Touch coral reefs, and they will die. It doesn’t feel outlandish to suggest an oblique parable in the fact that one of the world’s greatest wonders is also one of its most fragile. Layer upon layer of calcium carbonates form skeletons secreted by polyps that weave themselves over their intricate intestines, joining together with thousands of their brothers and sisters to form colonies. To the uninitiated, the creatures sound like the imaginings of a mystic fairytale. Their beauty has a touch of magic in it, a miraculous quality lent both by the unlikelihood of their existence and their intense vulnerability. They speak of the wonders of nature, the serendipitous balance that has resulted in its existence, and the ever-persistent risk of destruction should this balance be upset.

It is this fault line between danger and marvel that teamLab explore in their latest exhibition, ‘Transcending Boundaries’. Three rooms of immersive installations bring together science and aesthetics in creative and thought-provoking combinations. The Japanese art collective is made up of artists, engineers, CG animators, architects, programmers, editors, designers and mathematicians. Together, they create an interactive microcosm that serves to showcase the delicacy of nature with urgency and immediacy. Butterflies flit around the walls, each moving with a free and unique trajectory, unconstrained by picture frames, until they are brushed by a human hand and fall, limp, to the ground.

This is art at its most technical and experimental. One room displays a polyptych of crashing waves, evocative of Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave.’ The three-dimensional video is incredibly soothing, the movement of the waves mesmerising. teamLab created the piece by calculating the interactions of countless water particles, tracking their movements to understand the behaviour of such a mass of water. Like the rest of the work on show, the art is not the creation of spontaneous impulse as, rather idealistically, we often imagine modern art to be. Instead, each piece is a labour of scrupulous attention to detail, fine-tuned research, and specialist prowess.

It’s commonplace in bad criticism to call an artwork ‘unique’ for want of a better adjective, but this exhibition’s genuine individuality is the result of its complex conception. The paths of the butterflies are determined by the state of the other works and the actions of those in the room. While the artwork as a whole operates on a perpetual cycle of life and death, growth and decay, regeneration and dilapidation, it is not a prerecorded loop. The art changes constantly, determined by computer programs that respond to the viewers and surroundings so that the visions spilling from walls to floors morph and mutate without end. One room is nothing more than a void until you enter. As bodies inhabit the dark space, multicoloured flowers bloom on their bodies, surrounding their feet and growing with ephemeral brightness.

The effect is simply mesmerising. To enter the exhibition is to capitulate to an overwhelming sensory experience; Hideaki Takahashi’s soundtrack adds to the trance, drawing the viewer in inexorably. One piece, ‘Enso’, invokes the Zen practice of drawing a circle with a single brush stroke, using technology to replicate this ancient tradition in an animation that makes it hard to look away. The spatial calligraphy of suspended digital pigments moves slowly across the screen. teamLab has created a world that is both beautiful and meaningful; inspired by the WWF, the exhibition reminds us that nature is mysterious and enchanting, but ultimately undeniably perishable.

By Charanpreet Khaira 

Transcending Boundaries by teamLab
Pace London
25 January – 11 March 2017

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