teamLab
ULTRA SUBJECTIVE SPACE

508 & 510 West 25th Street New York July 17 – August 15, 2014

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teamLab
ULTRA SUBJECTIVE SPACE

508 & 510 West 25th Street New York July 17 – August 15, 2014

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Crows are chased and the chasing crows are
destined to be chased as well,
Division in Perspective – Light in Dark

youku
teamLab, 2014, Digital Installation, 4min 20sec, Sound: Hideaki Takahashi

A digital installation in three dimensions on seven screens.

A virtual world constructed in three dimensions on a computer is brought to life in moving images, using what we at teamLab consider to be the logical structure of the spatial perception of our Japanese ancestors (what we call “Ultra Subjective Space”).
The Japanese mythical bird Yatagarasu*, rendered in light, flies around the space, leaving trails of light in its wake which form a blank book.

The “Itano Circus” is a unique technique pioneered by Japanese animation and created by animator Ichiro Itano. The screen is packed to capacity with swarms of missiles that are drawn in a completely incorrect perspective (drawn distorted so that the audience will feel a stronger sense of dynamic movement and impact) and fly wildly about the space. Through ultra-high-speed camerawork and through staging that envelops the viewer’s perspective, this technique creates an overwhelmingly beautiful image.

In this digital artwork, as a homage to the Itano Circus, we expanded space distortion used in 2D animation to recreate in 3D space: this is to explore what sort of logical structure of spatial perception constitutes this distortion of space pioneered by Japan’s animators and to ask ourselves if this is in line with the continuous tradition of Japanese spatial perception. Furthermore, recreating a distorted space in three dimensions expands the viewer’s unrestricted perspective, thus attempting to recreate actual space. The installation, by dividing the viewers’ perspective and by deploying divided perspective into three dimensional space, is also an experiment to see what kind of experience viewers encounter.

Footnote:
Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow, is a creature found in Japanese mythology. It is believed to represent the sun and the will of Heaven.

Flower and Corpse Glitch Set of 12

youku
teamLab, 2012, Digital Work, 1min 50sec (9:16 × 12)

An animation work based on the concept of what at teamLab we call “Ultra Subjective Space”. The work consists of 12 film stories based on the themes of: civilization and nature, collision, circulation, symbiosis. The surface of Flower and Corpse Glitch falls away to reveal the hidden underside of the animation.

Process

teamLab believes that traditional “flat” Japanese painting has a different spacial logic to that of western perspective. We call this logic Ultra Subjective Space. For this art work: firstly three-dimensional objects are constructed for the virtual story, in an artificial three-dimensional space; then, to give the work the appearance of a traditional Japanese art work, the animation is flattened in line with what we consider to be the logical structure of spatial awareness of traditional Japanese art. Lastly, the surface of the work peels away to reveal the three-dimensional space in the production process of the work.
Fig. 1. The stories are created in three-dimensions in a three-dimensional space in line with the logic of Western perspective.
Fig.2. The space in Fig.1 is flattened in line with the logical structure of “Ultra Subjective Space”.

Motif

The theme of this work is the age of myth. civilization and nature, collision, circulation, symbiosis.

* Yamata no Orochi is a legendary creature from the “Chronicles of Japan; A Record of Ancient Matters”. He has eight heads and eight tails, his eyes are bright red, he has moss and trees growing on his back, his stomach is inflamed with blood, and it is said that his body is big enough to cross eight valleys and eight peaks. Yamata no Orochi stomach being inflamed with blood is thought to be symbolic of a river that has become murky or polluted with iron. The making of iron required the felling of large trees and this in turn caused flooding.

Concept of “Flower and Corpse Glitch Set of 12”

This animation art work is one of a series of works based on the concept of what at teamLab we call “Ultra Subjective Space.” By peeling away the surface of the work we reveal the three-dimensional space of the production process.

The computer represents the shape of an object in three dimensions by the information of an abstract structural lines of a mesh. When we strip away the surface we are able to see the three dimensional space that is made of sets of lines of the mesh. The reasons for stripping away the surface to glimpse at the production process are: firstly, we wished to revel the concept of “Ultra Subjective Space”. Secondly, even in today’s information society, new cultural developments are born from a continuity of culture, even though at first glance they may appear to have developed from the most recent times. Even though this work appears like a traditional japanese painting on the surface, behind the surface we find that it is built on a totally different concept and using technology. In other words, even that which is born from continuity is the product of methodology that can be different due to different challenges.

Story

1:Noble & Capital City
The capital city in all its aberrant glory. The noble, Hikaru Genji, is living amongst brilliant colors.
2:Disaster & Prosperity
An evil disease spreads throughout the capital. In order to discover the cause of the evil disease, Hikaru Genji follows the disease and journeys out of the city.
3:Mountain People & Festival
Hikaru Genji follows the disease and ends up at a mountain village. To celebrate the blessings of nature the village is holding a festival.
4:Daily Life & Forest
The village festival is over and the village returns to day-to-day life. Even under the influence of the evil disease the people bravely live on. While receiving the benefits of nature, people live in abundance and civilization develops by cutting down the trees.
5:The Spirit Tree & Yamata no Orochi
The mountain village is asked to provide a lot of timber for further development in the city. They cut down a large tree deep within the mountain. When they cut down the tree, suddenly, Yamata no Orochi appears from the fallen tree. Yamata no Orochi is furious with rage and causes heavy rain and flooding in the valley.
6:Yamata no Orochi & The Gods of the Forest
The Yamatanoorochi knocks the houses of the village of the mountain. Following the Yamata no Orochi on its rampage, the gods of the forest appear and begin to attack the people one after another.
7:Weapons & Battlefield
The mountain village ask the samurai to come to the mountain village, and a battle between the warriors and the gods of the forest and Yamata no Orochi begins.
8:Destruction & Victory
After a fierce battle the warriors make use of the developments of civilization, such as flaming arrows. Eventually the samurai warriors begin to be victorious.
9:Hunger & Wasteland
After the battle, the burned-out forest is a wasteland. The benefits of nature are lost and the mountain village suffers hunger and despair.
10:Flower & Corpse
Hikaru Genji is surrounded by the dead bodies of the gods of the forest and Yamata no Orochi. Despairing he spreads seeds over the corpse of Yamata no Orochi. Then, from the dead corpse, buds appear and numerous flowers bloom. The flowers grow over the trees and the forest is gradually restored​​.
11:Festival & Forest
The people of the mountain begin once again to reap the benefits of the forest and civilization is restored. The people of the village are determined to go on and live in harmony with the forest and the festival is once again held.
12:City & Festival
The evil disease subsides in the capital city. The people still do not know the cause of the disease, but they carry out a festival of thanks at this auspicious change of fortune.

