Osaka – In his 1906 text “The Book of Tea,” Meiji Era intellectual Okakura Kakuzo interprets pan-Asian thought for Western readers. Writing in English, he declares: “The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings.”
These words seem apt when visiting “Teamlab: Tea Time in the Soy Sauce Storehouse,” the latest work from digital art collective teamLab, which will run through March 2022. Like much of teamLab’s creative output, “Teamlab: Tea Time’’ relies on how visitors react to the environment they create.
The work is an experimental 14-seat tea room built into the basement of Fukuoka Shoyu Gallery, a storehouse from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) that’s located in downtown Okayama. Inside, glass lanterns slowly pulse red while mirrored walls and pools of water reflect light in every direction, turning the tiny space into a cosmic womb — both intimate and infinite. Tea is poured into a glass, which glows white, pulsing to a tempo of its own. If left alone, the pulses of both glass and room will synchronize. Take a sip, however, and the pulse from the glass changes color and tempo. Uniformity collapses and the cycle of spontaneous order begins anew.
Entropy and synchrony. Order and disorder. You don’t have to look far to find parallels in nature and society. From ant colonies to the stock market, our world is an endless series of patterns that merge and break apart, only to merge and break apart again. In other words, everything is constantly readjusting to its surroundings. Is there a better analogy for art, life and the work of teamLab?
There are more than 30 permanent teamLab installations across Asia, with other installations in places such as New York, Barcelona and Riyadh. The collective’s work is often referred to as “immersive art,” and for good reason. Unlike a painting or sculpture, you do not simply stand in front of a teamLab creation — you step into it. Furthermore, how you interact with the artwork often influences what you see or hear next. Some pieces take immersion to literal extremes. For example, at teamLab Reconnect, which opened March 22 in Roppongi (but is currently closed due to Tokyo’s COVID-19-related state of emergency), visitors don swimsuits to enter an exhibit that utilizes mist, saunas and cold water baths.
By comparison, “Teamlab: Tea Time” is a simpler production but no less impactful. According to Toshiyuki Inoko, teamLab’s co-founder and frequent spokesman, both shows share similar themes.
“I wanted visitors to see that there are no boundaries between us and nature,” he explains as he sips a coffee in an office space at the venue. Sitting next to him is entrepreneur and collector Yasuharu Ishikawa, an Okayama native and long-time patron of teamLab projects, including this one.
Reminiscing on the collective’s 20th anniversary, Inoko explains that success was not easy — or expected. In fact, teamLab’s work rarely made it out of its commercial offices in Tokyo before artist Takashi Murakami first visited in 2011. A heavyweight in the world of contemporary art, Murakami invited teamLab to show at his Kaikai KiKi Gallery in Taipei. This “debut,” as Inoko puts it, opened the group’s eyes to global possibilities.
When considering other important turning points, Inoko nods to Ishikawa. He helped fund “A Forest Where the Gods Live,” a massive outdoor show in Saga Prefecture’s Mifuneyama Rakuen Park in 2018-19, which helped teamLab think on a new scale unbound by the limits of an indoor space.
Still, some of the more consequential milestones of teamLab’s 20-year existence happened around 2014. That was the year the collective signed with Pace, a blue-chip gallery representing artists such as Julian Schnabel, Lee Ufan and David Byrne. Just as significantly, earlier that year Inoko had formulated a business model that soon made the global art scene do some readjusting of its own.
“Normally, to sell art you must go through a gallery,” Inoko explains, “but in this case, I did it on my own.” He and teamLab rented the space, organized the show and arranged for tickets to be sold. The exhibition topped 500,000 visitors, shattering attendance predictions and forging a new way for artists and gallerists around the world to fund future projects.
Marc Glimcher, the CEO of Pace Gallery, did not immediately embrace the new strategy. Up until then, selling tickets was what you did at a museum — not a gallery. Yet the teamLab founders pressed the gallery to charge admission. Why rely solely on wealthy collectors, they asked, when people will happily pay for the experience? Eventually, Pace acquiesced, and right on time. The demand for immersive art skyrocketed worldwide, with industry observers postulating a consumer shift toward experiences over objects.
