FIVE Immersive Exhibitions Question Our Concept of Art & Space
Imagine a space where the boundaries between reality and imagination, nature and artifice, art and life do not exist anymore. A space where also the limits between the visitor and the work of art become blurred and ambiguous, where you can feel, with your body, as an integral part of the artwork itself. This is the borderless world that the Japanese art collective teamLab creates. A world that could be contained within the rooms of a museum but where there is not a pre-established path, where the works can freely leave the walls, interacting with each other. A world where the only rule to follow is the sovereignty of wonder.
Founded in Tokyo in 2001 by the Japanese engineer Toshiyuki Inoko, the digital art collective creates artworks which focus on nature, art, and technology. They investigate the relation between human beings and nature, leveraging the most advanced technology. It is not a casualty that they label themselves with the definition of “ultra-technologists”: their experimental art project takes the form of a sci-fi laboratory.
TeamLab does not create just artworks, it completely transforms vast and complex spaces, also questioning the rigidity of our traditional museum. It is impossible to be indifferent to their site-specific installations: while moving across them, you forget being in a museum, you are floating in an unknown space! That is why the art collective is more known for creating true visionary and immersive museums, rather than single works. In a teamLab exhibition, artworks are not separated by a frame or a wall, they flow in a flux, simultaneously or in sequence. Multiple artworks are fused together, creating a physical bond between them. The result is that the spectator, surrounded by them, feels part of a sparkling, explorable, involving, embrace.
In this article we will discover this new kind of Japanese Art, which makes us question the role of our ordinary museums. No, in teamLab installations you cannot stand in front of a single painting in religious contemplation, as you can do with a Renaissance masterpiece. You must be ready to face dynamism, light effects, motion and multi-layered spaces. You have to be ready to take back your nature as a human being, to be pushed to move your body, to explore, see, and think new things. Let us try to navigate in this world where time and space are just meaningless concepts.
1) TeamLab Borderless Museum of Tokyo: Limits Do Not Exist
In 2018, the pioneering collective opened its permanent digital art museum in Odaiba, Tokyo, called the Mori Building Digital Art Museum: teamLab Borderless. Divided in 5 different ideal spaces, it displays 50 digital artworks that seem to our eyes blended together: rooms full of screens with technicolor lights, sunflowers and expanses of blooming flowers, digital evanescent butterflies, chambers stuffed with upside down lamps. An imaginative world obtained with the help of digital technology and graphic design.
The success was incredible, and it exceeded all expectations: just in the inaugural year, 2.3 million of international visitors went to the Japanese capital to see the permanent exhibition and more than one million visited the temporary one. Teamlab's colorful universe of light in Mori Building soon became the most visited single-artist museum of the year. It even surpasses museums dedicated to art superstars, like the Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam. Represented by Pace Art Gallery, teamLab’s projects have landed in the USA, too, as it confirms the experiment of Pace Art Technology in California. How to sell collective, giant and site-specific installations is still an unresolved issue.
But which are the reasons for this unbelievable, worldwide interest for contemporary arts? Well, teamLab artworks at Borderless Museum are immersive and colorful installations. They offer people a unique physical experiences with great aesthetic impact.
The 10,000 square meter venue is a world where spectators can aimlessly wander. Most of all, teamLab created it to connect with each other. Their installations are designed to become more complex and surprising as more people witness them. In the artwork Tea House, you have the opportunity to sip with other visitors a cup of tea full of digital flowers, or in Forest of Lamps, where “trees” light up when a person stands near a lamp, spreading light just like the space was full. The resonating lamps, made of Murano glass, transmit the color to other lamps, creating a participatory and dynamic installation, activated by people in the room. It shows a new concept of art and light, that adapts according to human’s interactions and movements, and not vice versa.
In teamLab experimentations, you have the responsibility to transform an ordinary museum in an incredible space for everyone. And you can do it just with the help of other visitors like you. The Japanese Art Collective believes in the creative power of cooperation and community. Like one of their artworks states, we co-create the world together, overcoming our limits and preconceptions and erasing the borders which divide us.
