San Francisco now has two major immersive art experiences. Besides “Immersive Van Gogh,” which opened in March, there is “teamLab: Continuity,” a multi-room excursion at the Asian Art Museum that opens Friday, and makes visitors feel like they’re in a nighttime dreamscape with nature and art swirling all about them — on the walls, on the floor, and on the visitors themselves.
Here’s an analogy: Remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Harrison Ford and Karen Allen are tied up and endure an otherworldly fury that emanates from everywhere and kills a slew of evil characters? “teamLab: Continuity” is the antithesis of that — a heaven to that hell, where animated flowers, birds, and other elements move around visitors in waves, and streaks of abstract art dart and hover viewers. Then there’s the atmospheric music that ratchets up the experience inside “teamLab: Continuity,” along with the fragrant smells that emerge from here and there.
And then there’s the interactive nature of “teamLab: Continuity,” which empowers visitors to play with the moving elements and make them grow or fall or take on new shapes — all thanks to algorithms that recognize where visitors are stepping and where they’re placing their hands on walls.
Immersive experiences have been trending in the art world for several years, in part for the simple reason that they’re incredibly popular. The Tokyo-based teamLab is an art collective that specializes in immersive exhibits, and when it opened “teamLab Borderless” in Tokyo in 2018, the show attracted 2.3 million visitors, which made it the world’s most-visited single-artist museum — surpassing the numbers who visited Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.
The “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibits, which first opened in Paris in 2018 (and attracted more than 1.2 million people) and then opened in other iterations around the world, have cemented these exhibits’ popularity. But immersive experiences have divided art critics and art-goers alike. An argument against them: They’re dumbing down the art they profess to exalt, giving people an externalized “show” that reduces paintings like Van Gogh’s The Starry Night to pure entertainment. For art purists, Van Gogh should be appreciated as Van Gogh intended: As a painting! As a 2-by-3-foot canvas with oils that lets the viewer experience it — outwardly and inwardly — on their own terms!
But “teamLab: Continuity” is much different — and much, much better — than San Francisco’s “Immersive Van Gogh.” For one thing, it’s interactive where “Immersive Van Gogh” is not. Another thing: For obvious reasons, “teamLab: Continuity” references Asian art — and not obvious popular works, but historic art like that of Hasegawa Tōhaku, a 16th-century Japanese ink painter who specialized in scenes of nature and whom teamLab members cite as an influence.
Another difference between “teamLab: Continuity” and “Immersive Van Gogh” is that “teamLab: Continuity” is relatively inexpensive: a mere $20 for adults. At San Francisco’s SVN West, “Immersive Van Gogh” starts at $39.99 for a “Basic Timed” exhibit, then goes as high as $99.99. But “Immersive Van Gogh” got to San Francisco first, so art-goers may assume that “teamLab: Continuity” is part of the exact same genre that spawned “Immersive Van Gogh.”
Not really. “teamLab: Continuity” tries to do something the Van Gogh exhibit will never do: Subvert the art-visitor relationship, turning visitors into active participants rather than observers. And the teamLab exhibits, founder Toshiyuki Inoko claims, help spur visitors to reconsider their relationship to things other than art. “Through the blurring of the borders between people and artworks, the viewers themselves become part of those works, and their relationship with ‘the other’ starts to change as well,” Inoku says in the exhibit’s accompanying catalog. “The relationships that one usually maintains in the city — separating oneself from ‘the other’ — now become one stage of a continuum. We provide the opportunity for people to reflect on and rethink the borders that they had assumed.”
Whether that happens for visitors to “teamLab: Continuity” remains to be seen. At the media preview I attended, visitors were encouraged to interact with the swooping crows, fluttering butterflies, and flowering plants, but not everyone did. Even without trying to interact with the waves of objects all around, they still react to you. They know you’re there. They sense your movements. And that, in turns, prompts you to be more observant than you might be otherwise. You see how crows are swooping in patterns. You see how swooshes of paint in one room — what looks like the beginnings of a semi-abstract work by, say, Chinese artist Chang Dai-chien from the museum’s collection — emerge in another room to dart this way and that, forming a different kind of abstraction.
Not everything at “teamLab: Continuity” worked for me. While I was able to interact with the visuals, I had no control over the music. And although it’s meant to be ethereal or even primordial, in some rooms, the music borders on New Age. Your ears have to adjust to the mix of piano and elevated notes that accompany all the movements, but not everyone wants to hear music that sounds like Kitaro or even Yanni could have written it. Oh, well.
The Asian Art Museum placed “teamLab: Continuity” in its new Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion, an exhibition space that’s part of the museum’s five-year expansion project. The space itself, with its almost labyrinthian dimensions, is an ideal venue to take in “teamLab: Continuity.” The exhibit’s Asian motifs are undeniable. Even with little understanding of Asian art and history, you can notice them.
