Saadiyat gets another art attraction: teamLab comes to Abu Dhabi

teamLab, the interdisciplinary group of artists, programmers, engineers, CGI animators, mathematicians and architects who refer to themselves as ‘ultratechnologists’, is to create a new “home for infinite curiosity” on Saadiyat. If it’s anything like teamLab’s existing portfolio, it should be a mind-blowing collection of immersive, multi-sensory experiential artworks.

teamLab already has premises near the Soul Beach club at Mamsha al Saadiyat, close to the Guggenheim site, and there it’s running a taster of the full scale project – open daily 10am to 11pm. Entry is free, the exhibit runs to 17 July, and already Instagram is filling up with enthusiastic comments.

Construction of the proper teamLab Phenomena Abu Dhabi is getting under way round the corner, where the 17,000m2 project facing Mina Zayed is expected to be completed in 2024.

Since its formation in 2001 teamLab has built an unrivalled reputation for creating breathtaking, immersive art installations that push the boundaries of technology and design via a collaborative practice that seeks to “navigate the confluence of art, science, technology and the natural world”.

That might sound like just another tech-art manifesto, but teamLab does deliver. As the group puts it, “teamLab aims to explore the relationship between the self and the world and new perceptions through art. In order to understand the world around them, people separate it into independent entities with perceived boundaries between them. teamLab seeks to transcend these boundaries in our perception of the world, of the relationship between the self and the world, and the continuity of time.”

It was quite tough to get started with those ambitions, and it took around ten years for teamLab to get worldwide recognition. But then the collective started to get invited to major contemporary art exhibitions around the world – notably the 2013 Singapore Biennale – and it 2014 it was signed by New York’s Pace Gallery. Things really took off thereafter, initially with exhibitions and then with permanent or semi-permanent museum-scale installations.

teamLab’s work is based on boundary-crossing, what it calls “collective creation” with all artworks going from conception to realisation in-house often with a concept emerging only during the process of the multidisciplinary team works on it. With the concept established, specific skillsets can be gathered to work on it.

For example, the teamLab Borderless digital art museum, established with a developer called Mori in Tokyo, includes a piece called Forest of Flowers and People. That involved 3D software, CGI animations and models, video engineering and projection, software to integrates dozens of projector within the space, and an architect to handle the physical interiors.

This illustrates two core characteristics of teamLab’s work – the use of light, and interactivity. “Light is an essential part of teamLab’s work,” said founder Toshiyuki Inoko in an interview. “We use immaterial digital technology, such as light, to create artworks that encourage people to rethink their perception of the world.”

teamLab Bordless installations at the Mori Building Digital Art Museum in Tokyo

And interactivity blurs the boundaries between the viewer and the artwork. The presence and the movement of the viewer can produce changes in the artwork. “Creative expression has existed through static media for most of human history, often using physical objects such as canvas and paint. The advent of digital technology allows human expression to become free from these physical constraints, enabling it to exist independently and evolve freely.”

The two strands come together frequently – for instance, in large egg-shaped light-emitters that feature in a couple of teamLab’s installations. When pushed by a visitor, the ovoid wobbles, shines brightly and emits a sound tone as it rights itself. The ovoids around it also respond one after another, emitting the same light colour and sound tone that continues to resonate out. When people are still, the ovoids begin to flicker slowly and reflect the world around them. When the ovoids are outdoors, they respond to environmental factors such as the rain and wind.

‘Resonating microcosms’ in teamLab Botanical Garden Osaka

In short, the space and the artwork in it is changed interactively by the behaviour of people and the natural environment. People and the environment thus become a part of the work.

teamLab’s first large-scale exhibition, 18 works shown for six months in Tokyo to May 2015, clocked up nearly half a million visitors and led to a permanent exhibition at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore plus teamLab Borderless, the group’s own permanent museum space.

This now has two locations, Tokyo and Shanghai (teamLab Borderless in Tokyo had 2.3 million visitors from more than 160 countries in its first year).

There are plans for more teamLab Borderless locations, in Jeddah and Hamburg. Other permanent exhibitions have opened in the last couple of years – several around Japan, four different locations in Singapore; teamLab SuperNature Macao had a Covid-affected soft opening in 2020 but has been temporarily put on ice.

And now Abu Dhabi is set to join them.

teamLab Phenomena Abu Dhabi is being developed by teamLab with DCT Abu Dhabi and Miral, appointed earlier this year to handle the destination management for Saadiyat Island. The design is being realised by MZ Architects, responsible for several UAE buildings including the dramatic clamshell Aldar HQ and the Al Qana development at Khor al Maqta in Abu Dhabi.

Miral’s track record with Yas Island is good, of course, particularly in terms of promoting Yas as a multifaceted leisure destination. There isn’t much in the way of cultural destination on Yas, but that doesn’t seem to be an impediment. Shortly after its appointment, Miral produced a strategy document titled Saadiyat Vision 2025 and a ‘One Island: Many Journeys’ slogan. That aims to highlight the Cultural District but also the luxury hotels and resorts (five five-star hotels so far with more on the way), high-end retail outlets (coming soon), and even conservation and responsible tourism via Saadiyat’s protected wildlife – hawksbill turtles, humpbacks, dolphins, more than 300 species of birds.

The Saadiyat strategy is reportedly aiming for 19 million visitors in 2025, contributing AED 4.2 billion in direct tourism revenue for that year. In 2019, Abu Dhabi as a whole attracted 13.3 million total ‘leisure visits’, so if Saadiyat alone is to hit 19m that would represent a massive increase. – and DCT’s last annual report said the goal was to reach 23m total visits for the whole emirate by 2030, so Saadiyat is clearly seen as the main appeal.

Abu Dhabi’s vision of a cultural focus on Saadiyat, originally announced more than ten years ago and effectively mothballed during the global financial crisis of the noughties, seem to be finally coming good.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is now five years old and by all accounts a major success, not least in the lustre it adds to Abu Dhabi’s image. Recently we’ve had the announcement of an actual curator-type project director for the Guggenheim, with everyone concerned talking confidently about a 2024 opening. The Zayed National Museum by Foster+Partners is proceeding apace and reportedly still on for a 2025 opening. That’s also the date for the Mecanoo-designed Natural History Museum, a relatively recent addition to the portfolio planned as the home for the world’s most expensive fossil, a not-quite-complete T-Rex called Stan which was bought for $31.8 million at auction (but there will definitely be much more in there too).

About the only still-delayed (and never-mentioned) Saadiyat project is Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum. That was due to be located in a space next to the Sheikh Khalifa Bridge on the Saadiyat waterfront facing the naval base; we think this is more or less where the forthcoming Natural History Museum will be, so unless it can be shoehorned into the gap the Maritime Museum looks like a goner.

Meanwhile teamLab appears to be getting the site facing Mina Zayed that was originally (c.2010) earmarked for Zaha Hadid’s long-cancelled performing arts centre.

So. working round the island northwards from the Sheik Khalifa Bridge, the sequence of the Cultural District waterfront seems to go: Natural History Museum, teamLab Phenomena, Louvre, Guggenheim. Just inland are the Abrahamic Family House and the Zayed National Museum; the Manarat al Saadiyat sits at the other end of the District. Quite a collection.

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