projection of crashing dark blue waves covers three walls in a dark room

teamLab: Black Waves, 2016, multichannel digital animation.

A woodblock print of an enormous wave about to crash over men rowing long pointed boats

Katsushika Hokusai: Under the Wave off Kanagawa, ca. 1830–32, woodblock print, ink on paper, 10 ⅛ by 15 inches

The model offered by teamLab is replicating quickly now, but it began, and to some extent remains, on the art world’s fringes. Toshiyuki Inoko founded teamLab as an experimental art collective in 2001, the same year he graduated from the University of Tokyo with a degree in mathematical engineering and information physics. In the beginning the group supported their artwork with a “solutions” branch that designed websites, apps, and software. They had local exhibitions, gaining a following among young people in Tokyo, but it wasn’t until 2011 that they had their first international show at the Taipei outpost of Kaikai Kiki, a gallery owned by the hugely successful artist Takashi Murakami. In 2014 teamLab had their first exhibition with Pace Gallery in New York, where they presented six works, including a seven-channel animation of birds chasing each other and leaving trails of light in their flight paths, to create what teamLab calls “spatial calligraphy.” This marked the beginning of an unlikely marriage between bluechip gallery and experimental collective. “I think at first we all reacted the same way as a lot of people,” said Marc Glimcher, president and CEO of Pace. “Is that art or is that a spectacle?” He drew comparisons to Light and Space works by Robert Irwin and James Turrell, artists who also manipulate perception and dissolve the boundary between artwork and viewer. But, as Glimcher acknowledged, teamLab doesn’t fit neatly in a lineage of twentieth-century American art. Their visual language is more figurative than Turrell’s or Irwin’s, sometimes wildly excessive, and the viewer’s experience of the work is far more interactive.

The collaboration between Pace and teamLab wasn’t always entirely natural, especially as they began planning a 2016 pop-up exhibition at a former Tesla showroom in Menlo Park, California. The artists wanted to sell tickets. “This was a real fault line for anybody in the art world,” Glimcher said. “You don’t charge for tickets unless you’re a museum.” Pace and teamLab went back and forth. Glimcher said one of the founders told him that the taboo against ticket sales preserved an economic model of distributing and selling art that relied on a small class of superrich patrons, and Glimcher finally relented. Tickets were sold. “We went and bought cash registers,” Glimcher said. “We didn’t know what we were doing.”

A child interacts with a wall-size projection of trucks and cars traveling a winding green highway

View of teamLab’s exhibition “Living Digital Space and Future Parks,” 2016, at Pace Art+Technology, Menlo Park, Calif.

“Living Digital Space and Future Parks,” as the Menlo Park exhibition was titled, was both well-attended and profitable. In its ten-month run, it received about 175,000 visitors. Pace decided not to sell tickets when showing the work in London, where it attracted 13,000 visitors and a waitlist of 44,000. In Beijing, 300,000 people visited in five months. “If you’re selling tickets at around $30 and you have that many people come through, you make a lot of money,” Glimcher said. “Maybe not quite as much as you make in a Rothko show, but more than you make in an Adrian Ghenie show.”

Working with teamLab pushed Pace toward experimenting with a new economic model. Last year Pace announced the creation of Superblue, a network of experiential art spaces. The first is opening in Miami in February, with more planned for other cities in the coming years. Superblue will provide the artists with space and resources, including direct financial support in the form of commissions for new works, in keeping with the gallery model; but, crucially, they’ll also sell tickets, and artists will get a share of the proceeds. (A spokeswoman for Superblue declined to give specifics about the size of the share, and said it will depend on the project.) “The art is not being filtered by an initial sale to a wealthy person or institution, it’s being filtered by how many people buy tickets to it,” Superblue CEO Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst said. “So it’s a little bit like pop music, or even classical music. It’s financially supported by a broad group of people rather than an individual collector or commissioner.” They will, however, allow interested collectors, municipalities, architects and others to commission and present these works elsewhere. The first cast of installations at Superblue will include a maze of mirrors shaped like the bronchial tree of human lungs by British artist and stage designer Es Devlin, who created set pieces for Beyoncé and U2 as well as her own large-scale experimental works with light and music; a room of monochrome light by Turrell; and, of course, several works by teamLab. These employ many of their favorite motifs, like cascading water represented through a continuum of lines and flowers blooming and scattering as people move through space, all at a massive scale and in constant motion.

 

teamLab has achieved, by many measures, the ultimate success for an art stack: owning and operating multiple popular permanent spaces. They also show in public spaces, like the facade of the Marina Bay Sands ArtScience Museum in Singapore, and they host an annual summer exhibition in Kyushu’s Mifuneyama Rakuen Park where trees, mountains, and a pond are illuminated by colorful projections. They still have a “solutions” team, which works on everything from banking apps to vending machines. This has been instrumental in weathering a pandemic that put a sudden, deep dent in the experience economy.

Lines of cool blue light dance across the floor and the sides of slanted columns in an interactive installation

teamLab: The Columns, 2019, interactive digital installation.

And yet teamLab continues to work within the art world. They have shown at London’s Barbican Gallery, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, and TANK in Shanghai. In 2019 teamLab’s work was featured in an exhibition on animals in Japanese art, which opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and then traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This ongoing participation in institutional contexts is a little puzzling, given their aspirations toward borderless art and new models of presentation. But it bolsters their status as a kind of avant-garde, displacing norms that once excluded them. “Museums that take a chance on our work hold a special place for us,” Kane said. “To be honest, we ourselves cannot even say whether or not our work is ‘art’—history will decide that. But we believe that museums and galleries that have chosen to exhibit our work believe in our philosophies, our concepts, and ‘artwork,’ and they want us to change the world.” Glimcher has saved teamLab’s repeated rejections from Art Unlimited in Art Basel, joking that he’s creating a paper trail for when they come begging. “It sounds like a pretty familiar story in the art world, the art establishment saying, ‘You are not art,’” he said. “Remember Monet and Pissarro?”

Even as teamLab’s art world reception bends toward acceptance, they keep expanding on their own terms. In June they opened a large-scale permanent exhibition in Macao. They have plans to open another museum in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, by 2023. (They have faced a few setbacks: a planned space in Brooklyn was canceled, while another in LA has been delayed; Kane declined to comment on the specifics of either case but emphasized the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.) There may remain some hesitancy among tastemakers: Is this art or spectacle? Is it just an Instagram photo op? But teamLab will go on, with or without the art world, and more likely with it.

During the pandemic, teamLab has adapted its approach to new contexts. Since August, they have offered a YouTube livestream called Flowers Bombing Home. They invite people to select templates of flower designs, then draw on them digitally or manually. You can upload your contribution, and it joins the other flowers blooming and moving on-screen. This project, modest in scale, encapsulates the ideas at the core of teamLab’s mission. The experience is widely accessible, and interactive in the fullest sense: its creation is collective and participatory. The distance between your art-marking and theirs dissipates, another border dissolved.

The immersive experiences of teamLab fuse technology and emotion, thrill audiences, and break the gallery business model. Do they even need the art world?Read MoreArt in America, Features, immersive art, interactive-art, teamlabARTnews.comRead More

Leave a Reply