Ultra Subjective Space

Cold Life

youku
teamLab, 2014, Digital Work, 2160×3840 pixels, 7min 15sec (loop), Calligraphy: Sisyu

A calligraphic series of brushstrokes modelled in virtual 3D space forms the character (Japanese/Mandarin for ‘life’) which then metamorphoses into a tree. As time passes, various life forms begin emanating and growing from within the tree.

This art work was created by peeling away the surface of the art work Life Survives by the Power of Life, teamLab 2011.

In computer graphics, and similarly in this digital work, wireframe models with abstract and high levels of data are rendered into 3D objects. When the facades of these computer-generated images are peeled off, their mesh-like structures are revealed underneath. As expressed via the intricacies of this work, teamLab exemplifies 3D rendering in its stripped-down state while maintaining a highly complex and elaborate construction.

This art work is Ultra HD, four times the resolution of FHD (Full High Definition). The high resolution allows for the expression of the extremely intricate detail of the work.

Ever Blossoming Life – Gold

youku
teamLab, 2014, Digital Work, endless

The image of this digital artwork is being created and drawn in real time by a computer program. The images are not pre-recorded nor played back.

Flowers are born, grow, and blossom in profusion before the petals begin withering and flowers die and disappear. The cycle of birth and death repeats itself, continuing for eternity and never duplicating previous states. The image shown now cannot be viewed again.

While the artwork is from an edition of 10, each work has its own life, producing different flowers, thus making it effectively as a unique piece of work.

The artwork is created in two versions: one with Gold background and another with Dark background. Each version is issued in an edition of 10 plus 2 A.P.s.

Ever Blossoming Life – Dark

youku
teamLab, 2014, Digital Work, endless

The image of this digital artwork is being created and drawn in real time by a computer program. The images are not pre-recorded nor played back.

Flowers are born, grow and blossom in profusion before the petals begin withering and flowers die and disappear. The cycle of birth and death repeats itself, continuing for eternity and never duplicating previous states. The image shown cannot be viewed again.

While the artwork is from an edition of 10, each work has its own life, producing different flowers, thus effectively making it a unique piece of work.

The artwork is created in two versions: one with Gold background and another with Dark background. Each version is issued in an edition of 10 plus 2 APs.

Universe of Water Particles

youku
teamLab, 2013, Digital Work, 1920×5400 pixels

Universe of Water Particles is a waterfall created in a computer-simulated environment. A virtual rock is first sculpted and computer-generated water, consisting of hundreds of thousands of water particles, is then poured onto it. The computer calculates the movement of these particles to produce an accurate waterfall simulation that flows in accordance to physical laws. Next, 0.1 percent of the particles are selected and lines are drawn in relation to them. The sinuousness of the lines depends on the overall interaction among the water particles and forms the magnificent cascade seen on screen.

The waterfall video art work is created in three-dimensions in a three-dimensional space in line with the concept of what we call “Ultra Subjective Space” – the logical structure of spatial awareness of ancient Japanese. The waterfall is rendered at a resolution five times that of full HD to allow for the intricate and extreme detail of the work.

Rock environment created in a computer space

Detail of rock sculpture

The waterfall simulation

Concept of “Universe of Water Particles”

In traditional Japanese painting, oceans, rivers, and bodies of water are expressed as a curvilinear series of lines. These lines give the impression of life, as though water itself were a living creature.
Did our ancestors perceive the world in the same manner as they depicted water in painting, as a living entity?
Why did our ancestors express water, the living energy coursing through rivers and oceans, in this way?
Is it because they perceived the world in the same manner as they depicted it in painting?
What implication did the notion of Nature-being a living creature that our ancestors were an integral part of-have on their perceptions of the world?

We feel that Universe of Water Particles embodies an integration of the modern objective world, as regulated by common sense and the subjective world of our ancestors.
Based on these ideas, we created water particles in a virtual 3D environment and expressed the materiality of water as a continuum of particles that flow in accordance with the laws of physics. We thought about how the ancient Japanese might have understood space and time. We reasoned that while compiling visual information in their minds, they would have experienced time on a longer axis. Stemming from this idea, we created a time lag during the simulation of the particles that left an afterimage. Following which, we formed lines from the afterimages.
When viewing the work, if one feels that rather than just it being a physical simulation of a waterfall, there is something within the lines from which they feel a presence of life, then perhaps there is an element of that subjectivity of our ancestors that is extant in our objective perceiving of the world today.

Furthermore, if one, drawn in by this universe of particles, feels as though they are immersed in the work and does not feel a barrier between them and the waterfall – such as one might feel when looking at a video recording of an actual waterfall – or maybe even feel one’s soul fusing with the lines of water/living energy, then perhaps they will be able to comprehend the connection between the ancient Japanese’s system of perception and their attitudes and behavior towards the world.

