Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Seeds of 'Unearthly Delights': teamLab's Digital Garden

teamLab's immersive, interactive art, part of of Japan Society's' fall exhibition Garden of Unearthly Delights.

TeamLab is a collective of around 300 individuals specializing in various areas such as art, design, mathematics, and computer engineering. With their combined efforts, they create works that blur the lines between art and technology.

Although they invent cutting-edge software to create their art, their roots are distinctly traditional, drawing inspiration from scenes of nature and domestic landscapes commonly found in classical Japanese paintings.

Their artistic and technological prowess can be viewed in the exhibition Ultra Subjective Space at Pace Gallery through August 15. Much of the work depicts a three-dimensional world with three-dimensional objects, but “flattened” to emulate the look of Japanese paintings.

Traditional East Asian landscape paintings depict space in layers of picture planes; one at the foreground, the other in the middle-ground, and then the last one indicating the farthest space in the background. Transitional spaces are to be then completed in one’s own (i.e. subjective) imagination. On the other hand, Western art has been using a linear perspective with one fixed point.

"Western approach to spatial representation is based on optical illusion," explains Miwako Tezuka, director of Japan Society Gallery. "Before Japanese learned the linear perspective system to create visual illusion in painting, I think they felt, rather than saw the depth by empathetically entering into the planes of foreground, middle-ground, and background of paintings.

Teamlab shares this point of view, stating in their manifesto:
We propose that people in Japan at that time may have actually seen the world as they chose to depict it in Japanese painting. People of today have a perception of space that is based on the perspective they see in photos and paintings, but is it not possible that people of old saw and were able to feel space in the art work they looked at?” teamLab wrote on their website.
In an evocative review of the Pace exhibition, VICE illustrated teamLab's achievement of capturing this:
The European standard of linear perspective is absent from these compositions, allowing viewers to place themselves anywhere inside the scene, rather than being limited to a single point of view… [The works] each capture a celebratory perspective on nature, effortlessly combined with the sleek, clean, hi-tech texture intrinsic in their medium.
The combination of design and technology also makes their work an interactive experience.

The Ever Blossoming Life series, for example, shows a cluster of flowers in a gold background and a dark blue-black background where flowers bloom, drop their petals, wither, and die with progression of time. While the flowers collectively bloom and wilt ad infinitum, they are programmed so that they display the images in real time and never duplicate their previous states. Just like real flowers, each flower bud blooming, wilting and falling cannot be repeated exactly the same again. The life of each plant, the duration of each flower is a unique image in space and time.

After their Pace Gallery show, teamLab will have their first major museum presentation in Japan Society Gallery's fall exhibition Garden of Unearthly Delights: Works by Ikeda, Tenmyouya & teamLab. Their work is a perfect fit for the show that highlights visionaries shaping the present and future of Japanese art while harkening to the past.

The moving images that teamLab creates are extraordinary in the original sense of the word: their nature-filled landscapes not only reminisce one of the classical Japanese painting subjects of “flowering plants of four seasons” but also are truly out of this world, says Tezuka.

"They contain so much more visual and philosophical information than what our mere eyes can perceive. They invite our multi-sensory participation, and this fall, we will have that very chance to participate in strolling through a brand-new digital garden that will blossom in Japan Society Gallery."

--Younjoo Sang

Photo: teamLab (est. 2001), United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World, 2013 (detail). Interactive digital work, 8 screens; endless, 9:16; sound by Hideaki Takahashi. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Taiko Drumming: The Whole Body Pulse of Japan's Resounding 'Heartbeat'

Does Kodo have a workout video? Image via.

Learning an instrument is a physical challenge as much as a musical one, from proper finger placement on guitar, to shoulder and back strength for cello, to mastering a variety of breathing techniques needed to sound any wind instrument. After thousands of hours of rigorous practice, the sole motivator for taking on such an arduous task may be the rewarding feeling when a song finally plays to perfection.

But motivators can also be mental health, a means of meditation or a whole body workout. All three are possible with taiko, the word for Japanese drums and traditional Japanese drumming, often considered the resounding 'heartbeat' of Japanese culture.

The popularity of taiko can be seen in its many benefits. Some choose to play taiko because of their love of music or their interest in Japanese culture. The meditative aspect stems from the instruments' roots in religion, specifically Buddhism. In terms of full body workout, the physical stamina required increases depending on the size of the drums and weight of the drumsticks, as well as the degree of strength and control needed to create different sounds. This does not necessarily mean taiko players must be physically fit to learn to play (though they probably will be after a few years of playing regularly). Anyone can learn from small children to the elderly, and benefits abound for people with disabilities (taiko has been used as therapy for people with Downs Syndrome and autism, and deaf people can play by feeling the vibrations made by other players).

Originally, taiko was not the big production that it is today. According to Japanzine, a national magazine about Japan, the clay figure of a man beating a drum dated around the 6th or 7th centuries is the earliest evidence of taiko in Japan. Further evidence supports that it was originally used on the battlefield as a way to intimidate the enemy.

Over the centuries, taiko was incorporated into daily village life as a timekeeper, into imperial court music, into religious activities as the powerful sounds became associated with the gods, and  has become the centerpiece of many matsuri (Japanese festivals). It was not until post-war Jazz musician Daihachi Oguchi created the first ensemble format of taiko with multiple drums and rhythms that taiko developed into the arrangements seen today.

Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble performs in 2012. 

Taiko has spread across the globe with world renowned professional groups like Tao and Kodo, purveyors such as Kenny Endo and hundreds of esteemed amateur ensembles. Among several in New York are the New York Suwa Taiko Association, which has performed at several Japan Society events; the New York Taiko Aiko Kai, a resident group of the TC Taiko Society at Columbia University's Teachers College; and Brooklyn's only taiko group Taiko Masala, which will head up the taiko portion of Japan Society's 2014 summer high school workshop, From Taiko Drumming to J-Pop Music & Dance.

Everywhere people are inspired to play taiko with its unforgettable sound and enriching benefits. As much as an opportunity to learn an instrument, taiko is a way to experience and contribute to the heartbeat of Japan.

As the old kakegoe goes, SO-RE!

--Ana Belen Gomez Flor
The New York Suwa Taiko Association launched Japan Society's all day j-CATION festival in 2012. Photo by George Hirose.