Standing in front of the largest work at the Dojima River Biennale, currently showing at the Dojima River Forum in Fukushima, Osaka, is a mesmerizing experience. A 10-meter-tall digital projection of an ethereal cascading waterfall, it glows mysteriously as its gentle rumbling permeates the dimly lit space.
“This is by teamLab, a group that combines scientists, designers and architects,” explained the curator Rudy Tseng at the biennale opening on July 19, as onlookers marveled at the intricate computer-generated detail of “Universe of Water Particles.”
By digitally simulating a waterfall at a resolution five times that of full HD, then calculating the movements of the smallest particles of water and using just 0.1 percent of the simulation for the installation, teamLab takes this year’s biennale theme of “Little Water” literally. And by magnifying that 0.1 percent to massive proportions, it also emphasizes the underlying premise of Tseng’s curation — the vast significance of water in life.
“The first time I visited here, I saw the view of the (Dojima) river and was inspired by it,” says Tseng, the Taiwanese collector-curator. “So I thought I should develop a theme (based on the river), that would follow the last biennale’s of “Ecology and Philosophy.”
As such, “Little Water,” the third Dojima River Biennale, is an eclectic collection of paintings, installations, video, photography and multimedia, split into various sub-themes ranging from the ecological and spiritual to the physical and functional. It’s designed to appeal to a wide audience, Tseng explained, but as an influential collector for more than 25 years, and a respected authority on Asian art, it’s the curator’s personal touch that gives the show added impetus.
Many of the works were chosen via friends and connections that Tseng has made over the past five to six years of visiting exhibitions and artists across the world, and the emphasis is on Asia, including works from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, China, Indonesia and India.
Historical tensions and political and geographical borders of nations are often explored, such as in Aditya Novali’s “Identifying Indonesia Series,” which invites visitors to engage with his background by pressing buttons and flipping switches of the works. When the button is pushed on “The Chaos” — a map of Indonesia floating in a container of water — air shoots up inside to toss all its parts into a jumbled mess, a reflection of the nation’s diverse ethnic groups and its disrupted history of colonialism and rebellion.
On a more spiritual level, Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s video “The Class,” takes viewers on a meditative journey, as she positions them as members of her “class” of deceased, unclaimed bodies. Washed, cleansed and gently laid out, the bodies listen as she gives a seminar on the process and meaning of death, writing their silent responses to her questions on a blackboard behind her.
Other works, whose associations to water appear direct or physical, ask for more playful interpretation. Luxembourg-based Su-Mei Tse’s “Les Trois Sages (The Three Sages),” for example, is a quirky installation of three potted Old Man Cacti, their hairs teased out in Einstein-like fashion. As plants that can survive on minimum water, they appear as folkloric wise creatures urging us to respect and conserve our natural resources.
Teppei Kaneuji’s bizarre sculpture of everyday objects dripping in white emulsion, coffee-stained stuffed-animal installation and smudged felt-tip drawings are amusing experimentations of liquid viscosity, stains and ink bleeds, the products of an absurd desire to create permanence from the “formless.” Similarly Lyota Yagi’s “Vinyl” ice records highlight the physical properties of water, as they gradually melt on the turntable, distorting and skipping through renditions of Debussy, Chopin and Henry Mancini’s apt “Moon River.”
There’s a refreshing multidisciplinary approach here that embraces a diverse group of creators. This allows for thoughtful works by Wolfgang Laib, who trained as a doctor before becoming an artist; Teng Chao-Ming, an electronic-engineering major who moved on to media arts at MIT; as well as teamLab’s group of programmers, engineers, mathematicians, architects, designers and CG animators.
Even the exhibition space itself has been informed by Tseng’s theme. Noiz Architects’ partitions, whose corners are angled at more than 90 degrees, take inspiration from the 104.4 degree bond-angle of the H20 molecule (a tetrahedron between hydrogen and oxygen atoms).
Seen from above, the structure is reminiscent of microscopic cell patterns, bringing some order to the multifariousness of works — the only possible way to effectively reflect the diversity and essentiality of water’s role in life.
“The Dojima River Biennale 2013: Little Water” at the Dojima River Forum, Osaka, runs till Aug. 18; open daily 11 a.m.-7 p.m. ¥1,000. www.dojimariver.com/topics/biennale2013.html