Nature is not just an object of our observation. We believe that the concept of being an integral part of Nature and the behavior it entails arose because our Japanese ancestors viewed rivers, oceans, etc., as living entities, and this made it easy to attach the concept onto themselves. Meaning to say, such modes of perception make it very easy for one to feel no boundary or separation from their environment.
This begets the question in today’s context, why is it that despite seemingly having an innate understanding that we are an integral part of this macrocosm, do our behaviors and actions portray the opposite, as though we as individuals are independent of the world?
Today, despite seemingly having an innate understanding that we are an integral part of this macrocosm, why do we act as though there is a boundary between us and the environment, that we are independent of the world?
It is our hope that through this approach to perception in our work, we will somehow be able to reach into the past and rediscover some of these lost connections with the world that our ancestors embodied in relation to that of current ways of seeing and interaction.

Understanding teamLab

Charles Merewether

teamLab is group of Japanese artists, programmers, architects, mathematicians, web and print graphic designers, programmers, editors, and engineers who have collaborated over the past several years to create an extraordinary body of artistic work. In many respects the work of teamLab advances on Japanese anime films that have captivated audiences for the beauty of the image and story-telling as much as their technique in re-presenting and extending a 2D Japanese painting into a computer-generated 3D virtual space. At first sight, their work appears a technological wonderment, provoking curiosity as to how it is achieved. As with the sheer spectacle of a work such as What a Loving, and Beautiful World, 2011, or the singularly powerful Spirit Waterfall, 2012, produced in a collaboration with the Japanese calligrapher Sisyu and sound musician Hideaki Takahashi, the possibility of immediate interaction by an audience overwhelms this curiosity.

For a Western audience, Japanese art has been long distinctive from other cultures in Asia and both high and popular art in Europe or Anglo-American world. In Japan, the comic tradition (manga) and anime stretches back to the thirteenth century and can be seen again running through the picture book and ukiyo-e traditions of the seventeenth century. More recently, in the post World War II period, artists such as Osamu Tezuka were highly successful in developing serialized comics. They became extremely popular, generating a massive circulation throughout Japan. Subsequently, manga and anime made a tremendous internationally impact. The artist Takashi Murakami brought into international prominence what he named as the “superflat” movement. Drawing inspiration from the local Japanese comic (manga) tradition, he used anime characters to create a virtual world filled with bright colors and highly glossy surface. The subcultural became patronized by art institutions previously devoted to “high” art and, through Murakami and others, high art became merchandised commercially. Murakami went on to form the successful Kaikai Kiki Company in Japan, operating both as a training ground for future artists and a commercial venture. Murakami repackaged and mixed high and popular cultures together, collapsing their former class distinctions and associated tastes.

Over the past several years, teamLab has taken anime to a new level acknowledging a long tradition while, at the same time, introducing a technological and contemporary sophistication unseen before. Toshiyuki Inoko, head of teamLab, has a background in Mechanical Engineering and Information Physics, and the team is composed of engineers and architects as well as artists and web designers. This has led some commentators to call teamLab “ultra-technologists.”

Dr. Charles Merewether is an art historian, writer and curator who has worked in Australia, Europe and the Americas. He worked as collections curator at the Getty Center in Los Angeles from 1994-2004. Between 2004 and 2006, he was artistic director and curator of the 2006 Biennale of Sydney and senior research fellow at the Centre for Cross Cultural Research, Australian National University. In October 2007, he was appointed deputy director of the Cultural District for the Tourist Development and Investment Company, Abu Dhabi. From March 2010 to December 2013 he was Director at Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore.

Dr. Charles Merewether has taught at the University of Sydney, Universitat Autònoma in Barcelona, the Ibero-Americana in Mexico City and the University of Southern California, and has lectured at the Beijing Academy of Art, Lingnan University in Hong Kong and the Asia Research Center at the National University of Singapore. Currently he is teaching at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Recent edited and co-edited publications include: Beijing-Venice-London: Ai Weiwei-Herzog & de Meuron (London/Basel, 2008), Art, Anti-Art,. Non-Art: Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970 (Los Angeles, 2007) and The Archive (London/Mass.,2006)

In a discussion with the art historian Yuji Yamashita, Inoko points to the distinction of Japanese spatial recognition from that of Western pictorial traditions.1 They discuss this theory and its importance when looking at Japanese painting and the lines of continuity with both manga and anime. teamLab has written that prior to the late Edo period, Japanese people had a different way of experiencing of seeing and understanding the world. The ancient Japanese visualized a picture from inside, blurring the subjective and the objective, without a focal point, whereas painting in the West considered the rules of perspective, geometry and objectification. A Japanese person sees the picture from within so that it becomes an ‘ultra-subjective space.’ The space appears layered and the movement of the eye is horizontal, so there is no one point from which to view the work. It is interactive so the viewer becomes involved in creating the work itself.

1: See “Ultra Subjective Space: A Dialogue between Inoko and Prof. Yamashita” in this e-catalogue.

teamLab have noted:

“The Tokyo of today is a confusion of reality and the non-real worlds that people have created; such as the fictional worlds of manga, animation, game and the internet. As can be seen from famous Japanese picture scrolls such as Animal-person Caricatures and the enthusiasm for Japanese puppet theatre of the Edo period, the Japanese have always had this ability to mix the fictional and real worlds. Now, with the birth of the internet there has been a huge explosion of the ways people are able to re-imagine themselves, and this has spilled over into the streets of Tokyo to become the new reality.” 2

Digital media art, in the hands of such artists as teamLab, succeed as an art of participatory installation and part of our everyday contemporary lives.

2: “Reality and Fiction” at http://www.team-lab.net/en/teamlabconcept.

Dialogue between Toshiyuki Inoko and Yuji Yamashita

Yamashita: Mr. Inoko, I saw your TED x Fukuoka presentation on "ultra-subjective space" on YouTube.

