TOKYO — Atop the 53rd floor of a skyscraper in Roppongi Hills, a posh neighborhood of Tokyo, competing cosmologies are on display answering an existentialist’s biggest question: What are we doing here?
The Universe and Art: Princess Kaguya, Leonardo Da Vinci, teamLab at the Mori Art Museum weaves a rich constellation of Eastern and Western philosophies; ancient and contemporary art; science, religion, and conspiracy theories, in order to explore how humanity has wrestled with its place in the cosmos throughout time.
The visitor is first asked to ponder these questions by seeing how humans in the past have viewed the universe, both literally and figuratively. Astronomical tools from both Japan and Europe intermingle with representations of the zodiac (in the form of engraved mirrors), 14th-century Buddhist mandalas (a symbol representative of the universe), and a 17th-century katana (samurai sword) forged from a meteorite.
An original scroll of the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, one of the first pieces of prose in history, is laid out like a bride’s train, occupying the length of an entire wall of the gallery. The story tells of a farmer who found an extraterrestrial princess named Kaguya locked away in a stalk of bamboo, and who is so beautiful the emperor wishes to marry her. She refuses, saying she must retreat to the moon, but gives him a jade elixir whose effects give eternal life. Realizing a life without her isn’t worth living forever, he destroys it atop Mt. Fuji, causing the first billow of smoke to emit from its crown. In the context of the exhibition, the scroll signals the perpetual search humans have for life beyond their plane of existence.
The Western perspective, though slight, manifests itself in some of the exhibition’s highlights: the codices of Leonardo da Vinci’s phases of the moon, explained in mirrored chicken scratch, and a replica of Galileo’s telescope. All of these artifacts show a primitive, sophisticated manner in which man made sense of nature and what laid beyond the starry skies above, and how those narratives repeated or varied by country.
As the exhibition progresses, we’re treated to a veritable galaxy of objets — mostly contemporary art wrestling with the same questions, but informed by the technology and knowledge of the universe we have now. Webs of metal and lights rotate in sync with Earth. Photographs attempt to find god in neutrinos. Art and artifacts contend with life beyond our solar system, from interpretations of old Japanese fables about alien vessels containing small women, to old American pulp fiction magazines detailing life on Neptune. A sexy robot, with chrome curves, whose voluptuous metal figure makes the light reflected onto her surface resemble something lurid, like splotches of bodily fluids, on her gold pumps.
Curators Nanjo Fumio, the director of the Mori Art Museum, and Tsubaki Reiko, the associate curator, must be given proper credit for an exhibition that balances several types of art, artifacts, and science while contemplating metaphysical questions and theories that affect humanity. The juxtaposition between the more ancient ways in which man viewed the universe and explained its mysteries perfectly complements the more technological, yet no more definitive, interpretations of the cosmos in our modern age. Then there is also the exhibition’s more pop-culture edge, which comes in the form of aliens, robots, and photos enhanced by 3D glasses. It seems the duo scoured the entire universe to create an exhaustive account of the most infinite of subjects.
The highpoint of the show is a light installation fabricated by teamLab, a collective of “ultra-technologists.” Visitors are ushered into a black box where “Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well, Blossoming on Collision — Light in Space” (2016) is projected. You sit on the floor as a phantasmagorical web of lights careen and cavort around you, offering the sensation of movement, of orbiting around space without ever leaving Earth. And instead of feeling like an insignificant spec in the grand totality of the universe, struggling to comprehend the meaning of your existence, everything feels connected, purposeful, and in harmony.