I am standing knee-deep in water as schools of digital koi fish swim around me. The radiant fish light up the water in blue, red, yellow and green colors, emitting a bright glow from the indoor pond inside the large pitch-black room. As the minutes pass, the fish start to swim at faster speeds leaving trails of light in their paths, until the entire lake is transformed into rainbow-colored light trails zipping around my legs and illuminating the room. Then, after several magical moments, the fish drop the light trails and swim normally again as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. 

This special experience was, by far, the closest I’ve ever come to an acid trip without actually taking psychedelics. Welcome to the emerging world of immersive digital art. 

Over the past decade, the tech boom helped empower the rise of digital art, which includes breakthrough classics like Scott Garner’s Still Life, Random International’s Rain Room and Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors. These were all mere appetizers, however, compared to teamLab, the Tokyo-based art collective taking digital art to new levels with massive installations throughout Asia. The digital koi pond is just one example of their mind-bending work.

The koi pond, officially (and verbosely) titled Drawing on the Water Surface Created by the Dance of Koi and People – Infinity (pictured above), can be found at teamLab Planets Tokyo, a temporary exhibit that will close in fall 2020. Visitors enter the exhibit barefoot as they journey through celestial “body immersive” spaces like The Infinite Crystal Universe, the Waterfall of Light Particles at the Top of an Incline and the dream-like Expanding Three-Dimensional Existence in Transforming Space – Flattening 3 Colors and 9 Blurred Colors, Free Floating (pictured below). As evidenced by all of their experiences, teamLab embraces digital art as a medium that transcends the physical boundaries of static art. This includes the fluid transformation of immersive art in real time, so rather than capturing a moment, the canvas changes and evolves without the physical constraints of paint.

Founded in 2001, teamLab is a collective of digital artists, programmers, animators, designers and architects self-described as “ultra-technologists.” Over the past 18 years, teamLab split its time between software/design work and creating digital art, and its early success came from making applications and websites, not from making art. During its first decade, teamLab sustained itself with corporate work that financed the company’s visionary artistic side. 

To quote the water-to-wine master himself, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown,” and the Tokyo art scene did not initially embrace teamLab’s digital creations. In the early years, the work lived in pop-up spaces rather than traditional galleries, but the company finally got its big break in 2011 in an entirely different country. That year, iconic artist Takashi Murakami (the Japanese Warhol) invited the collective to display several artworks, including Life Survives by the Power of Life—a work of 3D animation featuring a calligraphic tree surrounded by blossoms and butterflies—at the Kaikai Kiki Gallery in Taipei, Taiwan. The digital piece became an instant hit and soon made appearances in Hong Kong, Venice and Art Basel Switzerland. 

teamLab continues its software/design work, but now it’s better known for its digital art experiences set up in museums, public spaces and corporate offices around the world. Permanent installations can be found in Singapore, Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei and various cities throughout Japan, while temporary works are currently on display in Madrid, London and Shanghai, with previous works appearing Paris, Melbourne, New York, Aarhus, Auckland, Helsinki, Istanbul, Las Vegas, Rome and San Francisco

Highlighting the ambitious nature of their projects, A Forest Where Gods Live (see video here) transformed more than 5 million square feet of a Japanese island park into a digital art installation that uses caves, forests, gardens and giant rocks as its canvas. (The project ran from July 12 to November 4, 2019.) 

Still, teamLab’s most ambitious project may be its 107,000-square-foot MORI Building DIGITAL ART MUSEUM: teamLab Borderless in Tokyo. Dubbed an unprecedented immersive digital art museum, Borderless does not have clearly designated sections like most museums because its goal is for guests to wander and discover without the help of guide maps. The multi-level maze of dark rooms features about 60 or so kaleidoscopic installations that interact with the guests in a sci-fi homage to Mother Nature.

Borderless’ most iconic room, Universe of Water Particles on a Rock Where People Gather (image above), imagines a waterfall coming down upon rocks where guests can sit and soak in the digital downpour. Projected wall/floor art turns the expansive Athletics Forest into a digital jungle, with one cosmic corner featuring trampolines that allow guests to imagine they’re on a moonwalk. Some rooms do require waiting lines, such as the 360-degree The Way of the Sea Floating Nest (main image) where guests sit on nets surrounded by sea life or butterflies or birds or other options. Borderless also utilizes motion triggers for enhanced interaction with the art. For example, guests might stand in a particular place, and the trigger will produce digital butterflies that move to surround them. 

Though still high tech, not everything in the museum is digital art per se. Light Evaporating With People is one of many artworks that features an energetic combination of bright lights and mirrors reminiscent of a futuristic dance club, while the Forest of Resonating Lamps (pictured below) with seasonal color changes (such as for cherry blossom season) recalls some of the more popular rooms in Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors. The same can be said for Wander through the Crystal World with its maze of colorful LED lights and mirrors.

Legendary hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz (Jay Z, Beyoncé, Drake, Kendrick Lamar) is an art aficionado who holds works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, KAWS, Marc Chagall and Kehinde Wiley and sits on the board for the Brooklyn Museum. He jumped on the digital art trend early taking rapper Nas to Borderless last year to film a music video for “Echo” from his Poison album. 

Beatz is not alone. Japanese photographer and film director Mika Ninagawa also used the museum for a photo shoot, and video of her digital art-backed work can be seen here. Likewise, while in Tokyo with his wife Hailey last month, Justin Bieber visited Borderless with Kanye West and Grammy-winning producer Ray Romulus. Bieber posted photos here and here. Kanye apparently like the museum so much that he returned a few days later with Kim Kardashian, who posted her own image here

Borderless opened on the first official day of summer in 2018, and PRØHBTD visited the museum on November 28, which happened to be the day it celebrated its one millionth visitor. That’s an average of 200,000 visitors per month, and digital art appears set for explosive growth in the years to come. 

For starters, Borderless and Planets are both located in the Kōtō ward, a set of islands in Tokyo Bay, which will be one of the main sporting sites for the 2020 Olympic Games. Likewise, teamLab’s work continues to move west, making at brief appearance at Paramount Pictures Studios in 2019, and with a new installation set to debut at the Motion Picture Academy in Los Angeles in 2020. Regarding the upcoming work at the Academy, teamLab said, “Very little has been made public yet, so detailed information is limited.”

In the meantime, teamLab already has competition on the rise, including Turkey-born, Los Angeles-based artist Refik Anadol and Industrial Light and Magic alumnus Android Jones, who co-created the Microdose VR experience. NYC is also getting in on the action. Though smaller in scale and focused more on VR, the Digital Museum of Digital Art opened in 2015. Expect many more to follow. 

At present, most of teamLab’s high-end installations are located in Japan, Singapore and China (e.g., Universe of Water Particles in the Tank, Transcending Boundaries), and Europe and North America are in the early stages of embracing digital art. Though it took more than a decade for teamLab to get attention in its home country, digital art in the age of Instagram is now moving at a much quicker pace, and the early signs of global domination are already evident on its breathtaking digital horizons. 

David Jenison (david.jenison@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Image below: Crystal Universe.

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