Inoko: I’m honored. TED x presentations are generally supposed to be around ten minutes long, with seventeen minutes being the absolute maximum. My presentation was pretty confusing so they let me go right up to the seventeen minute mark.

Yamashita: I didn't find it that confusing. On the contrary, I agreed with much of what you said.

Inoko: Really? As I said in my TED x talk, it’s not that Japanese art simply lacked a theory of spatial recognition and therefore produced “flat” images. Rather, we believe it had a highly refined and logical underpinning on the same level as, but wholly different from, that seen in Western pictorial traditions.

We wanted to confirm that theoretical understanding by ourselves and to identify its particular traits. We wanted to know what would happen if we took a 3D space, arranged three-dimensional objects like frogs and humans within that space, and then flattened the image based on our understanding of Japanese spatial (re)cognition. If people viewing the resulting image perceived it as distinctly Japanese in style, that would prove our hypothesis about the logic that drove Japanese art and, moreover, demonstrate that Japanese pictorial traditions did have a specific theory of spatial recognition behind them.

Photo © Hiromichi Uchida

Yuji Yamashita left
Art historian and professor at Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo. Born in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, 1958. Majored in the history of Japanese art at the University of Tokyo Graduate School, researching Muromachi period ink wash painting. Since his joint authorship of Nihon Bijutsu Oen-dan (Japanese Art Pep Squad) in 2000, Yamashita has actively appeared in the media as a spokesperson for the charms of Japanese art. Responsible for numerous exhibitions and publications.
Toshiyuki Inoko right
Head of teamLab, a group of "ultra-technologists" working in multimedia fields. Born in Tokushima, Japan, in 1977. In 2001, graduated from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Information Physics at the University of Tokyo's School of Engineering and founded teamLab with his peers. teamLab continues to produce works drawing major attention in various global art scenes.

Also, in Japanese paintings, the rivers and water are made up of many lines and have a sense of vitality. We surmised that people felt vitality in the natural world and imbued their pictorial expression with that sense of vitality. However, we soon began to feel that Japanese spatial recognition, dissimilar from its Western counterparts, might have considered that confluence of lines to be easier to visualize from a spatial point of view. Maybe lines based on such a spatial understanding produced an image that was then perceived as having vitality.

Yamashita: They did see such work as having vitality. That is why the Japanese way of seeing and representing nature was fundamentally and wholly different than that of the West.

By the way, during your TED x presentation, you showed a picture of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (Fig. 1) and referred to her as “this old lady,” at which the crowd cracked up. That was quite an amusing moment.

Fig. 1: Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503–06. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/Michel Urtado/distributed by AMF-DNPartcom

Differences in Western and Japanese spatial recognition

Inoko: As you know, the background in the Mona Lisa was drawn based on Western perspective. From the viewer’s vantage point, the space recedes into the background (Fig. 2-A). If we were to assume the position of the seated Mona Lisa (Fig. 2-B), however if we were “in” the picture, we would be looking out at the viewer (Fig. 2-C). In other words, it is impossible to assume the vantage point of the subject while simultaneously perceiving the space within the painting. Interestingly, our eyes are not actually built this way. Our vision is narrow and has a shallow depth of field. The brain takes visual input and organizes that information to create a composite image, producing a spatial awareness that resembles the perspective and depth of field seen in paintings. In the West, that cognitive process was summarized in the idea of pictorial “perspective.”

Yamashita: Western perspective took root in the Renaissance era, but I think there was something quite narrow-minded about taking the way humans saw the world and using that for pictorial purposes. There is a completely different dimension and approach to depicting the natural world and I believe Japanese art has operated at the very highest level and expression of that idea.

Inoko: Exactly, so we wanted to take a somewhat scientific approach to that question. We wanted to be able to take concrete proof and sort of say to people outside of Japan, "How do you like that?!" if you know what I mean.

Yamashita: Sure, sure, I get it. But aren't the technology and algorithms on which computer graphics are based derived from Western logic?

Inoko: No, I don’t think so. As someone in the sciences, I treat the domain of science as a world apart from culture. In other words, I consider mathematics and physics to be universal human tools—a lingua franca. Computers, math, physics, and similar concepts exist separate from the cultural backdrop, and they are, well, a tool. Moreover, Western perspective is one objective way of seeing the world.

Yamashita: It’s just one of many. Perspective is very refined, it is merely one form of spatial recognition among many.

Inoko: What I mean to say is that there are pluses and minuses to perspective, just as there are to Japanese-style spatial recognition. The merits of that Japanese approach have thus far not been discussed at large. Yet there are many benefits.

For example, take the Yamato-e depiction of space in the Genji Monogatari Emaki (Tale of Genji) (Fig. 3). In basic terms, the brain synthesizes the surroundings around the focal point, the floor included, and sees them all at a glance. If, hypothetically speaking, we take this to be a given, this means that the space inhabited by the subjects in the painting and the space seen by the viewer are more or less the same. In the Yamato-e depiction we assume the position of a viewer or a character within the artwork. (Fig. 4).

Fig. 2-A

Fig. 2-B

Fig. 2-C

Photo courtesy teamLab

Fig. 3: Tale of Genji: The 44th quire Takekawa (Genji Monogatari Emaki), Late Heian period. The Tokugawa Art Museum © Tokugawa Art Museum Image Archives / DNPartcom

Fig. 4: Photo courtesy teamLab

Yamashita: Japanese art was always about a participatory approach.

Inoko: The same can be seen in the garden design. Take the garden at the Palace of Versailles, a prototypical example of Western gardens (Fig. 5). A central axis conducts to a single focal point and view. The Western world saw things through the concept of perspective, so even manmade spaces exhibit this perspectival approach. Since perspective is disturbed when moving left or right, I wonder if the lines of movement were deliberately placed on a back-to-front axis.

