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Kōchi Castle meets teamLab Digital Art: modern vs tradition in Japan

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Updated: 13th December 2019

Far removed from the controlled chaos of Tokyo or the over-touristed red gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, the Kōchi Prefecture of Japan provides a much more relaxed, nature-inspired destination to visit in Japan. That said, there is no shying away from mixing modern with tradition in this outward-looking nation, and the teamLab digital art installation at Kōchi Castle is a prime example.

The largest of four regions on Shikoku Island, the Kōchi Prefecture is awash with crystal clear rivers, forests as far as the eye can see, and a coastline that has evolved through thousands of years of aggressive oceans. In the capital of the prefecture of the same name, Kōchi Castle stands proud above the modestly sized city compared to megalopolises like Tokyo.

There is a reason this castle, one of around a hundred in Japan, is so unique. Once upon a time, some five thousand castles could be found across the country, and Kōchi Castle is one of the best-preserved you can find here nowadays. Construction of the Castle dates back to 1601, but following a tragic fire that near destroyed it, it was fully restored to all its glory during the Edo period.

For that reason, it becomes a fitting backdrop for the digital art installations of the famous teamLab crew, who are perhaps best known for their permanent collection of digital art in Tokyo and Shanghai but also through their many temporary exhibitions in the likes of Singapore and now Kōchi.

The idea behind much of teamLab’s work is that art doesn’t need to be permanent. You can take something old, something traditional, and transform it into modern digital art without laying a finger on the original centrepiece that they have achieved well here in Kōchi. A range of different artworks have been set up around and projected onto the castle, each one providing an interactive element alongside it.

Another considerable element of teamLabs work is showing the relationships amongst people, which, as they say, traditional artwork can’t change to its audience. With the number of visitors and their actions directly impacting the artwork you’ll see and enjoy, these installations are responsive to the audience.

This responsiveness makes you more mindful of those around you – something I found especially prominent in Japan, where respect and consideration for each other come into play on another level I have not seen elsewhere.

The teamLab: Digitized Kōchi Castle event has been running for a couple of years, during the dark winter days when the sun sets early evening, and hopefully will continue to run for many years to come.

I visited the castle twice during my time in the city, as it was such a beautiful setting, and I didn’t do it justice on my first visit. If you find yourself in Kōchi between mid-November to mid-January, be sure to pop in and spend at least an hour admiring the space. Here’s a little look at what to expect.

Sketching with friends

Perhaps one of the most incredible things I’ve seen at a digital art installation like this was the ‘sketching with friends’ part of the event. Inside a tent, you could draw and colour in the historical characters of Kōchi, such as Sakamoto Ryoma (an influential samurai ) and Itagaki Taisuke (a Japanese soldier and leader of the freedom movement), amongst other people.

Once you had finished your drawing and coloured them in, they were scanned by a nifty computer and quickly animated onto the large screen before you. As you touch these famous figures, they come to life, sharing famous quotes, interacting with the audience, and occasionally, just breaking into a giant dance scene, much to everyone’s entertainment!

The resonating walls greet you

Kōchi Castles’s old stone wall stretches some 500-metres, something teamLab has made the most of with their installation, which projects resonating light across the various walls. Calligraphy and words dance across the wall as you approach the characters projected. At the same time, flowers and other ornate decorations appear and disappear in a range of bright and pastel colours, really bringing the scene to life.

The balls, floating spheres and tree corridor

Across the three central locations in the gardens of Kōchi Castle, floating spheres and balancing ‘eggs’ dance with multiple colours as they react to the visitors around them.

The ovoids of lights change when touched by the audience, so the speed of the colours and sounds cascading outwards and across the artwork depends on how many visitors are present and interacting with the ovoids at any time. You become hyper-aware of the other visitors around you, especially as the speed increases and you are more aware of extra people arriving or departing from the setting.

The most photographic spot might be the corridor of light, where the ovoids react, and the chain reaction of colours that illuminated the autumn leaves on the trees.

Waves of light and Kōchi Castle itself

Inside the castle’s initial entrance, computer-generated waves are projected upon the walls, almost hypnotising in their display. They highlight the deep connection with the water and sea here, perhaps a nod to the Tsunamis that have plagued these coasts over thousands of years and thus shaped the unique geo-parks you’ll visit in the prefecture.

I realised throughout my time in Kōchi that the people here very much live alongside and are part of nature, and given how much of a crossover there has been at times from the sea to the land and all those in between, it seemed an apt choice of artwork.

Beyond this, Kōchi Castle, which would typically be the show’s star, is illuminated by a ‘breathing’ changing of light that resonated outwards towards the walls. One thing I will say as well as visiting during the teamLab event if you find yourself here on the correct dates is to also visit during the daylight hours to explore one of the most historic and vital castles of Japan in all its daylit glory.

The teamLab: Digitized Kōchi Castle event runs from November 8th 2019- January 13th 2020, from 17:30 – 21:30 daily. Winter 2020 dates are yet to be confirmed, and more details can be found on the Kōchi tourism website.

You can also find out more about teamLab and their work in other locations, including Tokyo, on their website.

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