It’s the day after its public opening on July 21 and teamLab’s latest major spectacle, a new museum of interactive digital installations in Fukuoka, is oddly quiet.
The art collective’s installations are known worldwide for attracting throngs of visitors eager to chase moving digital imagery, interact with exhibits and linger over a profusion of colors, lights and sounds. Today, though, there are only small groups of families, couples and friends, all masked and far apart enough to avoid the possible spread of COVID-19 — and any accidental photobombing.
Located on the fifth floor of Boss E Zo Fukuoka, a new multipurpose entertainment complex, the indoor “forest” of large-scale exhibits, officially titled teamLab Forest Fukuoka — SBI Securities Co., Ltd, is the art collective’s second permanent indoor museum in Japan after teamLab Borderless in Tokyo’s Odaiba area. At thousands of square meters, it’s vast and includes seven brand new installations, but much like other on-site exhibitions and entertainment, it hasn’t escaped repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have had to control the space’s capacity and reduce the number of people allowed inside with time slots, so they can socially distance themselves, and, of course, there’s plenty of hand sanitizer,” says Asia Regional Director Takuya Takei. “Visitors also have to book tickets in advance and have their temperatures taken, not just to get into this exhibition but to get into any of the complex’s facilities.”
Similar safety measures, he adds, were already in place at teamLab Borderless and “teamLab Planets” in Tokyo, with a few of the venues’ less spacious exhibits temporarily closed to the public and ticket refunds offered to those unable to visit due to illness.
As an extra precaution at teamLab Forest Fukuoka, the walls on which visitors can touch rainbow-colored animals and sea creatures to make the figures roar, grunt, squawk and change color, have been painted with an antimicrobial coating. But it’s a new smartphone app that adds an extra dimension to enjoying the Fukuoka exhibits in an even safer manner.
Visitors can aim their phone’s camera at a wandering creature and “capture” it by shooting it with a digital arrow. The figure will then fade from the wall and reappear in the app with detailed information about its real-life counterpart. You can then add the creature’s image to a picture album before releasing it, unharmed, back into the wild. With 32 forest animals to collect, as well as 27 sea creatures that can be caught by casting a luminous digital net onto the floor, it’s similar to playing Pokemon Go, except, here, it’s educational and augmented reality interacts with real surroundings.
“When we came up with this idea for the ‘Catching and Collecting Forest’ section of the exhibition, there was no COVID-19 situation, but since the pandemic started, it has become relevant,” Takei says. “Some visitors may not want to touch the walls now, but with this new technology they can interact with their phones instead and still change the imagery around them.”
Other teamLab Forest Fukuoka exhibits, like most of the art collective’s works, are better enjoyed with a little distance between visitors, anyway. “Athletics Forest,” the second section of the museum inspired by various terrain, offers activities designed to stimulate the senses with light exercise challenges, trompe l’oeil visuals, unusual sounds and uneven flooring. It includes a room filled with squishy balls that seem to spin as you bounce across them, an undulating trampoline that disperses images of soil particles, and musical cushioned stepping stones spanning a digital sea of magnified microorganisms.
The largest space in “Athletics Forest” — a rolling landscape with animals composed of flowers roaming the walls and floor — runs through a cycle of imagery where blooms wilt when stepped on, only to slowly rejuvenate later. During another projection cycle of the room, visitors’ movements change the course of water droplets as they cascade down pillars like waterfalls and spill across the floor. Here, a prism-shaped chromatic corridor leads to the finale: a room of giant floating luminescent balloons that change color when nudged and drift around visitors thanks to a gentle whirlwind generated by tall fans.
A 90-minute drive away from teamLab Forest Fukuoka is another teamLab exhibition at Mifuneyama Rakuen in Saga Prefecture. With 21 installations dotted around its 500,000-square-meter garden and the adjacent Mifuneyama Rakuen hotel, “teamLab: A Forest Where Gods Live” is perhaps even more suited to visitors wanting to socially distance.
