Back dropped by the monumental Marina Bay Sands, and perched next to the much-loved Singapore River, sits the ArtScience Museum. While it is said to have been inspired by the form of a lotus - its fingers stretching into the sky from the water beneath - for me it has always been more reminiscent of an otherworldly space ship, with a powerful draw beckoning me inward from the moment I saw it nestled amongst Singapore’s extraordinary skyline.
As its name suggests, the ArtScience Museum seeks to provide a public space where art and science collide, and where viewers can examine the fast evolving and increasingly integrated role that technology is playing within culture and society at large. Through an impressive rotation of international exhibitions, workshops, performances and educational programmes the museum collaborates with an extraordinarily broad array of disciplines creating a very unique museum within the city that attracts an impressively diverse viewership of all ages.
To serve an anchor to the museum, last year saw the opening of teamLAB’s permanent immersive installation Future World, an extraordinary digital playground that the Japanese collective have masterfully brought to life across the basement floor. It has become the go-to escape when it is too hot or too rainy (which is often) in this garden city of Singapore. The exhibition delights children, grownups and grandparents alike (alone or together!) and it is so full of ever changing enchantment that it never seems to get old.
Referring to themselves as ultratechnologists, teamLab is a collective interdisciplinary group composed of creatives that work in various fields of the digital society: artists, programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians, architects, web and print graphic designers and editors. With offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore and a numbering around 400 members, teamLab is rather unique and unlike any other collective current or past, as is their underlying mission which is to use art and technology to encourage positive change in society through creativity. No small thing.
So – lets get to the main event! Last week I headed to the mother ship with my 20 months old son Milo. This is not the first time he has been to Future World, but I have to say, like all those times before, it seemed like a whole new world to him yet again, every room, corner, and wall full of new wonder and excitement. The exhibition is loosely divided into 4 sections: Nature, Town, Park, Space.
Starting in the realm of Nature, the first room holds the 360 projection Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are destined to be Chased as well, Transcending Space. An attendant ushered us in and suggested that we sit down, which of course I ignored… I was expecting what we saw last time, which was a projection of beautiful petals slowly cascading down the walls and pooling at our feet. Not so – It seems that the projection in this room has been changed, and before we knew it we were thrown into a whirling vortex as birds and ribbons of light swooped and pirouetted around us, over us, under us. The attendant was right. We sat down pronto so as not to topple over in the excitement! Once seated I kept looking at Milo who was tucked into my crossed legs, thinking that any moment this would be too much for his little brain to take in (it was almost overwhelming for my bigger brain to comprehend), but no, he was completely mesmerised in silent rapture.
My favorite part of watching him in this light installation was when he started reaching his little hand out, trying over and over again and catch the light as it passed over and around him. It was wonderful through him to realize that the projection somehow managed to really embody the space, it wasn’t pressed against the walls but rather it was palpable, cohabitating the space with us, and, if you didn’t know better, even graspable. As it finished and the lights went on, Milo turned around to me in shock – “More?!” he questioned. More? Turned out to be the question that followed us around the whole exhibition from then on…
Next up was Black Waves an animated wall stretching around one side of a room showing flattened waves rising and falling before you, the surface of the water hitting at about grown-up eyelevel so as to make one feel that you are somehow within the water itself. It is dark in the room, and above the water is pitch black making the movement, colour and sound of the water the only focus possible. People were laying on the ground on bean bags to experience the work, but Milo wanted to investigate and (tentatively) made his way up to the screens, looking back at me for assurance with every step until mustering the courage to put his hand out and touch the watery wall in front of him. Once the seal of fear has been broken, he was off! Up and down the length of the screen he ran, in and out of the folds of the water. Again he couldn’t believe what he was seeing and you could see that it made him excited in the novelty.
