The marriage of art and technology is not exempt from controversy. While the most conservative of the cultural establishment are reluctant to let tech encroach on traditional mediums, techies are also prone to distrusting the elitism and pretensions of the art world.
To those who fall into the above categories, a visit to Singapore's ArtScience Museum might persuade them to take a new position: that art and technology perfectly complement each other. To the already converted, this exhibition will be a confirmatory delight.
Future World: Where Art Meets Science is ArtScience Museum's landmark permanent exhibition of interactive digital artworks. It was developed in collaboration with teamLab, a Japanese collective of ultra-technologists and artists founded in 2001 by Toshiyuki Inoko.
Across five spaces - called Nature, Town, Sanctuary, Park and Space - there are 19 digital installations created using high-tech - the details of which are not public. This creates an immersive experience where rather than passive spectators, visitors become an active participant with the various works of art.
From nature to civilisation
The exhibition opens with Nature, where we are transported to a digitally rendered natural world made of six individual, but closely entwined, artworks. A six-metre-high digital waterfall reproduces colourful, splashing water particles. When touched with the visitor's hand, the direction of the water changes, and if sat under it, the waterfall breaks open.
On the next wall, flowers and leaves slowly bloom, before they wither and die - replicating the four seasons within the space of an hour. They are accompanied by butterflies that multiply as more people enter the gallery. However, when touched by visitors, the butterflies die - a sobering reminder of man's impact on nature.
Like the journey from mother's womb to society, after Nature comes Town.
The transition is bridged by Sliding through Fruit Field (2014), a colourful artwork projected onto a slide which can be used both by kids and adults. As this name suggests, the artwork titles are evocative and poetic, resembling haikus, and inspire a deep yearning for the living world: Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled but Live Together (2017), Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders, Ephemeral Life Born from People (2018) and Light Ball Orchestra (2013) are just a few.
In Town, children and adults are encouraged to cooperate to address urban challenges. Connecting! Town Block (2013) invites visitors to use wooden blocks to design a system of roads and railways that are projected onto a table surface. Roads and railways appear when connections are created between the blocks.
But in every society, there exists the free spirited to whom social conventions appear superfluous. It's this that A Table Where Little People Live (2013) seems to evoke: a miniature community which comes to life as we play with its inhabitants. When left alone, the little projected men and women move around their environment, walking, jumping, sliding, and hopping, and generally paying little attention to the world around them.
Other immersive artworks in Town include giant colour building blocks (Media Block Chair, 2012) and Sketch Town (2014), a depiction of a fictitious city based on Singapore where we are invited to draw and colour in buildings, cars and even UFOs. When the two-dimensional pictures are placed on a scanner, they enter the town becoming 3D animated objects in the animated city.
After the frenzy of Town, we take shelter in Sanctuary, a space introduced in September 2018 that invites visitors to take a moment for reflection and meditation before jumping into the next section of the exhibition.
Smaller than the other galleries, Sanctuary's display consists of a rotating roster of seasonal artworks, giving repeat visitors a different experience each time they return. Using the walls as a canvas, cherry blossoms bloom and scatter, playing out the cycle of life and death.
Like the other sections, in Sanctuary, a visitor's presence in the gallery is marked by radiating circles that follow them, either illuminating or darkening the entire space. This is perhaps an allusion to the individual's influence on one another and the world. But as the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki once wrote: "were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty".
The principles underpinning the installations of Future World, including Impermanent Life: People Create Space and Time, and The Confluence of their Spacetime New Space and Time is Born (2018) in Sanctuary, are deeply rooted in Eastern philosophy.
Nature and Sanctuary exist regardless of people being in the rooms, unlike Town which requires a visitor to trigger it. When interacting with the artworks, visitors are absorbed by them - such is the fluid and holistic experience of their existence. The fact that the artworks are not framed and instead connect harmonically to each other reinforces this connection: each digital artwork is not only a metaphor of an idea but of life itself.
Once we resurface from the depths of sanctuary we enter Park, where we are able to have fun (or rather, continue having fun) and appreciate the essential part that recreation plays in human existence.
Suggestively titled What a Loving, and Beautiful World (2011) is a digital projection of Chinese characters cascading on a wall from the ceiling to floor that morph into their meaning (rainbow, rain, and so on) when touched. If more people join in the exercise, the wall transforms into a blooming landscape.
The infinite light
Finally, we reach the end of our journey: Space, an impressive display made of over 170,000 LED lights and using teamLab's Interactive 4D Vision technology recreates stars moving in space, transporting us to where we feel part of something much greater than ourselves.
Like the first image of a black hole, Space's Crystal Universe reminds us of our insignificance when set against the vastness of the universe, one of life's greatest mysteries. Here, we admire the greatness of the unknown. The spatial music playing in the background fills us with a deep melancholy, but deep peace at the same time.
When leaving Future World we can't help but feeling at the conclusion of an enriching and enlightening journey, one which has uplifted our spirit and made us feel part of everything that surrounds us. A magical world rich in metaphors where technology has achieved what many artists have been trying to reach for centuries: bringing art to life.