The beauty and hell of utopia and dystopia is the subject of Japan Society’s Garden of Unearthly Delights, which opened today in Manhattan. With three contemporary Japanese artists — Manabu Ikeda, Hisashi Tenmyouya, and collective teamLab — the exhibition resonates with the allure of nature, our destruction of it, its own devastating power (particularly the tsunami of March 2011), and humanity’s disposition towards conflict.
Garden of Unearthly Delights, its name a play on the 15th-century triptych by the Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch, started quietly on Tuesday with an eerie meditation by Hisashi Tenmyouya. The artist raked circles and deep lines in a zen garden disrupted by red sand, volcanic rocks, and skulls instead of the traditional innocuous stones. The installation, called “Rhyme,” has the “anti-zen” garden joined by two paintings on the wall showing a battle that is hard to place in time. In the masses of clashing bodies and weapons in the paintings there is no blood; the unnerving garden below representing the ongoing carnage in history’s endless wars.
“Rhyme” is the darkest point of the exhibition, although Manabu Ikeda’s incredibly detailed fountain pen and acrylic works on paper are more engrossing with their subtleties of human resilience and defeat. “Foretoken” (2008), a work that took two years to complete, has in its towering wave silhouettes of people parachuting away from a balloon on fire, collapsing infrastructure, a torii arch disappearing under the water, but also birds soaring away, and rainbows angling out of the debris. Meanwhile, “Meltdown” (2013), a reaction to the 2011 tsunami and the subsequent nuclear disaster, has an island of machinery on a glacier seemingly tumbling into the ocean off a serene hill, white outlines of people and moose-like phantoms lingering in the chaos.
With all the weight of the first two artists, it’s a nice, if extreme, contrast, to turn the corner from Manabu Ikeda’s galleries into the frenetic, hyper-digital world of teamLab. The collective of some 300 artists, programmers, designers, and engineers has been creating interactive installations since 2001. For Japan Society, they’ve completely embraced the “garden” idea, including two works inspired by 18th-century artist Itō Jakuchū. One replicates the calligraphy letter for “Life” and as the ink animates into wood and sprouts a seasonal growth of flora over six minutes, birds identical to those from a scroll by Jakuchū hanging nearby alight on the branches. Another is a hallucinatory eight-screen piece called “United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World,” where animals like a tiger, elephant, deer, and stranger creatures outside of zoological taxonomy are brought to life from Jakuchū’s six-fold “Birds, Animals and Flowering Plants.” The 18th-century work used an innovative “mosaic” grid system of color where, like Seurat and other Pointillists would do a century later, the colors weren’t blended on the surface but optically at a distance. Here teamLab has turned them into a modern pixelation that, as you approach, fragments into abstraction.
But teamLab also has its take on human destruction, with a final room where the floor and walls are covered with animated flowers that are ripped into petals as you rub your hands or feet over them. The flowers projected on the walls are randomly controlled by a human-made program. In the exhibition, it’s a final, otherworldly experience in growth and destruction.
Garden of Unearthly Delights is at the Japan Society ( 333 Ease 47th Street, Midtown East, Manhattan) until January 11.