“Wander, Explore, Discover” is the invitation — or is it the challenge? — that greets visitors as they cross the threshold of the new Mori Building Digital Art Museum in Tokyo’s Odaiba district. In this brand new venture, the urban development giant Mori Building – which owns the site — has teamed up with teamLab, a tech-art collective, to create teamLab Borderless, a series of immersive art installations that aim to transcend barriers between art and technology, the physical and the digital, and art work and audience. Having enjoyed a taste of teamLab’s work at the NGV Triennal in Melbourne earlier this year, I jumped at the chance of a one-off, private tour for a small group of art professionals with gallerist Ikkan Sanada, senior art advisor to teamLab, before the museum officially opened to the public on June 21.
My first impression on arriving at the museum in Odaiba, a man-made island in Tokyo Bay, was one of space. Housed in a former bowling alley and games center, the site covers over 10,000 square meters and extends over two vast floors necessary to accommodate the museum’s 520 computers, 470 projectors, myriad displays and the 5,000 visitors who are expected to flock daily to see the most comprehensive example of teamLab’s work to date.
Founded in 2001 by Toshiyuki Inoko, teamLab started as a group of just five digital artists and has now grown into an inter-disciplinary collective of 500 people whose work has garnered acclaim across the globe. teamLab is known for operating on the borders of the art world, so it is fitting that Borderless, an active challenge to the separation of art and technology, should be found in a part of Tokyo that is in itself on the border between city and sea, still something of a no-man’s land, waiting to be explored.
I had assumed the two hours I had put aside for the tour would be more than ample, but Ikkan-san lost no time in guiding us into the first room, explaining that visitors are expected to spend at least two-and-a-half hours wandering around the space. Unlike so many museums in Japan, where visitors are strongly encouraged to follow a set route, teamLab Borderless is deliberately free-flowing, forcing spectators to actively engage in the process from the very beginning by making choices about how they experience the space.
As I selected one of three optional routes, I entered a dark space illuminated by hundreds of multi-colored butterflies, digital images created both by projectors and on monitor screens. So far, so pretty, but I quickly realized that this installation had hidden depths. As we stood inside the room, virtual cocoons appeared on our clothes, opening to release more butterflies in the surrounding space. Conversely, we quickly learned that placing a hand over the butterflies would “kill” them, causing their images to fall to the floor and disappear. From the very beginning, it is clear that this is no ordinary exhibition; the art work is not pre-recorded on a loop, but rendered in real time. That means it is “alive” to its audience, who in turn can shape its content at will. This level of interactivity characterized my entire experience of teamLab Borderless. The traditional line between art work and spectator is erased to the point where not only could I inhabit the art, I could also influence its direction.
While the technology on display may be more complex than the average visitor (myself certainly included) can easily comprehend, its effect is charmingly easy to engage with. Throughout the tour I found myself taking child-like pleasure in the new world of possibilities created by teamLab’s synthesis of ”ultra-technology,” the term they use to describe their interdisciplinary expertise. I gasped in delight as flowers sprouted and bloomed at my feet; hurried to touch projections of kanji (Chinese characters at the heart of the Japanese writing system) which burst into images of the object or concept they represented. I marvelled at the Narnia-like atmosphere created by a forest of LED lights.
All that was before I even reached the “Athletics Forest” on the second floor, with its trampoline and climbing frames.
At teamLab Borderless, it’s not just visitors who are expected to wander freely throughout the installations. In an inspired twist, the “exhibits” (for want of a better word), including butterflies, birds, lions, fish and samurai-like human figures, are also free to roam from room to room, in configurations unknown even to their creators. As the installations respond to human visitors, constantly reacting and adapting to their movements, so they also influence one another.
In one example entitled “Peace can be Realized Even Without Order,” a seemingly infinite number of life-sized holograms dance and play music independent of one another. When human visitors stand before a hologram, the music stops and changes. However, left entirely alone for 15 minutes, the holograms all listen to one another’s individual music and work together to make a harmony. First shown at the Singapore Biennale in 2013, the installation makes a powerful point about the effects and limitations of interventionist approaches to instilling social order.
In another installation, visitors can create their own contributions to the artworks, coloring in animal shapes and scanning them into a computer. I experimented with a multi-colored alligator, and seconds later a meter-long version appeared at my feet and wandered into the fray. Ikkan-san explained that here, just as in a real eco-system, the alligator will feed on smaller animals in the food chain. If visitors create an abundance of, for example, frogs, the alligators will feast and reproduce. Alternatively, if smaller animals are in scant supply, those further up the food chain will also decline. Once again, the aim seems to be to encourage visitors to think about how their intervention impacts on the natural world.
