Painting is a wonderful and magical act and is capable of leading to compelling art but it has limitations. These are so severe that there has been an ongoing debate about its relevance to ambitious art for the whole of the last hundred years. The reason for this is surprisingly simple. Painting is inherently visual but we live in a world which is increasingly verbal; indeed modern education is all about words and maths. This perhaps helps explain why people seem to spend more time reading information panels in galleries than they do looking at paintings - they have had visual thinking educated out of them. Against this context, the relevance of painting is further challenged by the rise of other media which are better equipped to co-exist with a verbal world.
A trek around contemporary galleries and museums makes it clear that the favoured forms for ambitious art about verbal ideas today are installations, time based media and lens based media but computer based and interactive pieces are rapidly gaining ground. Periodically I take a look at these digital pieces and try very hard to like them but with few exceptions find them impenetrable, un-involving or facile. Recently I came across teamLab's latest installation, "Floating Flower Garden - Flowers and I are of the same root, the Garden and I are one", which was at the Museum of Emerging Technology in Tokyo until earlier this month and has made me stop and think again.
The premise behind the garden is simple - growing flowers are suspended in a brightly lit space and the way they hang is controlled by sensors. As people move through the space, the flowers rise and fall so that they are always within a moving dome of flowers. When people move together, the domes merge and grow and when they separate, so do the domes. This playful and instantly engaging idea picks up on many Japanese traditions - the representation of flowers and their related symbolism, vertical formats, ikebana and so forth. It is this very quality of being engaging that has caught my attention and has clarified why I respond so badly to most interactive art.
The fundamental problem from which most digital art suffers is that it is inhuman. It is cold and distant. The garden elegantly solves this problem by changing the emphasis. The technology is not denied but neither is attention drawn to it. There is a confidence here and clear signs that technology driven art is growing up and that it is at last being used as a medium, not as a subject. Much digital work is about itself; the computer, the sensor, the robot, the program or the screen. There is an argument to be made that this is just a continuation of the modernist experiment but I think this is a misunderstanding on the part of the artists. Making computer art which is physically dominated by the computer or screen is not the equivalent of Jackson Pollock making a painting about painting, it is equivalent to calling a bare canvas a painting; a potentially interesting experiment but ultimately a very dead end.
The Garden is one of a new breed that doesn't make this mistake; it explores the uses of technology instead of the technology itself and it does so by stepping back from the bleeding edge and simplifying. The other and rather inescapable thing that the Garden does is to re-introduce nature, humanity and a tactile, sensuous quality. It does definitely point a way forwards, suggesting ways data can be visualised that is human and ways that interactivity can be at the very least charming and maybe even insightful. Additionally, and to go back to the beginning of this post, it does highlight the way that new media, when spliced together with things from the real world, have the potential to explore ideas without all the baggage that goes with traditional art forms and without the need for the rhetoric that has plagued contemporary art for the last 50 years.
It's definitely enough for me to start seeking out more new media work; from what I've seen on the internet I'm not convinced there is a new media masterpiece out there yet, but at least now I'm hopeful there will be sooner or later.