Today, we live in a world in which the natural environment is largely relegated to the periphery of our daily existence. Our engagement with it is largely virtual and mitigated through still and moving images. Even so, as the pace of life increases, the subtle changes in the natural environment, such as the blossoming flowers of spring are a reminder that our lives are still guided by the cycles of nature.
In Japan, the flora and fauna of the natural world have provided inspiration to poets and painters for over a thousand years. A sensitivity to the ephemeral nature of life and transience of existence became intimately linked to the transition of seasons, most readily symbolized by the seemingly contradictory spring ritual of celebrating the cherry blossom which quickly wilts and falls to the ground. These connections appear in the earliest poetic compilations in the 8th century and were subsequently transposed into painting. In Japan, paintings of idealized landscapes and blossoming flowers, inhabited by specific plants and animals, were a staple of interior decoration. Until the 19th century, the elite of Japan inhabited spaces suffused with idealized visions of nature as depicted on the paper and gold surfaces of sliding doors and folding screens. These pieces conveyed an overwhelming sense of grandeur, cultivation and, above all, power. Throughout the history of Japanese art, the natural world has been envisioned by artists utilizing the most luxurious and visual stunning materials to evoke the ethos of their own time.
In 2015, the Art Gallery of South Australia was the first state institution in Australia to acquire a work by the self-proclaimed ‘ultra-technologists’ teamLab titled: Ever Blossoming Life II – A Whole Year per Hour: Gold (増殖する生命II). Ever Blossoming is a four channel, digital work which features a myriad of colourful flowers which grow and blossom, wither and then fade away in a profusion of scattered petals, all on a background of cut gold. Over sixty-minutes the viewer progresses through a calendar year of blossoming flowers. The artwork is a reminder that depiction of the natural world, and particularly flowers, has been a staple for Japanese artists, invoking powerful emotions and seasonal connotations.
teamLab (チームラボ), Japan, formed 2001, Ever Blossoming Life II – A Whole Year per Hour: Gold (増殖する生命 II), 2015, Tokyo, four-channel, digital work, endless, edition 3/6 + 2 A/Ps; Gift of the Neilson Foundation through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2015 20157MV2(1-3)
Ever Blossoming Life II is not a pre-recorded loop but instead programmed to continuously create new images and compositions in real time. The same image is never seen twice. The result is an artwork that, like nature, endlessly creates itself anew, presenting each viewer a unique if fleeting moment. The year after its acquisition, we made Ever Blossoming the focus of an exhibition of the same name which explored the prominent motif of flowers in Japanese painting and prints. When grouped together with other works from the Gallery’s significant historical collection, it was evident that Ever Blossoming was based on a long history of folding screens in Japan
Ever Blossoming itself displays the aesthetics of luxury and power which were once used to decorate the castles and mansions of Japan during the Edo period (1615-1868). For over three hundred years, from the late 15th to mid-19th centuries the Kanō school of painters created a definitive style of painting and a common visual language which still resonates today. The innovative combination of bold brush strokes and lush pigments on cut gold was used to decorate the large castle interiors of their patrons, the military elite. The Kanō school remains the most influential school of painting in Japan and, with its longevity, unique in world art history. It could be said that the Kanō brand or style, utilized by hundreds of artists throughout Japan was both an artistic and commercial success.
Sanraku Kano, Japan, 1559 – 1635, Birds, tree and flowers, 1619-35, Kyoto, Japan, six panel screen, ink, colour and gold on paper, 173.0 x 370.0 cm; Gift of Andrew and Hiroko Gwinnett through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2015. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. 20154A11
teamLab’s practice draws inspiration from this history It has sometimes been criticized for merely animating the screen paintings of iconic artists such as Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800). The apparent lack of conceptual complexity in lieu of prioritizing technical ingenuity and overwhelming visual appeal annoys some critics but fits with teamLab’s goal which is to create works of art that are immersive and interactive. The aim of teamLab as described by its founder and manifest by his coterie of IT specialists, designers and engineers is to ‘achieve a balance between art, science, technology and creativity’. They are not necessarily interested in conveying a specific conceptual message but instead want to leverage the history of Japanese art and beauty of the natural world, using cutting edge technology, to create an overwhelming sensory experience, a grand spectacle.
teamLab’s unique objective began with founder Toshiyuki Inoko (b. 1977) after graduating in 2001 from the Department of Mathematical Engineering and Information Physics at Tokyo University. He saw an opportunity to use technology to incorporate the viewer into works of art. According to him, the birth of teamLab was his realization that the pre-modern idea of space, as articulated in East Asian painting, was immersive. Inoko has given this old idea a new name – ‘ultra-subjective space’. Images displayed on folding screens and handscrolls are often thought of as flat in comparison to the three-dimensional space in European and Western painting conceived during the Renaissance. However, according to teamLab, ultra-subjective space allows the viewer to become a part of the artistic project and the narrative, rather than simply a passive viewer. In other words, instead of simply staring at a fixed view provided by a painting on a wall, Japanese art has a history of immersing the audience in works of art, whether it be the auspicious shared moment of unrolling a scroll or sleeping next to a folding screen which were conceived to be moveable wind barriers.
teamLab has charted a unique path in the art world. Not unlike the artists of the Kano school, from whom they derive their inspiration, teamLab cater to both artistic and commercial interests. In fact, the vast majority of their works are created for the latter. In 2018, teamLab opened Borderless at the Mori Building Digital Art Museum in Odaiba, Tokyo. Borderless seems to fulfill their stated goal as ‘an art collective, an interdisciplinary group of ultra technologists whose collaborative practice seeks to ‘navigate the confluence of art, science, technology, design and the natural world’. Whether you like or dislike them they are hard to ignore. They present a new vision of nature which appeals to a broad spectrum of the public.
It is not surprising that a culture devoted to the aesthetics of daily life and acute appreciation of the natural world would be drawn to works of such exquisite beauty meted out through technology. In a world that is becoming ever more urban and to some extent less defined by regional characteristics teamLab speaks a language that all of us can understand. Our lives are increasingly mediated by screens which I am keenly aware of sitting in front of a computer screen and gazing out my window.