At times, teamLab Borderless was too entrancing for its own good. Ikkan-san, our ever-patient host, gently tried to hurry along members of our increasingly distracted group, but as we grew more confident with our surroundings we became more prone to wandering off in pursuit of our own discoveries. In this respect a tour can almost divert one from the experience, which is deliberately orchestrated to encourage visitors to follow whatever makes them curious.
However, I was delighted to be led up a dark staircase to what proved to what turned out to be my favorite installation of the exhibit, entitled “Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased As Well, Floating Nest.” Leaving my valuables at the door, I clambered into a net suspended in space like an enormous hammock and in a few seconds, found myself encased inside a swirling night sky. Accompanied by a swelling soundtrack (teamLab includes musical composers alongside engineers, architects, animators, graphic designers and mathematicians among its 500 members), the solar system danced around me, creating the impression of being inside an animated movie. It could potentially have been kitsch if it wasn’t so well-executed, so distinctive and so… fun.
While the Japanese art world has been slow to accept teamLab due to its unorthodox creations, I soon noticed that teamLab’s designers take much of their inspiration from traditional Japanese art. One of the most technically dizzying yet aesthetically soothing installations is “Black Waves,” simply a darkened room with moving waves cascading along all four walls. Or rather, it seemed simple, until Ikkan-san explained that every water drop of every wave was computer-generated and given the physical attributes of real water droplets to ensure they moved in accordance with the laws of physics rather than the traditions dictated by art. The room is a panoramic echo of Hokusai’s famous woodblock print, “The Great Wave,” and I found myself thinking that rather than being an affront to traditional art, teamLab’s work has a lot in common with it. Artists have always been keen students of the natural world and no doubt teamLab’s desire for accuracy would have been appreciated by artists of past generations who also attempted to render the world in painstaking detail with the best technology at their disposal.
For me, part of teamLab’s appeal is the ingenious use of new technology to illuminate traditional arts. Leaving the massive flower forest on the first floor, I walked into a small room with monitors on each wall, showing Japanese calligraphy reconstructed in 3D space. I could see each drop of ink and brush stroke snaking its way across the page in the way that I sense, but can never see, during calligraphy classes where I struggle to control the movement of ink on paper. My group agreed that the space exuded a Zen feeling, but I was also struck with the sheer physicality of the calligraphy before my eyes. For a group of digital artists, teamLab’s interest in materiality the physical manifestation of materials and objects is palpable.
Among the most spectacular immersive installations are some smaller-scale works that more closely mirror traditional conceptions of art. I spent a long time gazing at “Impermanent Life,” a digital art work presented on four screens. Consisting of thousands of images of cherry blossoms, the leaves constantly change to create a perpetually shifting image, encapsulating the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, an aesthetic centered on the acceptance of impermanence.
Another more ”static” piece of digital art, a snarling tiger, takes its shape from small gold and silver squares reminiscent of painting on traditional Japanese folding screens. These works are among those that museums and galleries have recently purchased; the software is available in small editions of about 10. Given the nature of the artwork, long-term preservation is a challenge and teamLab has also set up a separate entity to ensure that the artwork can be adapted for future operating systems, enabling it to be kept in perpetuity.
While the whole of teamLab Borderless is appropriate for visitors of all ages, the second floor, “Athletics Forest,” an area designed to encourage the brain to expand through physical activity, is especially suitable for children. It features climbing frames, drawing stations and a solar system-inspired trampoline.
If visitors need some sustenance before this mental and physical workout, they can enter the En Tea House. Unfortunately it was not yet open on the day I visited, but Ikkan-san explained that as visitors drink their tea, seasonal flowers, projected from above, appear in the bottom of the bowl. Once the tea has been drunk, the projector senses that the liquid is finished, and the artwork disappears.
teamLab Borderless is an ambitious and ground-breaking project that clearly has an eye to changing the map of ”must see” museums in Tokyo. I can imagine that visitors arriving in Japan for the 2020 Olympics may well make this museum a priority, and flawless English interpretation adds to its international appeal. My own feeling is that while teamLab has created room after room of installations that make visitors marvel, its real achievement is creating a museum that encourages visitors to think about the place of technology and human intervention in the natural world. On the day I visited, I spotted many young technicians scattered around the museum, doing last-minute checks with laptops — a reminder that, for better or worse, so much of the world around us is controlled from behind computer screens.
At the Mori Building Digital Art Museum, teamLab has created a digital universe and invited visitors to become masters of it. “Wander, Explore, Discover” is more than a suggestion; it is a promise.
MORI Building DIGITAL ART MUSEUM
Address : Odaiba Palette Town, 1-3-8 Aomi, Koto-ku, Tokyo
Phone : +81 (0)3-6406-3949
Website : https://borderless.teamlab.art/
Closed : 2nd and 4th Tuesdays
Admission Fee : Adults (15 and over) JPY 3,200
Children 3-14 years old JPY 1,000 (under 3, free)
For more information (opening hours, admission policies etc): https://borderless.teamlab.art/