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Teamlab @ Pace London

Contemporary Art in the Digital age.

Stepping out of my black cab (yes I’m one of those annoying anti-uber people who likes to support local industries) I see this huge white block, the renovation site of the RA, which coincides with the entrance to Pace. As I move into this bright block, breathing in the crisp London air, there is a queue!? I thought I was one of the early ones… my friends at Pace informed me they had invited 300 persons to the exhibition. Unfortunately for them 250 RSVP’d. Ouch. The queue didn’t take too long, but even if it did, you have to see this show.

The exhibition Transcending Boundaries is comprised of 3 separate spaces created by the some 400 member Japanese artist group called ‘Teamlab’ (obviously only 13 came over to London for the installation). They are a group of Engineers, Programmers, Artists, Graphic Designers, Mathematicians, CG animators, Architects, Editors the list goes on and on. Teamlab are one of the groups at the forefront Digital Art. 

The waiting area in the gallery is all white, which makes the transition so much more pronounced. You walk through a small dark corridor and when entering the first large space you are instantly energised. It is beautiful. I know it is one of the most cliche adjectives out there, but there truly is no other way to describe it. In the first room, Universe of Water Particles (2017), is a waterfall with roots and plants moving around you, butterflies fluttering about, your senses are immediately heightened. You smile, you play with the butterflies, you see how the waterfall moves around you, your inner child is pulled out. A wonderful part that I could not help but notice was how long people waited until they took photos/videos etc. The viewers were so drawn into the room and engaged with the art work that whipping out your phone was secondary. The funnier story I heard was that a friend of mine had brought their dog and she had escaped from the office room and was running around trying to catch the butterflies. Very entertaining. 

Moving on to the second room, you draw a thick black set of curtains and once you make it past the corner is a series of 6 panels. This is Dark Waves (2016). I could not move once I was in front of it. The piece is so powerful. The waves crash and transcend from canvas to canvas in the most elegant and effortless manner. The detailing emulates traditional Japanese ink wash painting and the method of combining this traditional technique whilst utilising modern technology to create this emotional, sensory and captivating experience was brilliant. The work does however leave you with a heavy heart. I felt as if I was on a beach in the middle of the night all alone watching the waves. The work is dark and mysterious, it is something so natural but you feel alone looking at it, with your ponderous thoughts and feelings slowly taking over. It brought to similar feelings from when I was standing in front of the Blue and Green Rothko from the Royal Academy’s most recent exhibition “Abstract Expressionism”. Although the Teamlab piece was not as powerful, the way they want to provoke the viewer was the same. 

We then moved into the next room, we were a group of 5, in a very tight space, pitch black. We waited here for 5 minutes. Whilst my husband seemed slightly irritated by the temperature, we all needed to be in this box for a little while. The past two experiences get every atom in your body energised and curious that you need to calm down before the next room. So then we move from the black room into the white room. 45 degree lighting shining down on the 5 of us. The other extreme to fully neutralise ones senses before we reach the last Teamlab experience. After another 5 minutes, we walk into the space. A man greets us and gives us white shawls to enhance the experience of Flowers Bloom on People (2017). You walk and stand in the centre of the room, and wait. Nowadays everything is always so rushed and hectic, people have forgotten how to be still, how to be patient. As you wait, you see these beautiful flowers growing on you. It is an algorithm that produces the flora and fauna and it is not a loop on repeat, it is different every time and with every person. Once you move, everything around you dies and disintegrates. It was incredible to see life, although virtual, growing on you in the most unique way. If you are patient enough it connects from one person to another, it unites all the people in the room.

As I left the gallery to have a cigarette outside with some friends before venturing on to the after show drinks at Blacks in Soho, I could not help but think that this is really what Contemporary art should be. But what is Contemporary art? In broad terms the criteria is that they are works from living artist’s. I look at the term from another angle. I believe that artists that use more traditional forms are not really ‘Contemporary artists’. They are using techniques from the past. Even if they use the methods to express modern life and contemporary subject matter, that does not really make it ‘Contemporary art’. I look at ‘Contemporary art’ as Art that utilises all that the world has to offer today. Contemporary art should therefore be about using modern technology, mathematics, graphics, using everything and pushing the boundaries to create something. To master all of the disciplines. Like a modern Renaissance man. Contemporary art is perhaps about creating a different sense of reality. To expand from the confinements of a canvas or sculpture and create an interactive and sensory experience that the viewer can have on an independent level. The lax definition of contemporary art makes it too difficult to describe everything out there. There is no real terminology for the type of art that really engulfs what a group like Teamlab is doing, The term ‘Digital Art’ only describes the form of media. 

