Meet the international art collective pushing the boundaries of creativity and tech
If you need an analogy for what the art collective teamLab seeks to do with its vast immersive installations, Takashi Kudo has a nice one up his sleeve. ‘Every spring in Japan we have cherry-blossom season, or Sakura,’ he explains. ‘For hundreds and hundreds of years, we Japanese have sat down, drunk some sake and said, “This year is the best Sakura ever.” Even if it’s just like the last one, we always think this year’s is the best.’
For Takashi, who is the Tokyo-based collective’s communications director, the Japanese cherry-blossom season is the perfect example of how the natural world manages repeatedly to surprise us and offer up unique experiences to every individual person who comes into contact with it. And it’s exactly this effect that teamLab hopes to achieve.
The collective was set up in Tokyo in 2001 and right from the outset was composed of an interdisciplinary team of specialists, combining technological and creative skill sets, bringing science and art together. Today, the collective is made up of hundreds of specialists, ranging from programmers and engineers to architects and CGI animators. It is represented by one of the world’s biggest commercial galleries, Pace, and has permanent exhibitions running in Tokyo, Shanghai and Macao. Over the past couple of decades, teamLab artworks have been shown in Sydney, New York, Istanbul, San Francisco and Helsinki, to name just a few. Having emerged as an unconventional player, it has now hit the art-world stratosphere.
While it has created a vast array of artistic outputs over the years, teamLab is undoubtedly best known for its large-scale immersive installations, in which viewers become active participants, moving around the space and interacting with their surroundings. You might take a step across the gallery floor and find that flowers have just bloomed under your feet, or you might hold out your hand and change the course of a highly realistic waterfall.
The effect you experience of walking through an environment that is both alive and mutable is created through the use of some highly complicated tech. The permanent exhibition, teamLab Borderless Tokyo, makes use of 470 high-resolution light projectors, supported by motion sensors. This is why Takashi says, ‘We are painters but at the same time we’re inventors as well. Using technology, we have to create the paint, the easel and the canvas by ourselves, because they don’t exist in the world.’
Yet although teamLab operates at the cutting edge of modern technologies – whether that be imaging, animation or body-tracking – the collective is also in dialogue with some surprisingly ancient forebears. ‘Japanese and Asian artworks are often very connected to a particular space,’ says Takashi. ‘Artists are drawing on a door or a scroll or a bowl.’ He cites Yabu Meizan, a nineteenth-century artist renowned for painting crowds of characters and beautiful scenes on porcelain vases and bowls. ‘There is no perspective in these drawings; there is no vanishing point,’ Takashi explains. ‘And yet you still feel the depth.’
This traditional style of Japanese ‘perspectiveless’ drawing provides an interesting lens through which to study the collective’s work. Take as an example teamLab Borderless, a museum comprising over 60 artworks that intermingle with one another. There is no single perspective through which any of these artworks was made and so there is no single way to experience them. Takashi compares this to cinema, the epitome of an artform that relies on one point of view: the camera. ‘The movie binds our bodies,’ he explains. ‘You go to the cinema and for two hours you have to sit down in a particular place to see it, because it was shot through the perspective of a camera. But if there is no vanishing point, we can walk inside the space. It doesn’t bind our bodies in the same way.’
It might all sound a bit conceptual, but it truly holds the key to teamLab’s popularity and success. The fact that you, as a viewer, are able to move around within the installation and interact with it means that your experience of the artwork is totally personal. Like the Sakura e ach spring, each exploration of the artwork is unique to each new person stepping through the door.
In the social-media age, this has tapped into culturally engaged users’ desire for unique (and stunning) visual content. ‘We’re quite open to people sharing pictures, because it’s never the same visuals,’ says Takashi. ‘It’s like free advertisement for us.’ The hundreds of thousands of posts on Instagram depicting people walking around teamLab installations all over the world are testament to that.
There have, however, been a lot fewer of these posts over the past 18 months. Like a live-music show or theatrical performance, a teamLab installation is an experience that really needs to be experienced live in a physical space. As such, many were put on hold during the worst months of the pandemic. That is now very much a thing of the past. Behind Takashi in teamLab’s Tokyo office there are dozens of technologists and creatives hard at work. The collective has major shows coming up in Geneva, Shanghai, New York and Utrecht (and these are just the ones the team can tell us about).
When you add to that the list of cities in which teamLab already has ongoing exhibitions (from San Francisco, Miami and New York to Taipei, Macao and Singapore), you start to understand just how much of a global cultural force the collective has become from its beginnings in Tokyo 20 years ago. However, Takashi and his colleagues aren’t even sure what they’re doing can be classified as art yet. ‘We still don’t know if we’re creating art or not,’ he says, with a smile and a nonchalant shrug. ‘Only history can decide that.’
What he and the rest of the teamLab collective care much more about is the role they can play in the 21st-century world. ‘We try to bring people together in the same physical space,’ he says, boiling down the collective’s mission. ‘After Covid, it seems like a ton of people are divided. But division never solved any problems. We have to be connected. Humans aren’t independent or isolated creatures; we’re social creatures.’ That’s why the hundreds-strong teamLab team spends its days programming complex new installations and immersive artworks, looking for something universal that touches our shared humanity and cuts across nationality, language, race, religion and creed. Or, as Takashi puts it: ‘We try to create something that we cannot explain with words.’