by Renny Pritikin
The Asian Art Museum just can’t catch a break. In 2003, critics claimed that its conversion of the Civic Center library into a postmodern museum felt shoehorned into the older beaux-arts structure. Then, the museum had to reckon with the outing of its founder as a documented racist, along with further accusations that the museum had too few people of Asian descent in leadership positions. To its credit, it’s made progress by hiring Jay Xu as director and CEO and by responding to demands for increased representation of contemporary art, the arrival of which came in the form of a new $100 million wing dedicated to that purpose. That addition — the 8,500 square-foot Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion — was set to open when Covid hit, forcing the event to be postponed to July 23, almost two years later.
The inaugural exhibition, Continuity, by the Tokyo collective teamLab, is intended to be a populist blockbuster, a large-scale immersive environment full of intense color and kinetic imagery in constant movement. Once again, however, bad luck has haunted the Asian, as it has gone all in, like a poker player, on opening with teamLab at a juncture that plays into a disturbing trend: the rise, since 2017, of “selfie museums.” These populist indoor amusement parks include the Museum of Ice Cream, Imagine Van Gogh: the Immersive Experience, Color Factory and others, all of which involve large-scale projected environments designed to echo a psychedelic fantasy. These have all been enormous moneymakers, charging as much as $38 a ticket. They are all for fun, visually overwhelming and lacking any element of intellectual engagement; they are, essentially, family-oriented playgrounds.
teamLab’s offering differs from the selfie museums by claiming to have an aesthetic viewpoint. The artists assert that two-dimensional Western art separates viewers from art objects, thereby perpetuating a division between individual and world consciousness. teamlab wants to break down that duality by having viewers feel a sense of unity with the environment. Continuity will undoubtedly tap into the same audience as the selfie museums; crowds will surely line up for the experience. Given museums’ financial difficulties, we can only hope the project brings the Asian a large new audience. Perhaps it will also venture upstairs to take in the museum’s permanent collection, a mindboggling and comprehensive array of treasures.
Continuity engulfs visitors with a constantly changing environment of projections and sounds that react to your presence and movement. The musical soundtrack is New Age, accompanied by imagery consisting primarily of flowers, butterflies and fish, all moving at rapid rates, flicking into existence and disappearing on the walls and floors. There is also an interactive component. Sometimes, if you step on or touch one of these images, they change in response. Mirrored walls, of which there are many, add to the estrangement of experiencing such immersion — never mind that subtle floral scents infuse the air.
The show unfolds across approximately a dozen rooms, with some of the imagery flowing from room to room. The most engaging of these environments suggests outer space, with stars and perhaps vehicles zipping around. The show also contains three anomalous screen-based works that display more traditional video art: a digital elaboration based on traditional brush painting; a five-screen horizontal animation with birds on a tree branch morphing into dashing black lines over an abstract landscape; and at the entrance, a constantly evolving chandelier-like image that is a calligraphic treatment of the Japanese word for life. The artists argue that these works transcend the usual limitations of the 2D frame, but they don’t.
Stanford University professor Camille Utterback, for one, has been making similar interactive video works on a smaller scale for years. That realization reinforces my feeling that teamLab falls into that category of artists I think of as popularizers instead of innovators. teamLab has done so by assimilating, perfecting and extending many kinds of digital sensory experiences that people have grown up with—from perhaps its earliest manifestation in Disney’s Fantasia, ’60s psychedelic light shows, up to anime and video games and augmented and virtual reality systems.
We have no way of knowing what the future holds for the visual arts. Perhaps in another generation, exquisite art objects collected by institutions like the Asian Art Museum will seem quaint and impossibly out of touch with life in 2050. It’s also possible that the work of teamLab will invoke consternation as to how, in 2021, we capitulated to such uncritical pastimes.
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teamLab: “Continuity” @ Asian Art Museum through February 2022.
About the author:
Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Prior to that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his new book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020.