So this brings us to another question. What is or isn’t Contemporary Art!? Should we maybe keep the term for more specific things or should we use contemporary art as an Umbrella term, or separate the definition of Contemporary art and living artists? I have absolutely no idea. The main thing is that this in no terms means that living artists who use more traditional methods are better or worse. If anything based on my bias I am more of a Post-war/Modern kind of gal. It is just different, but these differences need to be more distinct and accessible. A large problem with Contemporary Art is that the whole term results in saturation. It makes people frightened of it and therefore negligent to want to connect and understand Art. 

The development of Digital Art shows how Art has become more technological. However, this may lead us into a different era where Art is no longer being tangible at all. If Art is digital will it at one point just be electronically projected? It may come to streaming. Instead of only streaming music, we may begin to also stream Art. What will happen to the collector? How can you collect something that everyone else can have? Teamlab’s show creates this experience by having hundreds of cameras that constantly observe the viewer, allowing the elements at work to move around the viewer, or in this case interact-or? Does this take the role of an Artist as the observer to the next level? One could compare this to the most modern form of Calder. Calder created the sculpture, however what made it Art in the moment was not Calder, but the environment the sculpture was in. The work is never the same at any given point in time. In essence, Teamlab is building on this same concept. This concept that Art in itself is no longer about the Artist. It can go from one to multiple spaces removed from the initial creator. Teamlab create the algorithm and install the show, however it is the technology itself and the people that interact with the work that create the actual Art work. Does this make the artist(s) immortal? 

The most refreshing thing about the whole show was that it was Beautiful. The past century of Art has predominantly been about breaking rules and regulations that existed in the Art world and in Society. Art has mostly been to shock, to be out there, to be provocative, to expose War, Consumerism and Commercialisation. Teamlab chose to break from this. The works were taking something that has existed before humans. The simple beauties that we find in nature. Teamlab have transformed the pleasures of being outside, the incredibly simple but primitive appreciation for beauty, and drawn it out of the viewer. The contrast between using technology, something metallic and artificial to create this sensation that one only really finds in nature is a strong juxtaposition. It is an oxymoron, it does not make any sense, but for some reason it is so pleasing and one can connect with it instantly.

People seem to be sick of a lot of the gibberish that is the Contemporary Art Market. A friend of mine even once said that they should create a Salon type institution so us poor people would no longer have to bare to see neon lit plastic dolphin sculptures or an aubergine on legs drinking from a straw. That may be a bit drastic, but I can relate to the frustration. None of the friends that I brought to the exhibition were in the Art world and for them, this show gave them a new, more positive perspective on Contemporary Art. 

As I took a step back from my first impression on the show, I began to ponder on what this really means for society, whether this was a positive experience at all. The work at Teamlab is simultaneously excessively imposing. It is confident, there is so much going on it almost can become overwhelming. Art should be about contemplation. The fellow gallery or museum visitor etiquette is silence, to allow others to absorb the works, to formulate their own opinions. This was a playground. After thinking more about the whole nature of the show and what it does to the people that see it, it felt somewhat superficial.

We feel still in the space for a few minutes compared to the Buddha watching the seasons change over a year. In Flowers Bloom on People one experienced birth, growth and deterioration all in the span on a 2 minutes. There was something very dangerous about it all. It fully confirmed and revealed the selfish nature of humans. The disrespect and impatience we show towards our environment. The show was nature without consequence. If you touched the butterfly, it would die and fall to the floor. Is nature for us a means to an end or an end in itself? Is the means Technology and the end Art?

Now, you are all probably going to hate me for this, but forgot about seeing the show on the weekends. As they can only have a certain amount of people per room, the gallery has dedicated time slots for the public to see the show. BUT, do go during the week! It will be emptier, thus only enhance the experience for the viewer. It is well worth some post lunch bad looks from you work colleges because you didn’t depressingly eat your Pret sandwich or Itsu salad at you desk. You can call the gallery in advance to see how crowded it is, and if all goes smoothly it will take you tops 20 minutes.

- Henriette Lefort -