In a dimly lit room, waves crash along one wall. The movement is unmistakeably that of water, but the speed is slightly off, the colours too bright. There’s no soundtrack – all you can hear is the faint noise of city life happening four storeys below.
Without the accompanying sound of nature and ocean, what should be turbulent motion seems peaceful and surreal. And the longer you stand here, the less certain you are this is a representation of water at all.
Questioning what you see is a major theme at Reversible Rotation, the new show by world-renowned art collective teamLab showing at Tolarno Galleries as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. The collective has bases in Japan, China and Singapore, and the last time it was in Melbourne was for NGV’s Triennial in 2017. The group also made waves then – both literal and metaphorical – in the form of interactive digital whirlpools that respond to human movement.
Though based upon the same underlying principles, the interaction between viewers and Reversible Rotation is, on the surface, a lot more low-key. In the 2017 show the audience moved through a series of projections that adjusted according to where they were, so it was easy to see how the viewer becomes a part of the work. But this is subtler.
“On this scale it may not be so obvious,” teamLab co-founder Toshiyuki Inoko tells me.
In the small, darkened gallery, four video works are presented on wall-mounted monitors. Each piece is created in what the collective calls “ultra-subjective space”. They’re reversible loops; optical illusions impacted by both the way your brain is wired and your physical perspective (a simpler example is the Spinning Dancer GIF that did the rounds a few years ago).
“The viewers can move inside the work … and completely abolish the borderlines between the artworks and the viewers,” says Inoko.
That first oceanic work is Waves of Light, in which the team uses physics to calculate how water particles move with and against each other. Depending on your perspective, you might see it as shooting sparks, as fluid fire or as something else entirely. Next is Enso – Cold Light, which at first looks like abstract brushstrokes, dripping and turning, but in reality is a painted circle, building and moving. Sometimes the viewer sees it clearly for what it is, but the rest of the time we are shown the shape from different, unexpected angles.
The most remarkable works are those that give the exhibition its name: Reversible Rotation – Black in White, and Reversible Rotation – Cold Light. TeamLab has been working on these for the past 15 years.
As you watch, abstract calligraphy forms fleeting black and white images, a bit like the psychologist’s Rorschach (or “inkblot”) test. You might see rabbits, a rearing horse, trees blooming and withering, all as the brushstrokes spin and spin.
“The viewer can perceive the rotation equally as clockwise or counterclockwise depending on your own brain,” Inoko says. “You can really perceive it either way depending on your own timing and perception. That’s the intriguing fact of it.”
As the images switch from one direction to the other, I assume that’s what everyone sees. But it’s a trick of the mind. The change is happening in my head, not on screen. And while the image looks three dimensional, it’s actually flat, which opens the door for ambiguity – and for your brain to fill in the gaps.
It’s meditative to watch them turn; a pale echo of the forms and shapes reflected in the shiny gallery floor. But you can also challenge yourself. If you concentrate hard enough, the works can change direction as you watch.
The artists at teamLab create each piece in 3D, then they’re flattened into 2D to be played on the monitor. Despite this technology, the computers aren’t making the optical illusion work. When creating the works, Inoko and his team rotated the brushstrokes in a single direction.
As we stand in front of Cold Light, both Inoko’s translator and I see it spinning clockwise. Inoko laughs – for him, it’s counterclockwise.
When I ask which direction is correct, Inoko pauses. There’s a flurry of conversation between him and the translator, and they come back with a response: he can’t remember.
It makes sense, because the “real” direction doesn’t matter. For Inoko, what’s important is what the viewer brings to the experience, and how their eyes and mind direct the shapes on the screen.
“My hope really is to introduce new vision; new perspective through the artwork I create, so that people become aware that the world we are living in really has no boundaries, borders,” Inoko says. “That everything is continuous, from the past to the present and into the future.”
teamLab: Reversible Rotation runs from Saturday October 5 to Saturday November 2 at Tolarno Galleries. Entry is free.
This article was updated on Friday October 18 to include mention of teamLab's China and Singapore offices.