Fig. 5: Gardens of Versailles, Palace of Versailles, France. Photo © Taro Nakajima/Aflo

By contrast, Japanese gardens (Fig. 6) build layered scenery that extends from the front inward, rather than towards the vanishing point. Spatial recognition in Japan sees the world as a series of layers, so manmade spaces are also designed based on this articulation of space. Moving front to back disturbs the design, but since there is no premise of a lateral focal point, the space allows for left-to-right movement. In other words, in Western design, the world faces a person as he moves through space; in Japan, it moves in parallel with him.

This may seem bold, but our view was that the various ways of seeing the world determined spatial design, which in turn fixed the lines of movement within those spaces. This ultimately decided whether the visual world faced people head-on or moved in parallel to their activities.

Which brings me to the world of the Super Mario Brothers video games. Side-scrolling action games (Fig. 7) were first created by Japanese animator and are now recognized worldwide as a seminal video game style. Note that Nintendo is based in Kyoto, the ancient capital. Surrounded by traditional spaces, with the world always moving horizontally alongside them, might have led Nintendo’s developers to wonder what would happen if that “horizontal world” were arranged as layers. In other words, a life lived within Japanese spatial design may have been at root in the creation of Mario and its distinctive style.

Fig. 6: Japanese garden, Komyoin Temple, Kyoto. Photo © Shinsuke Terada/Aflo

Fig. 7: Photo courtesy teamLab

Interior and exterior / subjective and objective / cyclical time

Inoko: The digital work Universe of Water Particles (Fig. 8), which we first exhibited at the Dojima River Biennale in Osaka, was not based on any original Japanese painting. Rather, it's based on our conjecture that the mind synthesizes visual information in a temporal fashion over long periods of time. We used a physical model to compute the movement of water particles and simulate them drawing lines in space, then flattened the image based on the Japanese-style spatial recognition we’ve been talking about. What if, when looking at this piece and the accumulation of lines it depicts, the viewer found it to have more vitality than video footage of an actual waterfall? What if the viewer could shift position and inhabit the vantage point of the waterfall, seemingly blurring the boundaries between subject and object?

Yamashita: I feel that that kind of interrelationship is fundamentally one of humility, you know? I consider myself but one part of nature, along with the mountains, rivers, grass, trees, and other natural scenery. With work like this, whether it’s plants, animals, or something else—the feeling is that of oneness with nature. What I mean is that this isn't a “conceptual” framework like we see in the West; I think it belongs in the domain of “experience.” You experience this artwork, not think about it. By the way, do you think this “Japanese way of seeing” comes down to DNA?

Inoko: No, no, of course not. We see it as a difference in systems of logic. The logic underpinning Japanese spatial recognition, we surmised, has to do with a blurring of subject and object when observing the world. In the West, by contrast, we figured the world is seen perspectively. Modern man, then, sees the world through the vector of television and photographs, which again employs perspective. The boundaries between subject and object are quite clear when perspective is deployed, with a line of separation, as it were, between the self and the outside world.

Emotionally speaking, we can get idealistic and say “Man is but one part of the Earth,” but the obvious retort is: “Really? You guys don’t seem to have merged with the outside world.” (Laughs) But, what if a lens or filter that could visualize the world based on the principles of Japanese spatial recognition were invented, and it were used for TV, video, and photographs? What if a visual approach different from Western spatial recognition took root and became the norm? There’d be no need for any special philosophical teaching about “Man is but one part of the Earth.” If all of mankind were looking at the world in that spatial manner, before long the boundaries between man and his environment would stop making sense, and we might create a new kind of society and culture. That is a bit hyperbolic on my part, but that's the kind of artwork we’d like to create at teamLab.

Yamashita: I may be just one individual, but that's how I already see the world, at least.

Inoko: We'd like to stimulate that kind of discussion in the world.

Fig. 8: teamLab, Universe of Water Particles, 2013. Photo courtesy teamLab

Yamashita: Personally, I don't really have this distinction about internal and external. If you flip your inner half inside out, you're back to the surface, you know? Genpei Akasegawa has a piece called Cosmic Can (Fig. 9)—he took the label from a tin can and glued it back on the inside of the can, so it curves in on itself. That’s what I’m talking about: this sense of no interior, no exterior. I think the same logic is at work in the traditional tea ceremony space: the Taian created by Sen no Rikyū and others like it are structurally like a black hole. It’s as though the exterior has been entirely consumed within the interior.

That sort of interaction between man and nature is decidedly different from Renaissance era, or Western, approaches. My sense is that a conflict-averse people who had this sentiment kept fleeing from the rest of the world, eventually arriving on this island nation where they could practice those ideas undisturbed.

There must be some DNA-like aspect to that, not to mention the biggest influence coming from the Japanese language itself. You've made some comments to the effect that spatial understanding and language are separate domains but I believe that what allows us to share this cognitive and sensory framework is Japanese itself, which is a highly unique language. It’s an incredibly complicated and ambiguous language.

Inoko: Like in Japanese painting, the language leaves subject and object vague. Yes, this is true of both artwork and spoken Japanese.

Yamashita: Exactly. It's a world apart from grammar that revolves around subject + verb + object.

Inoko: Take the particle "koto"—used with a verb, it means "the act of dying," "the act of eating," et cetera. Nouns are supposed to be standalone, objective entities, but when this "koto" accompanies them, it describes their "thingness," rather than a specific quality. The noun becomes fuzzy and ambiguous. I guess you could say they become "subjective" nouns.

Yamashita: That’s exactly right. I think this highly unique form of speech is deeply related to the way Japanese people live their lives. Japanese is very much a hybrid language, right? Take the characters used. Is there any language that mixes so many different characters, syllables, and alphabets into a single medium like Japanese does? No. Therefore, the way we process the visual aspects of text information is completely different from places where only alphabets are used. Japanese text conveys immediate images and visual data. People who work with simple alphabet-based text end up with very linear logic. Japanese, by contrast, encourages a kind of richly stratified and layered thinking, I feel. I think that directly relates to Japanese art and the unique way of seeing the world that you've described.

