WHY’s Kulapat Yantrasast on Asian Art Museum Redesign for Future Generations
Continuity is the kind of art exhibit that gets better with large crowds, mainly because it’s interactive. As visitors make their way through a maze-like darkroom, they are pursued by motion-sensitive projections of crows, flower petals, and butterflies. Kanji symbols flow from ceilings that appear to spin, transforming into flames and thunder when you touch them. Somewhere, a speaker is playing what looks like alpha waves, and the air faintly smells of rose water.
Not only Continuity marks the first solo exhibition of the Tokyo-based art collective in the United States, it is also the first exhibition to be held at the Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion of the Asian Art Museum, a newly opened 8,500 square foot gallery built in San Francisco designed by famous Thai architect Kulapat Yantrasast of WHY. Yantrasast was invited to create a pavilion that would be able to house large uninterrupted facilities, and the teamLab’s Continuity fit the end result like Cinderella’s foot in her glass slipper.
The main building that now houses the Asian Art Museum served as San Francisco’s public library, and although it was heavily renovated by Italian architect Gae Aulenti in 2003, the master plan has never really changed. “There are still a lot of lean, fragmented hallways that were meant to store books, not art,” Yantrasast explained, listing some of the “acupuncture points” he wanted to address in his design, Zoom explained. . There were not enough large spaces without columns to allow the work to breathe.
Another acupuncture point was to deal with interior decoration. For decades, the basic appearance of museums and galleries has rarely gone beyond what Yantrasast has called the “White Cube”: a space deliberately deprived of any personality so that visitors can devote themselves fully to the art. Not fair, if you ask Kulapat. “Space has its own movement and character,” he professed. “It can never function as a perfectly neutral backdrop. Architecture holds the power over other art forms, but it should be a kind of generous power.
Construction of what would become the Asian Art Museum’s largest exhibition space to date was completed in March 2020, but the pavilion’s actual opening had to be postponed due to the pandemic. A spacious terrace housing an Ai Weiwei sculpture is under construction and will begin hosting cocktails and fundraising events this fall. Below, a rectangular building with a metallic shell resembling terracotta tiles now serves as a gracious host to what may well be teamLab’s most ambitious creation to date.
Speaking of which, visitors enter Continuity through a black showroom. At the corner of the street, they leave the real world and enter an imaginary space of superimposed rooms covered with luminescent projections. Some, like sunflowers, are stationary. Others, like a flock of crows that fly over the entire exhibition, are not. Each projection responds to the presence of the visitor. Crows burst into a thousand colors when they fly towards someone. Butterflies die at the slightest touch, their brittle wings drifting downward as a new projection lights up to take its place.
From temples to theme parks
In a world dominated by science, Continuity is as close to a magical experience as it gets. The exhibition, which will remain open to the public until February 2022, is the result of hundreds of creatives combining their knowledge of media and technology to create a whole new reality. But show like Continuity do not exist inside a void, even though they appear to be. The illusion takes place in a specially designed space, and the art and architecture must be completely in sync for the trick to work.
Yantrasast’s design anticipates a future in which a growing number of contemporary Asian and Asian American artists, from Ai Weiwei to Zheng Chongbin and Lam Tung Pang, will favor working with extensive multimedia installations over more traditional exhibitions. Concrete example, Continuity makes full use of the new pavilions, creating an immersive experience that not only lives on the walls but envelops all three dimensions.
As a collective, teamLab wants people to question the relationship between themselves and the space in which they exist. Inspired by the use of multiple points of view in premodern Japanese painting, the projections in Continuity dissolve the very boundaries that give space its structure: in the dark, you just can’t tell where one installation ends and another begins, or where walls give way to ceilings. “Everything exists, in a continuity of long, fragile, but miraculous life, without borders,” says the collective in the exhibition catalog.
For Continuity to come alive, he needs visitors to play with his movement-sensitive images. This process transforms the visitor from a passive observer into an active participant. While most of the artwork inside museums is enclosed in glass or surrounded by ropes, cameras and alarm bells, teamLab invites visitors to touch what they want and go where they want. seems to them. Until someone agrees, Continuity is just data stored inside a power plant, hidden behind a door that says “employees only”.
If museums once looked like religious temples, austere in design and full of arbitrary rules and guidelines, Yantrasast believes they are slowly evolving into playgrounds. “Museums can be a playground for artists, curators and visitors,” explained the architect. “In a playground, there is no hierarchy or structure. You can play with whatever you want, in any order you want. But a playing field is not a playing field without players. It does not exist for itself; it exists to be played with.
Yantrasast’s choice of words is remarkably precise. In many ways, teamLab’s shows are more like playgrounds or theme park attractions than art shows. If you want to know what makes them so special, you better watch youtube videos vloggers exploring their facilities rather than reading written reviews. While the visual qualities of painting, sculpture and music can be effectively translated into essays, Continuity must be experienced before it can be appreciated.
Museums as forces of cultural dialogue
Continuity is not the only show on display at the pavilion at the moment. Walk past the teamLab facility and you’ll find a wing containing the inaugural work of Chanel Miller. I was, I am, I will be, also on display until February 2022, is a visual representation of the artist going through trauma after being sexually assaulted in college and placed at the epicenter of a high-profile criminal trial. Three murals, depicting three distinct stages of Miller’s healing process, look out onto the street through giant windows.
These windows are another design choice with which Yantrasast questions what a museum is and can be. Before creating the adjacent Pavilion, this wing was completely isolated from the outside world. “Such a missed opportunity,” Yantrasast recalls, as the street opposite is usually overrun with passers-by. By removing part of the wall, Yantrasast was able to share Miller’s exhibit with the rest of San Francisco, turning this previously underused wing into a kind of brochure for the museum and its contents.
The windows also have a function for visitors inside. After spending considerable time in the dark and disorienting space that houses Continuity, visitors entering the well-lit wing will have the opportunity to regain their foothold in the real world. Yantrasast also wanted to connect the interior of the museum with the rest of San Francisco, which is both a home and a source of inspiration.
Although Yantrasast was originally unsure which exhibits would be held inside the wing, he was happy to see that Chanel Miller took advantage of her layout. In the past, architects avoided using large windows in their designs, as too much natural light could damage the art. Not only are Miller’s murals, which resemble street art both aesthetically and materially, are able to withstand such exposure, but the beams supporting the windows envelop the artwork of I was, I am, I will be like a giant frame.
Museum director Jay Xu hopes Continuity and future exhibitions will be “a shout out to our audience that the Asian Art Museum will be a leader in contemporary Asian art.” Yantrasast, for its part, hopes that the Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion will allow the museum to organize more spontaneous and radical exhibitions that better reflect the times we live in, as well as dedicate space to contemporary artists whose importance would otherwise have remained in the shadow of the East Asian cannon.
Tim Brinkhof is an Amsterdam-born, Atlanta-based critic. He studied art history at New York University and wrote for Microphone, To input, Squire, and Highlights.