What It Is: teamLab Borderless Shanghai is the second museum from Japanese art collective teamLab, an interdisciplinary group of artists, designers, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers self-labelled as "ultra-technologists." It opens to the public today, November 5. If you haven’t seen it pop up on your Moments yet, get ready. This thing is going to be huge.
When teamLab’s first museum opened in Tokyo in June 2018, 2.3 million visitors from 160 countries came to visit. It quickly became the most visited single-artist museum in the world that year.
At more than 6,600 square metres, teamLab Borderless Shanghai houses about 50 artworks; some of them are brand-new and never-before-seen. A number of the digital works here are incorporated into three-dimensional spaces, giving visitors a tangible feeling of being in a parallel universe.
The museum has four different ‘worlds’: Borderless World, Microcosmoses, Forest of Lamps, and En Tea House. It’s supposed to be a ‘museum without map’, meaning you’re free to explore and free to get lost, which will happen at some point, amidst the disorienting environment.
Tickets cost 229rmb for weekdays or 249rmb for an any-day day pass. Not cheap, but you can potentially linger around inside the museum for up to 12 hours, given their long opening hours. According to teamLab, they are expecting about 4,000 people a day, and will cap visitors at 4,500. This limit may ease potential congestion, but the enormous flow of people will probably dampen the visiting experience. You can either wait for the hype to die down (except it may never) or get geared up to rub shoulders with thousands of other viewers.
First Impressions: I went there with doubts and preconceptions. I didn’t go to the earlier show at Tank but I’ve been to some other overhyped and overpriced Instagram-bait shows recently. There’s no doubt about its social media postability (just look at the photos), but there’s much more to it. The multisensory experience itself was nothing short of otherworldly. I spent nearly 7 hours in the place.
All animated digital works here are in a state of continuous, and often unpredictable, change. There’s something new and unexpected happening on the screen every few minutes, every day. Some of the artworks react to your touch and movement, but you don’t know which. You feel compelled to touch whatever appears in the surrounding environment: the walls, the ceilings, and the floors beneath the feet. It’s delightful to see the return of childlike naivete.
It’s true that the landscape on display is digital as opposed to natural. But the sea, waterfall, flowers, trees and the like are rendered in realistic detail, inspired by ancient Chinese and Japanese art. The watchword here is borderlessness, in the most literal sense. The artworks don’t stay still; they move around as if they had a life of their own. And they don’t just travel across different screens, but across different rooms and even museums. Some characters saunter to one end of the screen and reappear in another… in Tokyo’s museum.
While on the tour guided by teamLab’s communication officer Kudo Takashi, I came across an installation where a cluster of digital butterflies emerged out of nowhere on its screen, their wings flapping. "This one features the birth and death of butterflies," he told me, "they die instantly at your touch." As soon as my fingertip touched the screen, a butterfly plunged downwards and vanished out of sight. I was touched by the underlying meaning behind this brief interaction, that even the smallest human act can have a profound impact on the natural world.
After hours of wandering, I found myself at the En Tea House, knackered, dazzled and in a state of sensory overload. The last ‘world’ on offer at the museum, En Tea House was cloaked in darkness. As I sat down at the table to drink the tea placed in front of me, a flowerbud emerged inside the glass teacup. It was like a magic trick. Gracefully and vividly, the bud grew and unfurled into a colorful chrysanthemum. The entire animation process recurred every time I lifted the teacup and placed it elsewhere. I was transfixed.
In a previous interview, Toshiyuki Inoko, the founder of teamLab, noted that technology is important in liberating us from the material. True. But there is also the danger that it might imprison us in the immaterial and unreal. In fact, it already has, to an alarming degree. But according to Takashi, it all comes down to how the tool of digital technology is used and to what end. Some people use it to trap people’s minds, whereas others make something beautiful out of it.
teamLab Borderless Shanghai did exactly that. They invite people to come inside carefully constructed three-dimensional spaces, where beauty, imagination and creativity can be experienced physically.
It might not be teamLab’s interest nor intention to take over the art world, or the city. But it will. It’s happening already. This museum is going to be big.