My thought process is inflected through the Japanese language to the utmost, and I consider myself a being residing on this peninsula of a country, jutting into the Pacific Ocean in the farthest reaches of the Far East. So I’d say I think I’m exactly the opposite of that Western, Renaissance-style logic structure and epistemology.

Fig. 9: Genpei Akasegawa, Cosmic Can (Canned Crab), 1964/1994. Photo © Genpei Akasegawa/Courtesy SCAI THE BATHHOUSE

Inoko: Then there’s Japanese onomatopoeia and sound words—another unique feature. Hirohiko Araki and his JoJo's Bizarre Adventure manga (Fig. 10) are well known for this. Although there are languages with onomatopoeic words for sounds, only Japanese uses mimetic words that express states and ideas for things that do not make sounds. These mimetic words have persisted, I think, through video game culture in the contemporary world. When a block moves, it doesn't actually make a “boink” sound like in Mario. Just as these sounds were used in manga, they came to be used to add new physical dimensions to video games. Or when a mushroom causes Mario to grow, you hear that synthesized “growing” sound, impossible to replicate in other languages. It’s almost as though the conventions of manga were deployed thoroughly in video games. Or when you hit a trampoline: “Pyoing.” I think designers just relished lifting these words off the pages of books and out of readers’ minds and turning them into sound effects.

Fig. 10: A page from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure by Hirohiko Araki. Photo © Hirohiko Araki & Lucky Land Communications / Shueisha

Yamashita: Speaking of sound, I think Japanese painting also encompasses the elapsing of time, something very different from Western art. It’s a matter of course for paintings to feature four seasons all in one piece. Quite the opposite from Western art, these images never bother themselves with duplicating an exact moment seen by the naked eye. Instead, they take a birds-eye view of nature. It’s essentially God looking down at a scene. This was considered the norm. The Uesugi version of the Rakuchu-Rakugai-zu (folding screens of Kyoto) (Fig. 11 A & B) shows a range of seasonal activities held throughout the year in Kyoto. A historian, however, analyzed the buildings and stated that the image depicted a scene in 1547. This turned into a debate with an art historian—and this is exactly the kind of thinking that is marginalized by Western, Renaissance-style ways of looking at art.

Fig. 11-A: Kanō Eitoku, Rakuchu rakugai zu, (Uesugi version), Muromachi period (detail). Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum.

Fig. 11-B: Kanō Eitoku, Rakuchu rakugai zu, (Uesugi version), Muromachi period. Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum.

This image depicts buildings that actually existed standing alongside ones that had already been lost to fires. Therefore tying it down to a specific date is, again, narrow-minded. Rather, you have to consider yourself as being in a more circular flow of time. After a year, things return to their start. The earth rotates each day. Japanese people were instinctively experiencing the cyclical flow of time well before the heliocentric and geocentric theories even got off the ground.

The image that captures this world view—this cosmic view—best is the Landscape with the Sun and Moon, housed at Kongoji Temple (Fig. 12). It shows the seasons. Presumably, the artist Sōtatsu would have seen images like that one. It may have served as the inspiration for his Waves at Matsushima (Fig. 13); I feel it’s a cosmic image that depicts Japanese people’s sense of time and space in one piece. The sun and moon appear in the same image. This far surpasses the verisimilitude of Renaissance painting or the visual language of a single person’s point of view.

Fig. 12: Landscape with the Sun and Moon, Muromachi period. Kongoji, Osaka.

Fig. 13: Tawaraya Sōtatsu, Waves at Matsushima, Edo period. The Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Inoko: Because our artwork involves animation or interactive elements, time is already in play, so it’s quite a challenge to interpret what that element brings to the experience. If we take the approach you describe, though, it almost doesn't matter whether it’s animated, interactive, or something else.

Yamashita: I'd love to see a video of time passing in the sun and moon scroll in a looping, circular fashion. Then it could start spinning super fast, until you couldn't make sense of it...

What about Jakuchu's Pictures of the Colorful Realm of Living Beings? That thirty-piece collection shows a wide range of seasonal motifs. It seems Jakuchu felt a need to incorporate all aspects of the four seasons. Not only that, but we see a southern rooster, from a place where it would never snow, depicted in a snowy scene. Like Pheasant in the Snow (Fig. 14), a scroll which shows a golden pheasant, a bird from southern China, Jakuchu effortlessly transcends the spatial temporal limits we would see in equivalent Western art. Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants has similar features.

Fig. 14: Itō Jakuchū, Golden Pheasants in Snow from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, c. 1761–65. Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo.

Continuity in creativity and culture

Yamashita: I've also felt that the explosive interest in Jakuchu's work of late has to do with the fact that the images are extremely well-suited to computer screens. That being said, Pictures of the Colorful Realm of Living Beings has a certain texture that can only be experienced firsthand. There may be a lot of people who've seen this work onscreen and think they get it, but the way the thin coat of paint has blended with the silk canvas has a certain texture and flavor that simply cannot be replicated. That’s the most remarkable aspect of that work. Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants is much more suited to the computer screen. So I absolutely agree with your choice to use that as the basis for teamLab’s Nirvana.

By the way, when did you first take an interest in Jakuchu? Were you interested in Japanese art since your school days?

Inoko: I sure was! I never imagined I'd be doing work like this, though. . .I like Japanese culture, I like new frontiers in digital technology, and I didn't see clear-cut boundaries between science, art, technology, and design. When we launched teamLab in the winter of 2001, we did some work for a live music event. We broadcasted it live on the Internet and let users post comments in real-time, and then we had that text flow across the venue—we acted as VJs and used the whole space as our canvas (Fig. 15). We simply wanted to make it a live concert suited to Internet age, and the people in charge of the event told us we’d come up with a new form of expression…!

