Feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland as gigantic digital images of red, white and cream-colored dahlias budded, bloomed and shattered on the wall in front of me, I dithered over what I was watching. Is it a forward step in the march of modernism or a debasement of art into theme-park amusement ?
The dazzling floral extravaganza by teamLab, a digital art collective based in Tokyo, is the dynamic centerpiece of an inaugural exhibition at Superblue, a Miami “experiential art center ” (or an E.A.C. to initiates) that starts invitational previews next week before opening to the general public on April 22. Backed by the juggernaut Pace Gallery and Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective, Superblue is the blue-chip contestant in the rapidly growing field of immersive art.
The popularity of this genre is driven by contradictory desires, as exhibited memorably from the line of visitors in 2019 who waited up to six hours for a one-minute stay amid the twinkling lights in Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirror room in the David Zwirner gallery at Chelsea. Malnourished by their telephones and computer screens, people yearn for real-life experiences. And yet they remain stuck in the gravitational pull of virtual reality: The experiences they seek are ones they can record on their mobile cameras and article on social networking.
The renovated warehouse that Superblue occupies in Miami is across the road from a more traditional modern art institution, the Rubell Museum, which reopened at the end of 2019 in Allapattah, a commercial and working-class area west of its former place in the now-gentrified Wynwood district. Mera Rubell told Marc Glimcher, the chief executive of Pace, regarding the access to the building when they happened to be seated next to each other at a big dinner. The structure contains 31,000 square feet of exhibition space, with 30-foot ceilings. It’ll display installations for a year or a year and a half before they’re trucked off to other Superblue websites in yet-to-be-announced cities. Thats something we must do in order to make the economics work, Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, the London-based co-founder, told me on a Zoom call.
For the inaugural exhibition, Superblue included “AKHU” by James Turrell, the Southern Californian who’s an éminence grise of the experiential art world. The installation is exactly what Turrell calls a Ganzfeld, a German term that refers to the loss of spatial perception that happens in a featureless, uniform visual area, like a fog whiteout. ( Like Schadenfreude Ganzfeld has no English counterpart.) In AKHU (an ancient Egyptian term which roughly translates as spirits ), an oblong of light is projected on a smooth blank wall and tints the space. The color of this light gradually changes. If you scale the black-carpeted measures toward the threshold of the illuminated wall, your sense of where you’re teetering vertiginously.
Turrells Ganzfelds isn’t new to me, but AKHU provided a helpful yardstick to assess the two other art installations in the series. A Ganzfeld produces a contemplative mood in which time slows and distance dematerializes. At the same time, it exposes the structures of visual perception (and misperception) which make the magic.
But why was resistant to the notion that a simple spectacle could also be art? Artists haven’t eschewed showmanship. Bernini was a theater artist as well as a sculptor. In one of his plays (a 17th-century Creator of “Miss Saigon” and “Phantom of the Opera”), a torrent of water rushed toward the gasping audience, distracted by sluices at the last moment. Of course, nobody recalls Bernini for his divertissements. We salute Apollo and Daphne, marvels at the way the sculptor, using the intractable material of marble, could depict the fluid transformation of a nymph into a tree. Art certainly can be entertaining, but it should also be enlightening or disorienting. When it only titillates, it loses its claim to be art.
The crowd-pleasing touring reveals of immersive projections of van Gogh paintings, which have proliferated as vigorously as sunflowers over the past ten years, would be to art what military music is to music. Another enterprise, Meow Wolf (why do experiential art organizations have such terrible names?), promotes the artistic credentials of its immersive installations more credibly. Founded in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2008, Meow Wolf recently opened Omega Mart in Las Vegas and plans to inaugurate a space in Denver later this year. Omega Mart resembles a supermarket with bizarre sets and bizarre commodities, all of them crafted by participating artists.
Underlying Omega Mart is a story having to do with a sinister corporation, a puzzle waiting for the visitor to pry out. When I requested its co-chief executive, Ali Rubinstein, how Meow Wolf differed from Disney a question that she was uniquely qualified to answer, since she had worked at Disney for over two years she emphasized that Disneys encounters are programmed, and there is an expectation about the way the guest will move through a land or an attraction, while Meow Wolf is all about giving our visitors the opportunity to design their own experience and choose how deeply they want to dive into the story element. ”
Tellingly, the fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin, whose novels were adapted in the HBO series Game of Thrones, is a major investor in Meow Wolf. Omega Mart transposes the Pop Art critique of American consumer culture that was expressed in Claes Oldenburg’s “The Shop ” — a witty panorama of commercial goods, staged in 1961 — into the realm of Minecraft.
Is it art or something else? A better question may be, is it great ? Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, Tristan Tzara’s Dada performances, Robert Smithson’s land art, Tino Sehgal’s constructed situations — in innumerable ways, modernist artists have crossed and dissolved boundaries.
Immersive art intends to take that mission further.