But “teamLab: Continuity” isn’t a litmus test on visitors’ knowledge or appreciation of Asian art. As teamLab says in its catalog, the collective is “creating for a global mass audience.” And that means its art tries to appeal to as wide an audience as possible — just like the immersive Van Gogh exhibits.
July 23 through February at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin, S.F. Tickets: $15-$20, advanced reservations required; 415-581-3500; asianart.org.
Weems Considers Arbus at Fraenkel Gallery
Diane Arbus’ photos have been exhibited so often since her death in 1971 that it begs the question: What more is there to really see? Arbus’ most iconic works — like Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962 and Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 — have become photographic standard bearers for generations of art-goers. And her style of shooting — intimate black-and-white photos that reveal people on the margins of society or the margins of their own existence — gave photography a new way of seeing that, 50 years later, is practically taken for granted.
But a new Fraenkel Gallery exhibit, “Diane Arbus curated by Carrie Mae Weems,” essentially reintroduces Arbus’ work by highlighting photos that have been overlooked and by highlighting photos that say something important to Weems, a venerated photographer herself who cites Arbus as a major influence.
It’s easy to see why. Weems’ photos of the Black American experience, and the experience of women and others, confront viewers’ expectations of what they’re seeing. As she told SF Weekly in a 2013 interview, “I think the root of all my work is this idea of embracing. I’m hoping that women, in the fullness of their humanity, will be embraced. I’m hoping that people of color, in the depths of their humanity, will be embraced for who they are. And ultimately, if you’re talking about embrace, you’re talking about questions of love.”
At Fraenkel, then, Arbus’ 1962 photo of a Black waitress in a diner is a way of seeing that waitress not as strange or out of place but as part of a culture that tried to envelop people in advertising (“Drink Coca-Cola”) and dilute their humanity. The waitress, who looks to the camera’s left, has no name, and her uniform says nothing of her identity, but instead promotes the restaurant. Arbus’ 1968 photo of Coretta Scott King, which has King looking upward, hands clasped as she stands on the lawn of her Atlanta home, is another image with layered meanings. Arbus took that photo for Harper’s Bazaar magazine just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., when Coretta Scott King was to attend her husband’s funeral. In that moment, Coretta Scott King isn’t grieving. If anything, she seems hopeful — which is vintage Arbus: Capturing a scene that defies expectations.
Weems, who is now represented by Fraenkel Gallery and will have her own exhibit there in September, chose 45 photos. Weems doesn’t provide commentary for any image. And the captions for each image are minimal, which means Arbus’ photos and their meaning for Weems are open to interpretation. Maybe that’s best. Weems shares Arbus’ penchant for spotlighting overlooked people, and she’s letting Arbus’ photos speak for themselves.
Through Aug. 13. Free. Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary, S.F. 415-981-2661, fraenkelgallery.com
Also Worth Seeing
Lauren YS: Eidolon Vessel. Whether it’s on canvas, wood panel, paper, or a concrete wall, Lauren YS creates elaborate fairy tales that feature her distinctive hybrid figures – like women with multiple eyes and arms; women who are also part animal or insect; and skeletal figures that seem as alive as human beings. Lauren YS’s work has always incorporated aspects of her Chinese heritage, but “Eidolon Vessel” heightens that connection, paying homage to her recently deceased grandmother, who’d given to Lauren YS what she says was “a palpable link to China.” Vessels of past lives are evident in much of the art at Heron Arts, but as exemplified in Witch Doctor, these vessels are a normal part of the scene — whether they represent death, life, or something in between.
Through Aug. 21. Free with appointment. Heron Arts, 7 Heron St., S.F.; heronarts.com.
Hung Liu: Golden Gate (金門). Three decades after creating Resident Alien, her damning portrait of how the United States considered would-be citizens, Oakland artist Hung Lui has made a second rendition — this one two stories tall, and now anchored in the de Young Museum’s Wilsey Court. Resident Alien 2021 ratchets up everything from Liu’s original work, and while the U.S. government has changed the technical term for classified immigrants (gone is “resident alien,” replaced by “permanent resident”), Liu’s work has just as much resonance today because of anti-Asian attacks in San Francisco and other major U.S. cities, and political attacks fueled by the coronavirus’ origins in China. Liu also has created accompanying new works on Chinese immigration, but it’s Resident Alien 2021 that, for eight months, will dramatically stare at every visitor who enters the de Young.
Through March 13. Free. de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive (Golden Gate Park), S.F.; 415-750-3600, deyoung.famsf.org.
Jonathan Curiel is a contributing writer. Twitter @WriterJCuriel