Following Black Waves one enters the two main interconnecting rooms, and I must say that there is a lot going on and trying to work out where the Nature section ends and Town, Park Space etc begin is a challenge. Upon entering the rooms, I always think that all hell is going to break loose with so much choice, excitement and children, but in fact, so compelling is each installation that people become entranced and focused rather than overwhelmed with choice. There are a number of different stations of interaction, so I will mention a few of our favorite: Sliding through the Fruit Field where as visitors slide down a slope, their movement and energy is transferred to the fruit field and cause the flowers and fruit around them to blossom – Milo is not yet a big slider so he just watch the others… Media Block Chair where glowing blocks can be pushed around this way and that by willing toddlers, their colours changing as they connect with on another – this unsurprisingly remains a big hit for Milo and definitely trumps his at home love of pushing of a suitcase around our apartment...
There is Universe of Water Particles, a seven-meter tall virtual waterfall where every water particle comes together to flow according to the laws of physics resulting in the simulation of what looks like a real waterfall; Light Ball Orchestra the playful and dynamic area were kids rush around with beach ball sized glowing globes that resonate as they bounce around and make contact with one another and change colour (Milo desperately wanted to get involved here and threw himself into the pit – only to be swiped to the side by the older kids and being forced to find his place in the smaller toddler area!); and finally a constant source of joy linking everything together Graffiti Nature – an ecosystem of animals, flowers and butterflies that move everywhere along the floor. These little critters and beautiful plants appear and disappear in a wonderful array – from giant sea turtles and blue whales, to the smallest of geckos, butterflies and flowers. Like in the first room, Milo couldn’t comprehend that these were not real and rushed back and forth trying to catch everything, and laughing each time they eluded his grasp keeping on their paths forward.
Back dropping everything are two massive screens that stretch the length of each of the main rooms - Sketch Town and Sketch Aquarium - each screen depicting just that, one a fictitious town and the other an aquarium. What makes them amazing is the fact that the content of these screens are dependant on the visitor drawings that they then digitally scan into a machine, which then sends them up to appear on the screens before your very eyes. The objects and animals also react to the touch and movement of those in font of the screen, speeding up or changing direction in reaction to the physically interaction of the viewer. Although Milo is a little small for full engagement with this from start to finish, he none the less was absolutely entranced by the images moving in front of him and we spend a long time spotting airplanes, cars and diggers in Town and fish, sharks and octopus in Aquarium. These two installations are remarkable, not only technologically, but for the sheer joy and pride they instil in the children (and grownups) that see their drawing creations come to life. There is nothing like seeing children wide eyed, squealing with joy at their involvement.
The final room one walks through (and that we see so often on Instagram) is Crystal Universe, a space made seemly infinite through the placement of mirrors and than 170,000 LED lights. One feels as though you are in the middle of the universe, wrapped in stars, and for a moment it is quiet and serene and beautiful. However, touching is not allowed, and as you pass through the instillation through the narrow space provided… with a toddler… of course touching is the only option and was a must in the mind of Milo. This resulted in our being reprimanded and my having to scurry through while strong-arming an angry Milo into no-touching submission to the Exit! Not the most zen of finales!
Regardless we will be back and you should too! All in all Future World is an extraordinary place of discovery and exploration. teamLab’s work has been questioned by the art community for not being ‘real art’ but rather just a beautiful gimmick. However, with each visit I feel there is something more than that. Yes one is seduced by the beauty of it, and it is amusing to think that the collective hopes to inspire a more balanced and consciences relationship between man and nature, yet their work is a completely fabricated digital reality, however, I increasingly admire the simple fact that their work encourages play across the ages. This is something that we often forget, but is also something fundamental to human nature, something we need reminding to do. Toshiyuki Inoko from teamLab says, “We are honoured to share some of our most recently created artworks and hope the universality of their themes—creativity, play, exploration, immersion, life, and fluidity—will seep into the broader conscience.” I feel that with Future World, their goal is certainly achieved and I will head back just to see Milo’s face light up as he watches the magic unfold before him.