The first time I slipped through the curtained doorway to teamLab’s What a Loving and Beautiful World installation, I saw “fire” crawling down the wall—the character “fire” (火) that burst into flames as I touched it.
The Johnson-Kulukundis Gallery, renovated over the summer in a generous effort to foster creative work at the Radcliffe Institute, was repurposed for this multimedia, interactive installation: Windows were covered, the hall was darkened and projectors were installed. Now, with Sisyu’s calligraphy floating down from ceiling to floor, the entire room was transformed into a paper terrarium that gave occupants the ability to release a sunrise or stir up a lightning storm by touching the corresponding characters.
The teamLab project is an interdisciplinary “collaborative of artists, engineers, and ultratechnologists,” said Alison Franklin, director of communications at the Radcliffe Institute. This team has already built a similar installation in Japan in 2012, but teamLab at Radcliffe: What a Loving and Beautiful World is only the second teamLab installation in the U.S. “Because it’s interactive,” Franklin explained, “everyone has their own experience with it.”
Kudo Takashi, the communication director for teamLab, told me that the reconceptualization of language figured centrally in the production of this exhibit. “When we think about kanji, it’s not just an alphabet,” he said. “It’s more like magic. We wanted the kanji to be freed, freeing the word from its character.”
In the exhibit, I touched water (水), butterfly (蝶) and moon (月), my hand’s shadow momentarily obscuring the word. I watched a pond form, a cluster of butterflies erupt from a central point and a full yellow moon strain upwards. A calm but deliberate piano and string arrangement accompanied my nature-making, and I began experimenting: Larger characters turned into larger trees, dirt patches and birds; some characters dropped quickly and some slowly but blossomed into their respective natural counterparts at the same pace regardless. It wasn’t a perfectly calibrated system. Inevitably, shadows I accidentally cast and phantom interactions between projected images sometimes released characters that I hadn’t meant to, but these unexpected bursts added rather than detracted from the experience. When I left, I had “freed” every character in the room at least twice, and together, they’d formed an ecosystem of sorts, with butterflies gravitating toward the flowers and rain droplets watering plots of sprouts.
I came back the next day without any real purpose in mind. This time, though, instead of chasing the kanji as it fell down the wall, I simply “freed” the ones that drifted within reach of my position in the far corner of the gallery.
Despite the comparative mindlessness of my approach—I don’t remember now which characters I touched or how exactly the sun interacted with the trees, the mountains—I was still enthralled by the small corner “world” I curated by standing still and letting my shadow randomly “free” characters. I was also defensive of this tiny environment I’d “built”: When someone else touched the character that, at least in Chinese means “recognize,” it inexplicably let loose a billowing, inky purple cloud that enveloped the entire room—including my corner. Even as the ink cloud swallowed up my fireflies and birds, I reached for the “sun” character to try to re-illuminate my domain.
I returned one more time, the next day, to watch others interact with the characters.
“Are we supposed to touch them?” a fellow visitor asked me. “Which ones should I choose?”
I shrugged, waving my hands, and accidentally freed a mountain range.
teamLab at Radcliffe: What a Loving and Beautiful World will be on view through December 19 (closed during Thanksgiving on November 26 and 27) in the Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery of Byerly Hall in Radcliffe Yard. Gallery hours are 12–5 p.m., and the exhibition is free and open to the public.