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HELSINKI — In 2015, when the Whitney Museum opened in its Chelsea location, the atmosphere evoked a proper New York block party, and the festivities and the crowds snaked down and under the High Line greenway.
In contrast, the opening of Helsinki’s Amos Rex museum at the end of August this year felt more sombre, abetted by skies the color of slate and a light Finnish drizzle that, if you were wearing glasses, made it difficult to see. A group of people waited in line and watched the visiting French president Emmanuel Macron and his motorcade drive by; a passing tourist was both impressed and bemused by the eagerness of Finns to queue for this seemingly innocuous attraction. “It just opened an hour ago, madam,” a staff member in her glistening gold foil uniform explained rather nicely.
But even sans block party, there was no doubt that the occasion had been orchestrated to impress. The entrance to the museum sits inside Lasipalatsi, a 1930s-built functionalist landmark in the city center. A gaping staircase leads underground to the futuristic gallery space, whose skylights bubble up above ground. The show notes for the opening exhibition, Massless, by Japanese digital collective teamLab, proclaimed, in matte silver ink printed on black paper: “We. Are. So. Excited!”
It’s clear why Amos Rex choose teamLab for their opening exhibition. Founded by Toshiyuki Inoko in 2001, the 500-person-strong collective includes engineers, animators, architects, and programmers; their work immerses viewers in a distinct vision of nature according to the 2D spatial logic of traditional Japanese art, often by way of neon forms projected around a dark room. When viewed in the right situation, the installations guide the viewer into a hypnotic reflection: what are the rules of nature? And which of them do we take for granted?
But it’s hard not to be skeptical of digital art: how many Instagram accounts are you going to see it on? Massless includes four installations: “Black Waves” (2016), “Graffiti Nature: Lost, Immersed and Reborn” (2017), “Vortex of Light Particles” (2018) and “Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well, Transcending Space” (2017), with a fifth work, the one-panel “Enso” (2017), in the lobby.
The magical reverie of “Black Waves,” a widescreen panel of animated Katsushika Hokusai-style waves, was lost in the crowd—oceanic contemplation works best without being immersed in a crowd of twenty. “Crows…,” a free-wheeling installation of flying birds, felt engineered for drama and display. It was all a bit too saccharine, like the maraschino cherry on top of a sundae. And though “Vortex of Light Particles,” an underwater whirlpool spilling from the closed skylight above created specifically for Amos Rex, was mesmerizing, as we stood aimlessly in the cavernous central space, it felt like the visual grandeur of it all had trumped the notion of guiding viewers towards reflection. I missed the beds the New Museum had offered for Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest back in 2016, which had turned that experience into both a visual and spiritual delight. There was none of that here.
But “Graffiti Nature: Lost, Immersed and Reborn” (2018), an interactive labyrinth teeming with digitally projected wildlife, knew what it was dealing with: a crowd, some of whom may have had Instagram on their mind. When we held our hands to the wall, flowers bloomed. We colored in birds, making our oil pastels blunt, then scanned our drawings and watched them come alive as they joined the projected throng. We jumped and stomped like five year olds on crocodiles and lizards. This was how Alice must have felt, falling down the rabbit hole into a strange sense of wonder.
Amos Rex is not a publicly-owned museum; it is funded thanks to the legacy of Finnish businessman Amos Anderson, and can choose its own raison d’être. Without the need to collect or educate on a specific movement, genre, or time period, their mission lies solely in sharing the exuberant power of art. In the show notes, they write: “We believe that ambitious art can be presented in inspiring, open-minded, joyous and stylish ways, giving all kinds of viewers the opportunity to have art experiences that enrich their lives.” If that was their aim, then they succeeded.
The exhibition teamLab: Massless continues at Amos Rex (Mannerheimintie 22–24, Helsinki) through January 6, 2019. The show was curated by the museum director, Kai Kartio.
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