Es Devlin, whose Forest of Us is part of Superblues first exhibition, has worked as a theatrical designer for 25 years, creating celebrated sets for The Lehman Trilogy, Kanye West tours and Around Time: Fashion and Duration, the Metropolitan Museums Costume Institute show last fall. Attending art school in London, Devlin admired the Young British Artists who preceded her, however, she told me in Miami, I cant get my head around making and selling an object. My natural world was the theater. ” In the past five years, she has progressed from creating designs for other musicians to acquiring “the assurance to write a story. ”
“Forest of Us” starts with a film of almost three minutes, where Devlin depicts branching — bronchi in the lungs, limbs of trees, rivulets into flows. The voice-over starts, Every time I reach a fork in the road, I choose both avenues, and finishes, Can you find it? Go and find it! ” At which point the display parts, and the visitor walks through a portal to a maze. With stretched Mylar film on the ceiling, optical-glass mirror on the surrounding walls, and twisting paths bordered by polished aluminum dividers, “Forest of Us” is a kind of hedge maze in which the traditional boxwood has been replaced by reflective surfaces.
Staring at my bounced-back picture, I was reminded of Kusamas visionary Narcissus Garden, an expanse of mirror balls lying on the ground. ( initially created in 1966 in the Venice Biennale, “Narcissus Garden” happens to be on view in a subsequent format at the Rubell Museum.) However, Devlin’s function envelops you. Finally you come to a shallow pool, 6 feet wide and 35 feet long, in which, standing on marked circles at the border, you can increase your arms and see your reflection as a dendritic filigree and hear the whooshing intake of breath. Chilled, I felt I had been standing by the bank of the river Styx, experiencing not my personal passing but the death of the planet.
In Superblue, the barrier between the viewer and the artwork has evaporated, that is the long-stated assignment of teamLab. 1 way to respect the group’s showstopping displays in Miami is that they allow a visitor to pass through a computer screen, just as the characters from Jean Cocteau’s movie “Orphee” walk through mirrors. What makes a border is the recognition of a single by individuals, Toshiyuki Inoko, a co-founder of teamLab, said, speaking through an interpreter as he tweaked the Miami installations shortly before the opening. “On a computer screen, once people recognize the screen it becomes a boundary. We are trying to remove or soften the boundary. ”
Indeed, the biggest of teamLab’s four exhibitions at Superblue Miami is dedicated to two individually conceived works which have been interwoven. “Universe of Water Particles, Transcending Boundaries” is a digital waterfall that cascades down two walls and on the glistening floor; coming into contact with a guest ’s feet, the flow parts. Concurrently, another work, Flowers and People, can’t be Controlled but Live Together, is erupting with huge blossoms that grow and die. The flowers bloom on the ground only in those spaces which have been cleared of the watery picture by the visitor’s presence.
The teamLab collaborative adopts its Japanese heritage most directly in a single-channel video, Life Survives from the Power of Life II, that transmogrifies the Kanji symbol for lives into a tree branch passing through seasonal shift in a dance of 3-D calligraphy. In another area, Proliferating Immense Life A Whole year per Year exhibits a sequence of left blossoms that grow huge and fly as blossom, leaving behind a grid of little gold-brown wall squares that an allusion to the gold leaf applied to the paper surface of a Japanese screen as well as (to my mind at least) bare winter areas shadowed by clouds. When my hand touched the flowers on the wall, I accelerated their perishing — a caustic comment on humankind ’s blight, in addition to a ravishing rendition of the Japanese aesthetic of the ephemerality of beauty.
In 2018, Inoko convinced Glimcher to break a taboo and charge $20 for admission to a teamLab exhibition at Pace’s Palo Alto gallery. Pace represents several other artists whose experiential installations don’t lend themselves to conventional gallery revenue : Leo Villareal, Random International, DRIFT. Pace was marketing their bits to governments and developers. They would be put in shopping malls or on bridges, Dent-Brocklehurst said.
The Superblue alternative version ( that isn’t restricted to Pace artists) funds production of the job and pays royalties to the artists on ticket sales. A ticket to Superblue Miami prices $36, with a $10 add-on to see an extra teamLab job, “Massless Clouds Between Sculpture and Life,” an audience-tickling production in which clouds of soap bubbles form, hover and dissipate as visitors walk through them.
Inoko explained that the cloud is similar to a virus, “ at the border between what is living and isn’t living, and organic and inorganic. ” Because of the coronavirus, Superblue Miami will initially operate at 50 percent capacity. It is better equipped than a conventional museum to meet that limitation. Shantelle Rodriguez, the director of experiential art centers for Superblue, stated, “These musicians have a very specific idea of the amount of people who should be in a room to have the experience. ”
For me, the immersive experience began, not entirely pleasantly, with my trip from New York to Miami, the first time I was on a plane in over a year. It continued with the alarmingly insouciant air in South Beach, where I returned to my hotel one evening to find a celebration of unmasked college students packed as tight as bedded asparagus from the swimming pool. In my discombobulated mood, the trippy, meditative, gorgeous installations of Superblue washed over me as a respite and solace. My resistance melted. My doubts subsided. Like the kids in my hotel, after a year of privation, I was prepared to be seduced.
Opens April 22. 1101 NW 23 Street, Miami, Fla. 786-697-3405. Tickets go on sale in early April; to be alerted if they go live, sign up at superblue.com/miami.