by Robert Atkins
The debut of a pair of Pace galleries this year in Menlo Park (Pace Art + Technology) and Palo Alto (Pace) could hardly have come at a worse time: Their inaugural shows — featuring teamLab and James Turrell respectively — opened a few months before the spring reopening of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which totally eclipsed them. Initially set to close at the end of June, the teamLab exhibition in Menlo Park has been extended until December 18.
Its extension is a public service enabling critical attention and word of mouth to lure audiences to the Silicon Valley gallery. They will be rewarded with an exhilarating experience: an array of dazzling, high-tech installations offering a convergence of Pop art, Hokusai and visual pyrotechnics that transform spectacle into sublimity and render VR and Pokemon Go’s “augmented reality” obsolete.
The Turrell show includes works from two long-running series: One, Reflective Hologram, records and depicts light as glowing abstract zips; the other, from the Wide Glass Series, is a site-specific light installation. The latter consists of LEDs programmed to slowly change, creating a foggy aura, which in this case dematerializes the walls of the three-sided gallery space and creeps into the adjacent passageway. If the works in the show were familiar to U.S.— and some global — contemporary art buffs, the same cannot be said of teamLab’s extravagant digital output. It has appeared only once in the US prior to 2016, at Pace Gallery, New York.
(The group’s works are currently on view in a group show at the Dayton Art Institute.) In Japan, however, temporary and permanent works by the Tokyo-based collective are ubiquitous, and
is becoming increasingly well known throughout Southeast Asia. After August 28, when Turrell’s Palo Alto show closes, the dynamism between his and teamLab’s exhibition will be lost, a shame given the resonance between them: In both, the artists utilize light to create the immaterial or the dematerialized. Their works entice viewers to reach out to grasp the image or abstraction before them — or what they think they see before them. In both cases, this is the old-fashioned magic of mimesis turned on its head: it is less the creation of the illusion of reality than the production of the unreal, which paradoxically demands convincing references to reality for its effectiveness. Those conversant with installation-works by Turrell (or Light and Space artworks by Californians like Robert Irwin or David Ireland’s Capp St. Projects in San Francisco) will know what I mean: Where, one wonders, does the wall end and the ceiling begin? Is the hazy light emanating from the space “real”? Or is it an illusion derived from the reflective character of paint or glass?
Such mystery and ambiguity can be breathtaking, as with Turrell’s open-air “skyspaces.” The San Francisco variant at the edge of the de Young museum’s sculpture garden astonishes for its constantly changing views of the sky above Golden Gate Park. Turrell, who worked with Robert Irwin studying perception as part of LACMA’s Art + Technology Program during the 1960s, now locates his work primarily in nature, literally and figuratively. Consider, as a case in point, his Roden Crater project — a monument to the anthropocene in the form of a hollowed-out-volcano in Arizona — designed to mark astronomical convergences. Like Turrell, teamLab also seeks sublimity, but despite its use of natural imagery, the works’ wholly digital means are also a rejection of nature. Nonetheless, Turrell’s show is likely to have helped provide entrée (and legitimacy) for teamLab in a U.S. artworld frequently wary of uncollectable new media and formats, whether the product of hybrid design-art consciousness or digital media.
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Pace Art + Technology is a mini-“campus” of two mid-century buildings in Menlo Park, recently (and perhaps aptly) occupied by technology-forward Tesla Motors. Each houses a series of installations. The main building, a former showroom, is devoted to Living Digital Space, 13 installations produced since 2012 that I’ll call the “adult exhibition,” since the smaller building
contains seven participatory installations designed for children called Future Parks, which I’ll leave to others since critical evaluation would require a knowledge of childhood neurological development. Between them the two shows occupy a whopping 20,000 square feet, require a couple hours of viewing time, and a $10 admission fee.
The installations of Living Digital Space ostensibly fall into the categories of the two- and three-dimensional. But like teamLab, I find this a false distinction and think of all the works as installations. The two-dimensional works are comprised entirely of screens, which may vary in number but not in their horizontal arrangement. Because the individual screens are larger than the viewer, en masse they produce a bodily awareness akin to that of the gallery-sized, three-dimensional works. This enveloping somatic sensation is also reminiscent of the effect produced by Jackson Pollock’s larger-than-life drip paintings.
