teamLab’s new show at ArtScience a bold vision of fine art in digital age

Installations Crystal Universe (above) and Media Block Chair (left).
Installations Crystal Universe (above) and Media Block Chair.ST PHOTOS: ONG WEE JIN
Installations Crystal Universe (above) and Media Block Chair (left).
Installations Crystal Universe and Media Block Chair (above).ST PHOTOS: ONG WEE JIN

ArtScience Museum's new permanent show of digital art is big on the play element

REVIEW / ART

FUTURE WORLD: WHERE ART MEETS SCIENCE

ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands

The woman rises from her wheelchair, shuffles towards the wall then turns around to face her camera-toting companion.

She is camouflaged by the projection of digitally rendered flowers, which bloom and scatter in the darkened gallery, but there is no missing the charmed smile she flashes.

A visitor to the new permanent exhibition, Future World at ArtScience Museum, her encounter with the kaleidoscopic installation, which you witness, is sparked by an F-word that is usually taboo for art in serious museums - fun.

The timeless, universal language of play is what animates the 15 multisensory digital works by art collective teamLab in the show, and it is a bold suggestion of how fine art can be experienced in a digital age with a mounting appetite for mobile games and social connection mediated by technology.

The 400-strong art collective from Japan, which includes animators, programmers, engineers and architects, was founded in 2001 by five friends who studied science and were interested in the intersection between art and science.

In recent years, it has become famous for its sophisticated high- tech works of digital art, including a 40m-long mural, animated in parts, at the iconic Tokyo Skytree complex.

  • VIEW IT / FUTURE WORLD: WHERE ART MEETS SCIENCE

  • WHERE: 6 Bayfront Avenue, ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands

    WHEN: 10am to 7pm daily

    ADMISSION: $17 (adult) and $10 (child), Singapore residents pay $14 (adult) and $7 (child)

Yet anyone, regardless of age and technological savvy, who has gazed at a star-speckled sky or dreamt up an imaginary world, will be able to identify with the sense of pure wonder and delight in teamLab's immersive works.

Crystal Universe uses more than 170,000 LED lights, strung floor- to-ceiling in a gallery, to create the illusion of seeing celestial stars in motion up close. To orchestrate the spellbinding display of astrophysical phenomena, the audience makes swipes on an electronic tablet.

In another installation, Create! Hopscotch For Geniuses, the audience plays hopscotch on a path designed using the electronic tablets provided. When the participant lands on the hopscotch tiles projected onto the floor, it sets off various effects on a screen hanging to the side, above eye-level.

Raindrops may fall, schools of iridescent fish could swim by and seedlings may grow rapidly into verdant trees. The lush, lyrical landscape is ever-changing and completely mesmerising.

It is a fitting match between ArtScience and teamLab as co-curators of the exhibition.

Both strive to captivate audiences by expressing the deep connection among art, science and innovation. Yet there are a few works in the show that are less successful at this and they end up becoming closer to edutainment tools.

The fibreglass light cubes in Media Block Chair, for example, are intended as building blocks for audiences to unleash their creativity. But being little more than large blocks which change colour each time they are joined, they fail to inspire excitement in the audience.

Still, the exhibition as a whole is no frothy, multimedia theme park. As eye-catching and playful as most of the works are, they are informed by deep thinking about art.

A key idea explored in the works is the notion of spatial perspective in traditional Japanese art.

Unlike Western Renaissance painting with its defined foreground and background and single vanishing point, the vantage point in Japanese handscroll paintings constantly shifts as the scroll unfurls and the pictorial space unfolds. This allows the viewer to navigate the pictorial space as if he were roaming freely within a 3D realm even though the painted scene appears flat.

teamLab pushes the envelope by exploring how this fluid pictorial space can be expressed as a logical structure, or what it calls "ultra- subjective space".

To do this, it works in reverse, creating 3D objects on a 3D plane before flattening them digitally to produce 2D images. If it all sounds tediously complex, the experience itself is hypnotic and sublime.

The installation 100 Years Sea Animation Diorama, made using this principle of ultra-subjective space, visualises rising sea levels in the future. The 20m-long screen brings to mind gold-leaf Japanese screens and the bold, flat lines of Japanese woodblock prints, but the 2D landscape evokes a sense of amorphous space where one is both swept along and submerged by rolling waves.

teamLab's work also challenges the conventional relationship between artist and audience and shows how digital art can resensitise people to human connections.

In The Story Of The Time When Gods Were Everywhere, the projection of Chinese hieroglyphs is incomplete unless the audience participates, touching the ancient words to transform them into the works of creation they represent - elements of nature such as water and fire.

Because a few hieroglyphs are projected at any one time and multiple participants can interact with the work, the interplay of their actions also creates open-ended possibilities for a rich pictorial narrative.

For all the complex concepts and technological know-how behind the cutting-edge installations, however, what makes this exhibition a keeper is its seriously fun art.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2016, with the headline 'Art gets seriously fun'. Print Edition | Subscribe