This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of CONNECT.
Ashley Leung (Ehime)
Among Tokyo’s bustling workaholism and cyberpunk scene lies an escape from the routine, solitude, and dissociation that is often inseparable from urban contexts. And no, this isn’t telling you to go picnic at a park and touch some grass.
Rather than straying from the digital technology and consumption that has aggravated our disconnection from “reality,” this 3D art exhibition maximizes its potential to reconnect us back to the world—however we might define it.
TeamLab Planets TOKYO is one of the multiple museums under teamLab, an interdisciplinary collection of artists who specialize in digital technology, referring to themselves as “ultra-technologists.” These artists focus on reshaping our perceptions of self and world, transcending the boundaries we have created in an attempt to understand—and sometimes protect ourselves from—the world.
Due to its immersive and interactive qualities, each artwork is a participatory process. A picture might be worth a thousand words and a video worth more, but there is nothing like experiencing the exhibition first-hand. If given the opportunity to make a visit, you’ll catch yourself forgetting the recording phone in your hand, not daring to look at the moment through a screen when it is so overwhelmingly around you—you immersed in it, it immersed in you. This article will attempt to capture the exhibition’s Water Area and its somatic, spiritual, and emotional revelations.
After 2022, full of rigid endeavors and corrosion, I walked into the exhibition at the fresh start of 2023, and discovered a communal capacity for both softness and resilience, hereafter termed “malleability.”
“Waterfall of Light Particles at the Top of an Incline”
Quite literally dipping a toe in the water, this first artwork is an uphill climb toward a waterfall as it streams down one’s feet. In an otherwise pitch-black space, beams of white light reflect against the waterfall, forming an illusion of light particles trickling down. A glorified foot rinse for some and a sensory overload for others, this ascendance prepares one’s body for the exhibition’s tactile contrast, obscure scents, aural stimulation, and hypnotic visuals.
“Soft Black Hole – Your Body Becomes a Space that Influences Another Body”
The best part of this artwork is hearing the giggles of grown adults (many of whom have brought their own children) as they struggle to walk through a massive beanbag in the dark. The ground becomes a perpetual wave of rise and fall as body masses navigate toward the exit. Everyone seems to lose their balance at some point, either due to one’s own miscalculation or others’ unexpected footsteps. Therein lies the fun: to helplessly wobble and give a little shriek as your knees give in to the pliable black mass. TeamLab dedicates this artwork to the importance of corporeal consciousness; the flat, hard surfaces that support us on a regular basis do not negate the presence and influence of our physical bodies. Although a difficult journey, it induces a childlike desire to stay on the playground. A little devil on your shoulder might even knock at your brain, “Why not strut around and create further disruption and imbalance?” Everyone is a culprit of each other’s downfall, but none of it really hurts, so the only sound resonating throughout the room? Laughter.
“The Infinite Crystal Universe”
One of the picturesque highlights of the exhibition, this artwork modernizes the pointillism technique to create 3D objects out of strings of light. Mirrored walls, floor, and ceiling blur spatial parameters so that one perceives oneself to be in the artwork, not just observing it. Visitors are able to download the teamLab app and select elements to “throw” into the space. It is difficult to pinpoint whether one is enveloped in a starry sky, pocketful of diamonds, or glitter rain. Nonetheless, the brief moments between twinkling darkness and bolts of bright lights transform you into the main character of a climactic trailer.
“Drawing on the Water Surface”
First steps into the knee-deep water are of a milky haze until koi fish patterns light up on the surface and glide around in neon and pastel. The mirrored walls reflecting the glowing body of water expand and emphasize the aquatic home in which fish can curiously swim toward humans and burst into flower petals upon impact. According to teamLab, the blooming flowers are seasonal. Akin to the interinfluential pathways in the “Soft Black Hole,” the trajectories of the fish are dependent on visitors’ presences. Unlike trudging through a murky pond (which, why would anyone ever do that?), this water is warm and its creatures friendly.
“Expanding Three-Dimensional Existence in Transforming Space – Flattening 3 Colors and 9 Blurred Colors, Free Floating”
This room is reminiscent of the bouncy balls in tall baskets at department stores, daring someone to dive in head first and make war with the rebound of rubber. Some of the spheres roll around as visitors push or collide against them, shifting colors accordingly. A small child could definitely get knocked down if you push a sphere too hard, so please be careful not to get caught. The therapeutic soundtrack and strobing gradation reminded me of a key scene from Everything Everywhere All At Once: when LED lights softly orbited around the two main characters as Evelyn had an existential and romantic revelation. This may explain why, on a personal level, the other artworks were beautiful while this one cinematic.
“Floating in the Falling Universe of Flowers”
A planetarium that immerses one in the floral life cycle. Visitors can sit or lie on the floor to watch flowers and butterflies drift across, sprinkle down, or disperse. Analogous to stargazing (except stars appear static), this moment allows one to appreciate the surrounding beauty and simply daydream. A few tears softly escaped as I saw my favorite flowers—blue hydrangeas and sunflowers—pass by each other simultaneously. In all their stages of growth and withering, they were inherently beautiful. Supposedly, so are we.
Everyone will have their own takeaways from the artworks independently and collectively. In its expansive space and spells of darkness, I felt comfortingly minute and insignificant navigating through the exhibition. Yet, the responsive artworks confirmed my presence and disruption. An artistic reminder that we matter and also don’t. The mobility of each artwork references the perpetual change of everything and everyone, rendering each humdrum day and peripheral moment unique. TeamLab’s website especially emphasizes this:
“Previous visual states can never be replicated, and will never reoccur.”
“The universe at this moment in time can never be seen again.”
Even though the world sometimes leaves us behind as we sink into what feels like stagnancy, we are still different this second from the last. Each repetitive day is not truly so. Walking out of this trance of an exhibition, my shift in mentality revealed a capacity for malleability, much like the forgiving indentations of a beanbag under body weight.
Ashley is a first-year JET in Ehime, occasionally nostalgic for her home in California. She enjoys creating and consuming literature, music, and film. She’s also a copy editor for CONNECT and loves reading everyone’s submissions!