In all cases the works’ imagery derives from nature: flowers, birds, crashing waves, waterfalls and butterflies. When culturally-inflected, the images evoke traditional-format works such as wood-block prints and scrolls while others call upon cultural myths, such as that of the crow Yatagarasut, depicted in the work Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well, Division in Perspective—Light in Dark (2014). Flying across a large space at
warp speed, the crow is explosively rendered in light, which trails off and metamorphoses into calligraphy. Common to all the works in the show, is the constant movement of images or abstract elements across multiple screens or three-dimensional spaces—moving delicately or relentlessly, but rarely at rest. (Excellent video footage is available at teamlab’s website.)
As with Crows are Chased, viewers tend to be positioned in fixed relation to a work, that is from a few places on a three-dimensional work’s sidelines or in frontal relationship to the two-dimensional works. There are exceptions to this, including Flutter of Butterflies Beyond
Borders (2015), a wondrous chamber reminiscent of the living butterfly room at the Museum of Natural History. But the charms of the VR-like interactions with ersatz butterflies can be short-lived, seemingly shifting the work from the purview of art to children’s museums. Effective art, it seems, demands more distance from its viewers, a literal or figurative frame.
But there is another sort of interactivity that is central to teamLab’s accomplishment. Interactivity based on viewers’ movements in relation both to the three-dimensional spaces and to the 2-D screen works alters the appearance, character and behavior of the works themselves. This may be as simple as the motion and size of waves — which are derived not from photos but from digital mapping of the ocean’s surfaces — or as complex as the determination of whether a plant blooms or dies, with all the metaphorical meanings this implies. It also makes each viewing of the work unique, created in part by the viewer.
The “everydayness” of teamLab’s imagery from nature is also central to its character. In this it resembles earlier “realist” approaches by artists including the Impressionists and Pop artists who pioneered new ways of seeing to represent familiar subjects and culturally loaded content. Works by Impressionist and Pop artists were described from the outset as realistic. The Impressionists depicted contemporary urban life and drew upon Michel Chevreul’s scientific “law of simultaneous contrast” to render the world accurately, while Pop artists rejected the
inward-looking character of the prevailing abstract expressionist ethos in favor of responding to the cultural, post-war shift to consumer capitalism. Employing sophisticated digital means, teamLab utilizes interactivity in its approach to the temporal, post-filmic image, while exemplifying an age of spectacle, excess and disintegrating disciplinary boundaries.
It is essential in our impure, hybrid age that teamLab’s work be simultaneously acknowledged for its traditional Japanese elements and for its connections to kitsch entertainment forms. These include the neon spectacle of Tokyo, Disneyland(s) and even Hiroki Hara–a Japanese contestant on America’s Got Talent who makes people disappear before exiting the stage on an illusory airborne dragon. Your appreciation of teamLab will likely depend on whether you believe
—as I do—that the group’s work contains sufficient visual and conceptual heft to push it over an experiential tipping point, transforming momentary dazzle into genuine and expansive engagement. The collective’s upcoming project for the iconic fountains at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas should not come as a surprise or cause for concern. This is, after all, the property on the Las Vegas strip that offers (paying) visitors access to its owner’s —Steve Wynn’s — art collection in a gallery site inside its casino. By contrast, the public context in which teamLab’s work will be seen could hardly be more apt, more copacetic. Viva Las Vegas!
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James Turrell @ Pace (Palo Alto) through August 28, 2016. teamLab: “Living Digital Space” and “Future Parks” @ Pace Art + Technology (Menlo Park) through December 18, 2016.
About the Author:
Robert Atkins is an art historian, educator and writer who has recently returned to the Bay Area. A former columnist for the Village Voice, he now writes regularly for Art in America and MODERN and blogs at Public Eye. He is the author of ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords (just released in its third edition); its modern-art prequel ArtSpoke; From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS; and Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression. Since 1995, he has produced online resources including TalkBack: A Forum for Critical Discourse; Artery: The AIDS-Arts Forum; and, in 2011, ArtSpeak China.org, the first bilingual wiki of its kind. He is a co-founder of Visual AIDS, creator of Day With(out) Art, and the Red Ribbon.