I’ve stood beneath waterfalls, scattered trails of petals, followed shoals of fish, wandered through rice fields, bounced on a galaxy of planets, surrounded myself with waves – and now my teacup is exploding with flowers.
Forget staring at a painting in a white-walled gallery. The world of art appreciation will receive a dynamic post-millennial jolt this month, with the launch of a new digital art museum in Tokyo.
Mori Building Digital Art Museum: teamLab Borderless, which opens June 21, fortunately has a concept which is a bit catchier than its name: the world’s first digital museum of its scope and scale, it’s a new generation showcase of immersive, interactive digital art created by teamLab, a fast-growing Tokyo collective of so-called “ultra technologists”.
As typhoon rains lashed Tokyo on Monday morning, I swapped grey skies and umbrella-snapping winds for a sneak preview of the new museum, housed in a sprawling former games arcade in Odaiba, near Tokyo Bay.
Spanning a spacious (and at times, disorientating) 10,000 square metres on two dark-walled levels, its statistics are as impressive as its installations: it’s home to 50 artworks loosely divided into five areas, orchestrated by a complex network of 520 computers and 470 high-tech projectors.
Before being let loose to explore, Toshiyuki Inoko, who founded teamLab with a handful of University of Tokyo friends in 2001 (it now has 400-plus staff and countless global exhibitions), offers a clue about its contents.
Standing before a distractingly vast waterfall, birds darting above his head and kanji tumbling from the sky, he says: “Time here changes constantly – the seasons and flower forests are always changing. Scenery is linked to realtime. It exists now but you’ll never be able to see it exactly the same way again. It is a completely new world.”
He adds: “There’s no direction. Just wander and explore with your own body. Discover your own pathway and find something new.”
It’s a refreshing approach, particularly in Japan, where art institutions are normally bound by countless rules enforced by eagle-eyed attendants – and so I wander a little aimlessly into the nearest corridor and follow a flower-strewn lion on a wall, who lets out a roar as I touch it, before petals flutter to the ground.
Spotting an opening, I wander though an unmarked black curtain and find myself in a square room with pounding drumbeats and a dazzlingly agile display of dozens of white spotlights.
Exiting another doorway, I am submerged in a flower forest, a hypnotic spectacle of red and yellow flowers tumbling endlessly from walls, with a string of box-like spaces containing panels of individual digital artworks, all of which move endlessly – from monochrome calligraphic strokes to intensively detailed organism-like forms.
The best spaces, however, are stumbled across almost accidentally – one is a seemingly endless rice field, in a constant state of flux, reflected infinitely in mirrors, complete with green lotus leaf-like “pods”, floating dandelions and passing fireflies.
Another is an angular space that encircles me with crashing Hokusai-style waves, a hypnotic sight that, like many of teamLab’s installations, is jaw-droppingly detailed, realistic and high quality.
Upstairs is a space guaranteed to become children’s nirvana: “Athletics Forest”, a sprawling, stimulating 3D haven which, according to Inoko, was scientifically designed to promote the growth of the brain’s hippocampus.
For children, however, increasing their neurological capacity is likely to be the last thing on their minds as they explore a trampoline-like galaxy where you can create planets with every bounce; a slide with exploding fruit; flashing poles for boulder climbing; and vast rainbow-hued balloon-like structures that change colour on human contact.
Not to forget the centrepiece mountains and pools inhabited by toe-nibbling fish and reptiles (new additions can be drawn, scanned and then set free by children), and a space where children can create their own city. The biggest challenge likely to face parents? Getting their kids to leave.
After the intense sensory overload, it’s a relief to visit nearby En Tea House, a serene, minimal dark space that serves green tea in carefully positioned glass cups. The art show, however, continues here too: upon pouring the tea, I watch a flower bursts onto the surface, blooming dynamically before discarding techno-bright petals with every sip.
All in all, I admit I’m impressed. Whether it’s the future of art or not remains to be seen (two-dimensional paintings hanging in galleries are unlikely to disappear anytime soon). But the new museum undoubtedly highlights the dizzying scope of possibilities that can be explored – and experienced – through interactive, immersive technology.
For all its high-tech whizziness, I love how the artworks remain rooted in Japanese culture and aesthetics (traditional motifs such as cherry blossoms, woodblock-print waves, rice fields and calligraphic strokes are echoed throughout).
And amid the technological explorations, it somehow remains tethered to reality: when you touch a fluttering butterfly, it promptly dies – while a small fish drawn by a child before being scanned and dropped into an artwork may well get gobbled up by a bigger creature.
I also realise later, while scrolling through my iPhone, that it’s nearly impossible to capture the experience on screen: my videos feels flat and flashy compared to the magic of the realtime moment.
And this is perhaps the point. As Inoko says while explaining the “borderless” concept: “This is what the real world is like. We want visitors to get lost rather than follow the order.”
Mori Building Digital Art Museum: teamLab Borderless opens June 21. For more info: borderless.teamlab.art