Yamashita: You've gone knee-deep into it, now.

Inoko: Exactly.

Yamashita: Was Jakuchu your entry point for all this?

Inoko: Yeah. To exaggerate a bit, Jakuchu was the start for me.

Yamashita: You’d be surprised. There are a lot of people who started out the same way, really.

Inoko: We got our start with that concert. Next we installed sensors in trees on the first floor of the same building and projected a video onto them. When people got close to the trees, little video fireflies would seem to fly away. Then in 2002, we made a piece in the lobby based on Jakuchu’s work.

The first time I saw Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants, it reminded me of 8-bit pixel art from the Nintendo years. I guess you could call it digital in appearance, or that it looked like the pixel art that was the norm given the limitations of the old Nintendo hardware and other devices. I remember writing something to that effect when I first saw it.

Fig. 15: Photo courtesy teamLab

Generationally speaking, I grew up on manga and anime, so I’ve always felt a greater affinity for the artwork in video games and comics than for the great masterpieces of Western art. Not just the images themselves, but the stories behind them rather than Hollywood-style plotlines, the premises and worldview behind manga have always been more intuitive to me. People of my generation and beyond tend not to look up to the West in the way generations before us did. In fact, we’re part of a generation that loves Japan and wants to see it renewed. We were of the mindset that Akira Toriyama’s artwork [Dragon Ball (Fig. 16) creator] was the best, bar none.

Yamashita: In other words, your generation has none of the complexes associated with wartime defeat like those before you did.

Fig. 16: Akira Toriyama, Dragon Ball. Photo © Akira Toriyama / Shueisha

Inoko: None whatsoever. Hollywood movies and the like just didn’t resonate with us. It was almost like, “Hollywood movies? Why are you watching those?” Right around when I first saw Jakuchu’s work was when the manga One Piece (Fig. 17) by Eiichiro Oda had started appearing in magazines. I felt like Oda was a legitimate successor to Akira Toriyama, and I was pretty excited to see where this would go. So I was all excited about “the next Toriyama” when I stumbled upon Jakuchu’s paintings. With those thoughts still in my mind, I looked at his work and suddenly had this insight about the pictorial traditions that had continued, unbroken, from Jakuchu’s time up to the present. Obviously there was a big gap in my timeline, but the way I saw it was, “Eiichiro Oda stands on the shoulders of Akira Toriyama—and Toriyama stands on the shoulders of Ito Jakuchu!” It seemed to me that Toriyama and Jakuchu had the same quality of line and I began to think there was continuity at work.

Yamashita: So this is what you meant in your TED x talk about how "creativity transcends the individual and forms a part of continuous culture." I absolutely agree. The fact that manga has come this far in Japan has a very close relationship with the particularities of the Japanese language, like I mentioned earlier. You can glance at a comic page and take in a host of visual information expressed by the Japanese text and drawings on the page. Alphabet-based languages simply can’t offer this.

Inoko: What do you think helps the images and text coexist in that way?

Yamashita: If you think about it, Japanese typefaces resemble images in their own right. Consider that the kanji brought in from China are derived from ideographs. These are combined with Japan’s native kana syllables, which emphasize sound over meaning. Since you have both in tandem—meaning and sound—that makes for a robust visual language.

As seen with kanji, Japanese culture constantly derives positive stimulation from foreign ideas, and the more it derives this stimulation the more refined an output it produces. I like to call this a “beautiful defect.” The same goes for manga, fusion pop music, Meiji era oil painting, and so on. Going further back, the ink wash drawings of the Muromachi period were also the product of this intercourse. There was always a strong catalyst that produced a superb result. These “beautiful defects” have something deep about them that shakes us to the core. I think this is owed to our position in the furthest Far East and the way we interpret culture out here, away from everything else.

Inoko: Is Japan’s approach to spatial recognition and pictorial expression seen throughout Asia?

Yamashita: There is no mistaking that Japanese art is based on Chinese forms, but I don’t think we can call the end product universal.

Inoko: But beyond the image, there is the spatial notion of “interior” and “depth,” correct?

Yamashita: Right. The notion of a deep interior may be seen throughout Asia, but I think we could say that the layered approach to space—as seen in the Rakuchu-Rakugai-zu—is unique to Japan.

Inoko: Earlier, I talked about Dragon Ball, One Piece, and Jakuchu in the same breath, but I actually feel that, in terms of spatial recognition, the over-world maps in Dragon Quest and Super Mario Brothers are what overlap best with the style of the Rakuchu-Rakugai-zu. At teamLab, we felt that the only way to truly make a proper 3D piece was by building a logical basis for the flattening process—we intuitively felt that the Rakuchu-Rakugai-zu and the Dragon Quest games apply the same spatial principles, but we needed to logically prove this and create routines based on that concept.

I also happen to like the map screens in Super Mario World. They feature ladders and bridges, but the perspective is completely out of keeping with Western conventions. The ladders are perpendicular as seen from the front, but the brides are a flat overhead view. Having these occupy the same plane seems absurd but within Japanese spatial recognition it is very much appropriate.

Yamashita: Exactly. This is that intuitive “felt image” I was talking about.

Inoko: Say you have to move up to collect a treasure. Unless you objectively treat the image as an image, you can’t execute this. You objectively study the onscreen map while embodying the role of the protagonist. In other words, the strengths of Japanese spatial recognition came fully to the fore in the realm of video games.

If you don’t interpret the image on its own terms, you cannot properly manipulate your avatar—the image has to be seen as a free plane you inhabit, not a background incidental to the object. This fact should be obvious to a game player, but I began to think that this was an amazing characteristic unique to Japanese-style games. Since, by Western spatial conventions, it’s impossible to become the subject, Western games don’t show the protagonist’s body—you essentially play as yourself in first person.

