Interview: teamLab founder Toshiyuki Inoko on digital art and his Shanghai show

The Tokyo-based collective is currently staging TANK Shanghai's inaugural exhibition

Photograph: courtesy teamLab
Spend one hour in the cylindrical fuel-tank-turned-gallery-space at West Bund newcomer TANK Shanghai and you’ll have witnessed a full year of flowers native to southern Japan in bloom. One minute, it’s cherry blossoms and yellow rapeseed dotting the walls (springtime months). Forty-five minutes later, the installation looks completely different, with pink camellias peeking out from behind waterfall cascades (now it’s December).

Generated by a computer program where no two hours will ever look exactly the same, the exhibition is the work of Tokyo-based digital art collective teamLab. Here, founder Toshiyuki Inoko talks adapting works for the new museum’s unique space and how the art world’s attitudes towards the digital collective have changed over the past decade.

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teamLab, Exhibition view, teamLab: Universe of Water Particles in the Tank, 2019, TANK Shanghai, Shanghai, China © teamLab

A full 360-degrees of digital waterfalls and flowers, what’s all happening at your current Shanghai exhibition?

We wanted to create a small universe inside the oil tank. We’re exhibiting two different works; one is blooming flowers and the other, water particles. There’s a reactive relationship between the two works, but also the way people behave inside the exhibition changes the way the work looks. Where visitors are standing, the flow of the waterfall will split and more flowers will bloom.

You’ve said that in the past, it was hard for people to accept teamLab as artists. Today you have a permanent museum in Tokyo and large-scale exhibitions around the world. What changed?

I think there probably are two factors why our art has been perceived differently as compared to, say, ten years ago. [Back then], we were always in Japan, but now we have the opportunity to exhibit around the globe, allowing us to show our work to more diverse people and convey our concept. The second one is the fact that through the Internet, people around the world are showing our artwork through their own platforms, to their own networks, which has boosted our recognition.

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teamLab, Exhibition view, teamLab: Universe of Water Particles in the Tank, 2019, TANK Shanghai, Shanghai, China © teamLab

You call yourselves ‘ultratechnologists’. Catchy – what does it mean?

It’s a joke! Back in 2001, everybody wondered, ‘What the heck is teamLab?’ We’ve been creating [this type of work] ever since we launched, but nobody understood what we were doing, nobody understood who we were. And it was really hard for us to explain teamLab. When we would make something, everyone would say, ‘What is this?’ All I could do was explain what we are and not what we create.

In the age of Instagram exhibitions, are art shows losing their message? What’s teamLab’s?

I always wondered why people behave as if there are predetermined boundaries around them. The fact that you don’t doubt it and you assume that there is such a thing as a boundary – that’s what I think is the biggest boundary we face. Whether it’s past or present, I have always believed that everything exists in a relationship of continuity so that’s something that I’ve always wanted to show.

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teamLab, Black Waves: Lost, Immersed and Reborn 2019, Digital Installation, Continuous Loop, Sound: Hideaki Takahashi © teamLab

Where else can people catch your work right now?

Every summer, we exhibit in this beautiful park called Mifuneyama in southern Japan. The forest has been there for over 1,000 years and has primitive caves and trees, as well as a garden created in the Edo period [1603-1868]. Every year we’ve increased the number of artworks in the show. The park also has a beautiful hotel where we installed a permanent work called ‘Resonating Lamps’.

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