Now Glimcher has cofounded Superblue, an experimental art company that will specialize in immersive art. Its inaugural show, which will take place at Superblue’s new 50,000-square-foot warehouse space in Miami, will feature debut work from teamLab, Es Devlin, James Turrell and a kinetic installation by Studio Drift.
“I want (visitors) to be active participants in the work,” Inoko says. Ishikawa agrees, adding, “The relationship between artist and viewer changes. They are now making art together.”
This gets to the heart of why teamLab’s work is so popular: The act of creative collaboration feels good. It triggers the brain’s reward centers, releasing “happy hormones” like dopamine and serotonin. This is not lost on Glimcher, either. While promoting Superblue to the Miami Herald last month, he said: “We’re in the serotonin business here.” Business, it seems, is good. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, teamLab has multiple new projects in the works. In addition to Superblue this spring, there are new shows planned in China, Europe, the United States and, of course, Japan.
This year also marks the 10th anniversary of Cool Japan, the government’s attempt at marketing Japanese culture overseas in an effort to boost business and tourism. With its frequent use of koi fish, taiko drums and cherry blossom motifs, does teamLab feel an obligation to promote the homeland?
“Not at all,” Inoko says with a laugh. “I was born in the countryside, so these things are just part of my childhood.” However, he points out that he enjoys drawing people out of Tokyo to see new work.
As for the next 20 years of teamLab, Inoko seems as mystified about the future as anyone. The discussion turns to non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a trendy new movement straddling the line between art and technology in which people buy the rights to digital artwork. At first, he seems dismissive, but a moment later returns to the topic to clarify.
“The technology is interesting, but much of it seems to be about ownership,” he says, looking me in the eye. “I’m not interested in selling this edition or that edition. I just want everyone to experience something meaningful.”
“Teamlab: Tea Time in the Soy Sauce Storehouse” takes place at the Fukuoka Shoyu Gallery in Okayama until March 2022. For more information, visit teamlab.art.
Revitilization through art and culture
The venue for teamLab’s “Teamlab: Tea Time in the Soy Sauce Storehouse” is a 150-year-old storehouse near Okayama’s famous Koraku-en garden. The building was set for demolition, so Yasuharu Ishikawa bought the property and spent years refurbishing it. Now he owns Okayama’s most promising new gallery and cultural hub.
This is just one of his ideas for revitalizing the prefecture through art and other cultural ventures. As an avid collector and patron of the arts, Ishikawa is in good company in Okayama. In nearby Kurashiki, Magosaburo Ohara opened Japan’s first permanent collection of Western art in 1930. More recently, the Fukutake family of Benesse Holdings funds the Setouchi Triennale and other art ventures in the region. Ishikawa wants to follow in their footsteps, with plans for a museum, a third installment of the Okayama Art Summit and other initiatives such as the A&A Project, which pairs architects with contemporary artists to collaborate on hotel construction in the prefecture.
“I’m not interested in owning a Picasso, Monet or other artists who have long since passed,” he says. “Spending millions in the secondary market doesn’t interest me. I’m seeking new work with new ideas and perspectives.” When asked about tips for novice collectors, he considers for a moment before replying: “Don’t just buy work you like immediately. Seek the opinions of experts.”
Despite the global setbacks brought on by COVID-19, Ishikawa seems optimistic about art’s post-pandemic future. For example, he predicts galleries may begin to venture outside. “People tire of the white cube,” he explains, adding that openings could move to a beach or riverbanks.
He loves the new artist-led business model advocated by teamLab, and sees a chance to dissolve the ossified hierarchy practiced in galleries and museums and bestow more autonomy on the artists themselves. “Perhaps the entire concept of a curator could begin to disappear.”
For more information, visit the Ishikawa Foundation.
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