First opened in 2015, the outdoor works, which are viewable in the evenings from summer through autumn, use light projections and motion sensors to draw attention to and enhance the park’s natural scenery with resonating light shows, atmospheric sounds and vibrant moving images. It takes well over an hour of exercise to walk the terrain and take in all the works, which range from a pond filled with lively glowing carp to mysterious apparitions of Japanese calligraphy on rock formations.
“The Forest Fukuoka museum is based on an educational concept, whereas ‘teamLab: Forest Where Gods Live’ is purely art,” says teamLab founder Toshiyuki Inoko. “We’ve always had artistic and educational projects, and they were purposely separate kinds of enterprises.”
Underlying all teamLab’s works, however, is a desire to create artistic experiences for visitors.
“The act of seeing animals and catching them in the Fukuoka museum is something that people in cities usually can’t experience, so we wanted to create that for them,” Inoko says. “You can view these installations on YouTube, and perhaps you can read information about them to try to understand them — but you won’t fully perceive them. To do that, you have to experience them through your own body.”
It’s such experiences that Inoko stresses can be important during these uncertain times.
“I agree that right now, art is less of a priority for people,” he says. “But culture offers the alleviation people need when they find themselves facing situations that humanity cannot solve. It’s the reason art exists, it’s raison d’etre.”
As an example, he talks in detail about “Massless Clouds Between Sculpture and Life,” a teamLab multimedia installation that he was working on in Macao when COVID-19 began to enter the news cycle.
“Humans have always tried to defy the law of entropy, the universe’s tendency toward disorder that eventually leads to death. I wanted to create something that explores a new relationship between humans and the world,” he says. “When the clouds in this work are broken apart, they automatically reform. They behave like they are living, but are not — making it something between the living and inanimate, or life and death.
“The clouds also appear to spontaneously emerge from a sea of clouds below, but after an hour they inevitably disappear naturally. So there is also a cycle of life — from birth to death. When I heard about the pandemic, I was worried, but as I stood inside this artwork we were creating, I felt some relief. It may be an Asian way of thinking, but for me, to be within that continuous cycle and to experience a state between the living and nonliving, made me less afraid, even of death.”
COVID-19 may have slowed down some of teamLab’s projects, but it hasn’t curbed the art collective’s enthusiasm to keep creating.
“Throughout history, civilizations have faced pandemics. Humanity, however, continued to want art and always believed in art,” Inoko says. “Even though we are facing COVID-19 now, and people are perhaps refraining from visiting exhibitions, in time, we will still look for and need art.”
Turn your home into a digital museum
On Aug. 2, the teamLab art collective launched an interactive project aimed at viewers who would prefer to enjoy digital installations in the comfort of their own homes.
“Flowers Bombing Home,” viewable on YouTube Live, features a drifting melange of blooms that burst into slow-motion torrents of petals that leave trails of color across the screen. Set to soothing piano melodies, the continually morphing imagery is impressive, even more so because all the flowers are digital renderings of pictures created by the public.
“We had the idea for this project before COVID-19, but actually started it when the pandemic resulted in our team working from home,” says teamLab communications director Takashi Kudo. “Since we were physically separated, we wanted something to help us feel more connected to each other.”
To participate, visit the “Flowers Bombing Home” website and download a flower template. There are five blooms to choose from — geranium, globe thistle, balloon flower, great willowherb and calypso orchid — with more planned for the future. Print out the illustration to color it in on paper, or paint it digitally with an image-editing app. Next, take a photo of the drawing with a smartphone, or save it as a JPEG, and upload it to the teamLab website. To see the drawing transform into digital art, click “View Artwork” and watch your creation blossom in real-time via the teamLab Art YouTube channel. Other participants’ completed drawings can also be seen on the teamLab website.
“If you are lucky, you will see your flower again later,” says Kudo, who adds that viewers can also watch previous sections of the feed. Participants can upload as many new flowers as they like, and the YouTube livestream will continue for as long as COVID-19 is a concern.
For more information about “Flowers Blooming Home,” visit flowers-bombing-home.teamlab.art.