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Life distilled into moments

Chris Reid: teamLab; Roundabout

Cold Life, teamLab, OzAsia 2016 Cold Life, teamLab, OzAsia 2016
image © the artists & courtesy Art Gallery of SA

“Art is born of the observation and investigation of nature,” wrote Cicero. Japanese interdisciplinary collective teamLab has engineered a high-tech approach to the observation of the natural world, asking us to reconsider our modern way of seeing nature and ourselves within it, thus renewing the aesthetics of nature.

teamLab, Ever Blossoming Life II; Cold Life

The Art Gallery of SA’s exquisite exhibition Ever Blossoming Life locates teamLab’s Ever Blossoming Life II – A whole year per hour, Gold (2016) and Cold Life (2014) amid a selection from its extensive holdings of traditional Japanese art. TeamLab’s computer-based works, shown on large monitors, are surrounded by exquisite Japanese multi-panel screens from the 17th and 18th centuries, Ukiyo-e prints by Hiroshige, Hokusai and others, ceramics, fans and other pieces that exemplify the traditional Japanese concern with nature, particularly flowers. Ever Blossoming Life establishes an evolutionary relationship between the AGSA’s collection and current artistic developments, refreshing our appreciation of works which no longer appear as static artefacts from past eras but actively relevant to our lives.

Ever Blossoming Life II is a constantly evolving computer-generated image of paintings of blossoming plants. The time-lapse effect condenses a year of growth and flowering into an hour, the imagery never repeating, instead continually evolving to suggest that evolution is eternal. By collapsing the seasons into comprehensible moments, the work shows how regeneration follows decay. The imagery references traditional Japanese panels of the kind shown in the exhibition, including their gold background, so that the work resembles a Japanese screen bursting into life.

By contrast, Cold Life is a 7’15” loop that shows a rotating 3D graphic sequence of images depicting trees growing and metamorphosing, as birds fly about and snow falls, against a background of night-time darkness. This hypnotic work recalls an MRI scan rather than traditional art, as if the plants are being X-rayed and analysed as they grow. But Cold Life is also based on calligraphic imagery (its shape suggests the Japanese character for ‘life’). Both teamLab works are digitally generated, drawing on classical Japanese imagery.

Dissolving the boundary between art and technology, teamLab’s approach highlights our inability to control evolutionary change by shifting our perception of the passage of time. Describing themselves as ultra-technologists, they have generated a unique art form, referencing photography, video, engineering, computer-based 3D modelling as well as drawing, painting and animation. Their work reinterprets and thus pays homage to traditional Japanese high art. We’re even provoked to wonder whether such new art will come to replace nature in our consciousness. It certainly alters our awareness of it.

You can watch all 7’14” minutes of Cold Life on teamLab’s Vimeo channel and see excerpts from Blossoming Life II here and here.

100 years sea (2009), teamLab 100 years sea (2009), teamLab
Image © the artists, courtesy Experimenta Media Arts and RMIT Gallery, photo Mark Ashkanasy

teamLab, 100 Years Sea

Another teamLab work, 100 Years Sea (2009), part of the Experimenta Recharge exhibition touring to Australian galleries, is a 5-channel digital HD animation depicting the sea swirling around rocky outcrops. Programmed to run for 100 years, it will show sea levels gradually rising over that time, creating a confronting illustration of the problem of global warming and again employing imagery typical of traditional painting. Adjacent to 100 Years Sea is a counter showing the elapse of time in years, hours, minutes and seconds since it was activated nearly seven years ago. But, as if to emphasise our inability to control rising sea levels, the timescale in 100 Years Sea is not condensed. Our children may live long enough to see the rocks disappear beneath the waves.

100 Years Sea also demonstrates teamLab’s research into perception and the cultural origins of perceptual styles. The imagery in traditional Japanese screens is not based on one-point perspective but creates a linear effect that must be read from left to right. TeamLab postulates this as an alternative way of viewing the world, suggesting that the traditional Western way, based on a fixed viewing position, places the viewer outside the imagery and thus detached from it. This work explores the kind of spatial awareness triggered by traditional Japanese art to show how ways of seeing are culturally determined, inviting us to reconsider the way we understand visual imagery and relate to its subject matter.

While Japanese screens draw the viewer into the linear space, what is crucial with teamLab’s time-based imagery is that viewers sit with it for extended periods and allow their awareness of time as well as space to change. The narrative then becomes evolutionary and thus experiential. Ever Blossoming Life II’s accelerated pace makes us aware of processes that might otherwise not register in our consciousness. It also changes our understanding of painting as a form and a discipline.

In refreshing our way of looking at the world, teamLab facilitates our comprehension and appreciation of it. Seeing digital art raised to this highly accomplished level, we also realise that we cannot comprehend, let alone manage our world adequately without the aid of the kind of technological devices the collective employs.

Riel Hilario, They came from the sea, 2016, installation of carved wood, found objects, single channel video and sound, dimensions variable, Roundabout, OzAsia 2016, Riel Hilario, They came from the sea, 2016, installation of carved wood, found objects, single channel video and sound, dimensions variable, Roundabout, OzAsia 2016,
courtesy the artists and Adelaide Central Gallery, photo James Edwards

Filipino art: Roundabout

The dialogue between old and new is also evident in the exhibition Roundabout at Adelaide Central School of Art Gallery, showing work by three Filipino artists, Riel Hilario, Wawi Navarroza and Mark Valenzeula. Riel Hilario is a fourth generation rebulto carver who continues the Catholic tradition of creating wooden statues of religious figures. His work They came from the sea (2016) comprises carvings of two saints, one of whom appears to be sprouting leaves and the other with a bird sitting on his head, who kneel before a 17th century map of the Philippines. Behind them is a video of the Straits of Malacca—the explorer Magellan’s intended destination, which is far from where he landed and established a Spanish colony—and the saints are positioned so that their shadows mask part of the projected image. We hear a recording of a song praising Christ but infused with local meanings. Hilario’s work shows how Spanish civilisation took root in the region and, despite being imbued with local culture, still casts a shadow over it.

The observation of nature is evident in Wawi Navarroza’s exquisitely produced photographs of glass display vessels containing plants, soil and debris taken from various locations in Manila. The images are selected from her project Hunt & Gather (Terraria) (2013), a collaboration that has resulted in an artist’s book which catalogues the locations of the specimens and the names of those who collected them. The book is an ecological map of Manila created by members of its community who explore their relationship to their city by collecting materials and plants from it. The photos are displayed with lists of each terrarium’s contents and their sources, transforming the weeds and detritus of the street into beautiful art works that also double as botanical illustrations.

Valenzuela’s installation, New Folk Heroes, establishes a surreal tableau that transforms a large area of the floor into a kind of micro-theatre. With ceramic figures embellished with drawings satirising gun culture and a set of coat-hangers woven into nooses, Valenzuela’s work responds to the disturbing reality of contemporary Filipino society, and perhaps society more broadly. Conceived at the request of ACSA by the artist, who is now an Adelaide resident, the Roundabout exhibition provides a small but highly illuminating window onto Filipino art and the culture it critiques.

The visual art program for this OzAsia Festival has been outstanding, with several art spaces making significant contributions and stimulating great interest in the art of the Asian region.

Ever Blossoming Life, Art Gallery of SA, 17 Sept 2016-15 Jan 2017; Experimenta Recharge, Samstag Museum of Art 19 Aug-23 Sept; Roundabout, Adelaide Central School of Art Gallery, Adelaide, 27 Sept–21 Oct

RealTime issue #135 Oct-Nov 2016 pg.

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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