Recently I went to see teamLab: Continuity, the new special exhibit at the Asian Art Museum.
Haven’t been to the Asian Art Museum before? It’s a museum across from City Hall filled with ancient art and artifacts from Eastern religions. Also some stuff from the Middle East, which is only “Asian” if we largely ignore religion.
The collection isn’t the biggest but tickets are relatively cheap and you can easily spend an hour or so there if you do the audio tours — which are free if you download the app and bring your own headphones.
So what’s up with this special exhibit at the Asian Art Museum? Why is this here? The studio behind this exhibit, teamLab, is based in Tokyo. So in the most basic sense of the word it is “Asian art.” But it’s Asian Art in the contemporary sense, which isn’t the same definition as the rest of the museum. It’s an awkward fit but this is typical of special exhibits in smaller museums.
Let’s get into what Continuity actually is. At this point you’ve almost certainly watched the above video but let me put it into words.
Continuity is a series of rooms with a series of bright and pulsating organic computer generated scenery projected all over the walls and floor. A continuous soundtrack accompanies the visuals. Once in a while the scenes respond to visitors touching the wall.
The overall effect of the moving images and the high-end projection system creates an impression somewhere between dizzying and hypnotic. At times it was difficult to judge spatial distance. To some extent other people help because the size of other people is easy to intuit, but the fact that everyone is covered in projection effects can at times effectively camouflage them.
Allegedly there’s an element of scents involved but I don’t know, maybe it’s the mask requirement but I didn’t notice this at all.
The most intense room in the exhibit — and the one I spent the most time in — is located in the back. This room is by far the most dizzying with effects spinning all around you, especially when you first walk in. No worries though, there’s a staff member at the entrance who acts as a spotter for those having trouble.
After sitting down on the carpet for a while and laying against a slanted wall, I not only gained my bearings but realized I enjoyed feeling wrapped in this light show and the score that went along with it. As I started tuning in more to the music than the visuals the experience went from overwhelming to calming in the span of a few minutes.
That’s the key duality to Continuity: a funny line between relaxing and unnerving. The artists behind this exhibit describe the visual effects as “Ultrasubjective Space,” an intentional blending of two dimensional and three dimensional planes. I think they’ve largely succeeded; at times the illusion is enough to make you feel like you’re in an otherworldly place despite the largely typical interior structure.
The only thing that worried me about this exhibit was a couple of children running around. While I think some of this falls on the parents there are also measures the museum could take like more active security or family hours. I’m definitely not saying kids should be banned, I probably would have loved it as a kid. But I also don’t want to accidentally trip (or trip over) anyone.
So… what is it?
Personally I think Continuity is primarily a light and sound show. I’ve never seen anything quite like it; teamLab has similar types of installations at other museums but I haven’t been to any of them.
One word I see getting tossed around to describe Continuity and similar exhibits is “immersive.” I don’t think that applies here for one simple reason: there’s no story. Nothing to really hook you in and make you want to uncover more.
While I don’t mean to gatekeep what the word immersive means when it comes to art, I think it’s important for terminology to have consistent meanings. Imagine a tour guide at a museum pointing at a Van Gogh and claiming it’s a classic example of Cubism. If that misuse of terms doesn’t make you frustrated, it should.
I also don’t want to use any terms that might back memories of planetarium laser shows with hippie music synced to boring visuals. For those too young to remember those, let me tell you a secret: you didn’t miss anything.
teamLab themselves describe their works as “digital art,” which is both technically true and kind of meaningless. But at least it’s good to know that even the creators can’t easily categorize their own works.
Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. I clearly don’t have a concise description, but if I had to come up with one it would be “an in person walkthrough audio/video experience.” Did I mention I don’t work in marketing?
In my opinion teamLab has kicked the… “digital art” (?) genre up a notch here. The original music and wild visuals with interactive elements, the incredible projection system that somehow prevents large shadows, and that room so dizzying they need a spotter to keep it safe are all elements I was on board with.
I know teamLab has many other installations and I’m curious as to how they compare. It’s probably not something I’d go far out of my way to see but I’d definitely check them out if I were in the area.
My recommendation: If you’re in San Francisco and this sounds interesting to you, the adult tickets fluctuate in price but I think are about $20 on average and the special exhibit tickets include general admission to the museum. It’s a totally reasonable price, particularly if you’ve never visited the Asian Art Museum before and need an excuse to go.