“Mama, are there real crocodiles here?” my 7-year-old asks, more curious than concerned.
Her question is perhaps not that far-fetched, given the dreamlike landscape that surrounds us. Ears are pricked by a layered soundtrack of tinkles and pings; sparkling grid-like lines slice tree canopies above our heads; calligraphic brush strokes float across a nearby wooden facade; and a rainbow spectrum of lights bounce off the surface of a pond.
And standing tall above it all, imprinted into the night sky, is the five-tiered form of a wooden pagoda sitting at the heart of a centuries-old temple in Kyoto where this scene — a playful balance of futuristic and historic — is unfolding (admittedly minus any live crocodiles).
Welcome to the latest sensory-tapping exhibition from teamLab, the art collective of self-described ultra-technologists who push creative boundaries at the intersection of art, technology, nature and high-tech fantasy, seducing a generation of kids (not to mention adults) in the process.
For children, there are perhaps few more naturally enchanting, stimulating and — in a nutshell — joyful experiences than the immersive dreamscapes teamLab brings to life.
It’s perhaps a child’s open-mindedness to explore the parameters of their own reality, combined with the full-body physicality of the exhibitions, that help them thrive in a teamLab environment. Plus, it no doubt helps that some artworks are scientifically designed to stimulate children’s brains — creating a higher-dimensional world of contained chaos, where they can feel and influence unique real-time experiences.
Fortunately for kids, a growing number of teamLab offerings are currently open across Japan, from Tokyo to Fukuoka, despite the limitations of the pandemic.
One recent hot Tuesday evening, my two daughters, aged 7 and 9, stay up late for an after-dark exploration of Kyoto’s Toji temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the setting of “teamLab: Digitized World Heritage Site of Toji — Tokio Inkarami.”
The temple, whose roots meander back to the eighth century, is the perfect backdrop for teamLab’s ongoing Digitized City art project, which taps into the idea of nonmaterial digital technology transforming buildings and spaces into immersive art — without leaving any physical imprint.
Passing beneath the ornate wood gates, the atmospheric setting instantly ticks all the “historic Kyoto” boxes, while a futuristic rainbow flicker of lights in distant treetops offers a hint of the teamLab fun about to unfold.
It kicks off with large egg-shaped ovoids scattered on the grounds, each swept with breath-like waves of light and sound upon human or natural contact, be it a child’s hand or a gust of wind.
The kids rush headfirst into the fray, bouncing from egg to egg, hugging, punching, stroking and, at times, talking to them (yes, really), as a rainbow spectrum of shades ebb and flow on their surfaces.
Next comes a sea of balls hovering above the ground, with similarly shifting shades and sounds, where we linger before the children spy what becomes their favorite attraction: more eggs, this time nestling close together, creating maze-like pathways — aka the “Forest of Autonomous Resonating Life.”
And so my kids disappear — again and again — into the softly cushioned forest of eggs, leaving a trail of excited cries and ever-flickering colors, while I stare at the calligraphic brush strokes appearing across the facade of a nearby temple building before glancing up at a grid-like wall of lights transecting nearby tree canopies.
Eventually extricating the girls from the egg forest, we continue along a pathway to another highlight: A pond lit up with floating lanterns of Venetian Murano glass, creating a kaleidoscopic light show on the water’s surface, each one shining bright and emitting a sound when people pass nearby. And rising above it all, without the need of any special effects, is the illuminated form of the pagoda, as timeless as it is dramatic.
At various points, I spy the kids, their minds clearly unfettered in the heart of the digital cosmos, gaze at the reflective water, hug an illuminated tree, talk to a slug (real, not an artwork), query the presence of crocodiles and earnestly discuss the logistics of how a mouse with a tiny backpack could swing across the surface of the pond.
The finale is as peaceful as it is thought provoking. The children, now unusually quiet, stand in front of the main temple building as, in signature teamLab style, flowers burst into bloom before scattering their petals and disappearing.
I can almost hear their brains ticking as they attempt to process the fact that the flowers they are reaching out to touch are part of an endless virtual life cycle that is never repeated — dependent on its interaction with its surroundings, just like in nature.
“It’s a flower shower,” sums up my 9-year-old. “And it’s all made of light.” Her little sister is more confused: “But where’s my tuna?”
The tuna question is not as abstract as the crocodile query; it actually relates to a visit the previous week to teamLab’s famed digital museum in Tokyo, another succinctly named establishment — teamLab Borderless: Mori Building Digital Art Museum.
The museum recently underwent the first major renovation of its children’s area, known as the Athletics Forest, since opening its doors in 2018. With activities designed specifically to stimulate the growth of the hippocampus part of children’s brains, it’s an immersive and, quite literally, brain-boosting nirvana for kids.
Arriving at the second-level space, the girls are delighted to discover that their longtime favorites are still there — from a bouncing trampoline with exploding planets and a fruit slide to their trusted glowing ovoid friends, plus the nearby En Tea House (where they later enjoy digital “blooming” tea and real matcha ice cream).
The girls are quick to explore the new installation, “Aerial Climbing Over a Typhoon,” clambering over an assortment of bars hanging from ropes, each changing color upon human contact.
Other new highlights include color-shifting blocks, a sort of high-tech stepping stone path that wobbles precariously (as I can personally testify), each emitting its color into the world of microorganisms that swirls around it, plus a digital hopscotch space where fish, butterflies and birds spring to life with each jump, creating a dreamy landscape.
But it’s the tuna that really captures the imagination of my youngest daughter. As before, kids in the Sketch Aquarium are able to color in maritime creatures, from turtles to fish, which are then scanned and brought to life on the surrounding walls. (A new bonus: Kids can now get their artwork printed onto items, such as badges, to take home with them.)
But the tuna in particular have a special global mission. We watch a shoal of scribbled tuna (my daughter’s included) happily swim out of the Tokyo gallery, and she is amazed to learn that the fish will then travel all the way to Shanghai and San Francisco, where people can admire them on the walls of other ongoing teamLab exhibitions, before swimming back to Tokyo.
My daughter’s crayoned fish may not have made it to Kyoto (this time), but the experience of watching her drawing transcend the physical boundaries of the Tokyo museum and travel around the world quite literally stops her in her tracks.
It’s precisely this kind of experience that’s likely to plant a seed of understanding of the seemingly limitless possibilities of digital creativity in future generations — one that may well bloom with full force among the countless kids seduced today by the world of teamLab.
Other teamLab highlights for kids:
“teamLab: Digitized World Heritage Site of Toji — Tokio Inkarami” (Kyoto): The exhibition, likely to be a hit with kids due to its countless open-air ovoids, among other highlights, runs at Toji temple through Sept. 19. teamlab.art/e/toji
teamLab Borderless: Mori Building Digital Art Museum (Tokyo): Children should make a beeline for the recently revamped second-floor Athletics Forest space — heaven for mini teamLab lovers — before the museum closes in August next year. borderless.teamlab.art
“teamLab Forest” (Fukuoka): This permanent exhibition, which opened last year, is very child-friendly. Don’t miss the “Catching and Collecting Forest” installation, where children can catch, study and release animals, plus the “Athletics Forest” for exploring the world in three dimensions. teamlab.art/e/forest
“Volvo teamLab: A Forest Where Gods Live” (Saga Prefecture): Running through Nov. 7, the exhibition — set in the scenic Mifuneyama Rakuen garden at Takeo Onsen hot springs — will seduce visitors of all ages. But kids will be drawn to the artwork “Graffiti Nature — Living in the Ruins of the Bathhouse, Red List,” which involves creating their own ecosystem of animals and flowers. teamlab.art/e/mifuneyamarakuen
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