2) TeamLab Planets Tokyo: Where You Can Walk Through Water
In the summer 2018, in the same period of the inauguration of the digital art museum, teamLab offered people in Tokyo another unique experience. Teamlab Planets Tokyo is a temporary art exhibition (2018-2022) where visitors could immerse in art with all their body. Entering the museum barefoot, people are totally immersed in the space, interacting with each other, and experimenting seven indoor installations. They could walk through water in drawing on the water surface created by the dance of koi and people – infinity, where they are invited to stroll knee-high in a virtual pool, full of fishes and colorful traces. Of course, everything changes depending on the visitor’s own movements, and the iconic koi carps could collide with them. Using the digital technology of sensors and rendered computer art, the Japanese art collective creates an artwork that is always mutable, always in progress.
In the same exhibition, you can also explore a real cascade of light, inspired by the natural waterfall in the mountains of Shikoku. The natural world is mixed with the artificial one, and the result is a luminous flow of virtual water in the darkness of the hall, that visitors can climb.
In teamLab Planets Tokyo also the Infinite Crystal universe is a particularly impressive artwork: a radiant room, made of infinitesimally small light points, capable of creating tridimensional effects. Visitors are invited to select specific elements of this crystalized universe using their smartphones. The whole exhibition is in continuous transformation, in an evolution based on people’s desires. Teamlab creates a planet where everyone could find their sparkling space.
3) TeamLab Borderless Museum of Shanghai: Everything Flows
Another permanent museum of art and digital entertainment by teamLab opened in Shanghai in 2019. Similar to the Borderless Museum of Tokyo, the Shanghai one is a single continuous world, where all arbitrary boundaries are abolished. The relationship between artwork and visitor is once again challenged. In this exhibition, the Japanese art collective focuses on the natural cycle of growth and decay, which involves everyone. In a room full of digital flowers, the cycle of blossom continues repeating itself, unless visitors decide to touch them. In this case, petals scatter and fade away in the valley, giving a sense of beauty and ephemerality. On the contrary, in the same space there are also monumental megaliths of light, all connected between them. The changes in these colossal ruins are imperceptible, but they exist.
The cycle of seasons and life is rendered by teamLab through digital technology, remembering us the perpetuity but also the fragility of nature and our ecosystem.
4) Future Park: Where Creativity Can Be Learned
TeamLab is not just involved in art exhibitions and museums. One of the most compelling urges of the art collective regards education. Future Park is an amusement park and educational project created specifically for children who want to learn, play, and experiment with what co-creation is. This purpose is at the basis of teamLab’s research and art practice; the idea of promoting a proactive rather than passive fruition of art also passes through the education of younger generations. Artists in Future Park question the educational system of Japan and its usefulness for the future: if the jobs of today will be replaced by artificial intelligence and machinery, how will the humans of tomorrow learn, work, and grow? Which skills will they need to have? Through rendered flights, slides of lights, mirrored floors, privileged observatory spaces, and other luminous installations, teamLab tries to improve the collaborative creativity of kids. They prepare them for a new, always changing, life.
5) TeamLab Forest: Where Reality Surpasses Imagination
One of the most recent permanent exhibitions of the Japanese art collective takes place in the city of Fukuoka. Inaugurated in 2020, the new digital art museum is all about the topic of the forest. Visitors can reconnect to their primordial human instinct as hunters, “hunting” virtual animals through a smartphone app. They also experiment, as if in a dreamlike videogame, with physical efforts, jumping on spinning, animated, spheres. Also, the hypnotical Weightless Forest can give you the feeling of embarking on a crazy adventure: a room stuffed by illuminated balloons, floating or attached to the ground, which change colors -and sounds- in your passage.
TeamLab creates authentic synesthetic experiences, but it is important to highlight that their art, even if strikingly beautiful, is not just an instagrammable game for tourists. In a world full of arbitrary borders, the Japanese collective pursues an alternative: a borderless world where it is impossible to distinguish the art from the space where it is created, the individual self from the crowd of “the others”. All is a continuum. Rethinking the frontiers of beauty, teamLab wants to also rethink our values of community and our behaviors as human beings. All with the magic wand of light and technology.
Cinzia Franceschini is an Italian Art Historian specialized in History of Art Criticism, with a second degree in Communication and Sociology. She studied in Padua, Brussels, Turin and wherever you can go with the power of the Internet. She works as guide in Museum Education Departments and as a freelance writer. She writes about Contemporary Arts and Social Sciences, mostly about them at the same time, in an inclusive, feminist, transnational perspective.