As I worked on a variety of pieces, what I began to notice about spatial recognition in Japanese art is that it places a range of focal points throughout the space, with the views therein applicable to different points in the actual space the viewer occupies.

Fig. 17: Eiichiro Oda, One Piece. Photo © Eiichiro Oda/ Shueisha

One of the pieces that played on this dimension was Peace can be Realized Even without Order (Fig. 18). Holograms of people are seen making music, dancing, and moving about freely, seemingly independent of each other but when the figures are in proximity, they affect the sound produced by their neighbors, creating a unified, harmonious sound.
In Japanese spatial recognition, the idea of an individual apprehending the entirety of the seen space versus apprehending small details up close are, logically speaking, the same.

Even in the absence of a complete blueprint and with multiple actors moving independently within the frame, a meaningful whole is achieved from these constituent parts. This is extremely interesting to me! We tried to explore this in a pictorial fashion with our giant mural (The TOKYO SKYTREE Mural, 40 meters wide and 3 meters tall) for the entrance to Tokyo SkyTree ® (Fig. 19). We wanted to create the most information-dense image in human history, so every detail was painstakingly drawn by hand. At its peak we had six to seven people working on the piece at the same time—even so, it took nearly two years to complete. Although each artist did not have a complete full-scale apprehension of the piece they zoomed in and intently drew their respective area, be it the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, Studio Alta in Shinjuku, pedestrians, and so on. But since each artist was operating within the parameters of Japanese spatial recognition, even without knowing how or where their constituent pieces would fit in, these “parts” just fit of their own accord. In other words, even building discrete parts and compiling them without a master blueprint, you can produce a piece that is functionally the same as if you had apprehended the entire scale from the outset.

Fig. 18: teamLab, Peace can be Realized Even without Order, 2013. Photo courtesy teamLab

Fig. 19: teamLab, The TOKYO SKYTREE Mural, 2012. Photo courtesy teamLab

Yamashita: Since we exist smack-dab in the middle of reality at every moment, we can pick up the thread from any direction and keep unraveling it in a continuous fashion. In a Western thought process, however, reality is to be apprehended and viewed from a single, unified vantage point.

This then leads to a hegemonic struggle over who has the more “correct” and comprehensive viewpoint. It’s only natural that this leads to “confrontation” within Western culture.

Inoko: The idea of the individual becomes stronger.

Yamashita: In the ideal world, the sense of self and the individual would cease to exist. This is just what Hakuin talks about in Zen Buddhism.

Inoko: In terms of logic, that's also the case. The systems of logic at work in ancient Japan gave root to this kind of collective work, which became a standard approach. Western art practice placed emphasis on a complete, unified, and perfect blueprint made by a perfect genius, without which collective work was deemed impossible. Yet in Japan, the same outcome was achieved in the absence of master plans. In point of fact, for our projects, we, too, skip the design phase and manage to produce functional pieces all the same.

Yamashita: We can do without design. There's no point in espousing how the world is supposed to be. We already have shared sensibilities, so it's enough to emphasize that and work naturally. I don't think Japan needs a hard-and-fast decision-making process. Up until the Edo period, Shintoism and Buddhism existed in a syncretic fashion—there surely aren't many other countries that evolved with such a hybrid religious backdrop.

Inoko: Instead of a top-down master plan, Japan showed extreme tolerance and open-mindedness towards its populace, allowing for a highly innovative society to take root.

Yamashita: Maybe we should go back to an isolationist Japan. It’s not too late. (Laughs)

Erimi, Fujihara. “Dialogue between Toshiyuki Inoko and Yuji Yamashita.” Adapted from Introducing teamLab by Toshiyuki Inoko, 2013. Ed.Yoshio Suzuki. Tokyo: Magazine House.

teamLab (f. 2001, Tokyo, Japan) is a collaborative, interdisciplinary creative group that brings together professionals from various fields of practice in the information age: artists, editors, programmers, engineers, mathematicians, architects, web and print graphic designers, and CG animators. Referring to themselves as “Ultra-technologists,” their aim is to achieve a balance between technology, art, commerce, and creativity. Their work encompasses animation, sound, performance, Internet, fashion, design, and even medical science.

Implicit in teamLab’s work are new values to guide individual behavior in the information era and the proposal of an alternative model for societal development. Their work offers insight into the nature and vitality of contemporary Japanese culture past and present. In an era of blurred boundaries between technology and art, interdisciplinary collaboration has become a signature component of our time. teamLab’s approach fosters collective ingenuity and exploration of the diverse possibilities for a new era of artistic development.

teamLab has been the subject of numerous exhibitions in Asia and abroad. In 2011, teamLab presented LIVE! at Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki Gallery in Taipei. Other recent solo exhibitions include teamLab: We are the Future, 2012, at the Digital Arts Creativity and Resource Center at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung; and teamLab and Saga Merry-go-round Exhibition, 2014, at the Saga Prefectural Art Museum, which was shown at subsequent venues including The Saga Prefectural Space & Science Museum, Kyushu Ceramic Museum, and Saga Prefectural Nagoya Castle Museum, Saga, Japan.

Over the past two years, teamLab has mounted five public installations in Japan including digital works at KITTE, Tokyo, Kunisaki Art Project, Oita, and Canal City Hakara, Fukuoka, as well as Vortex of Water Particles, 2014, and What a Loving and Beautiful World, 2011, an interactive animation installation at Narita International Airport, Chiba.

Crows are chased and the chasing crows are
destined to be chased as well,
Division in Perspective – Light in Dark

Flower and Corpse Glitch Set of 12

Cold Life

Ever Blossoming Life – Gold

Ever Blossoming Life – Dark

Universe of Water Particles