“It looks a bit dubious,” cautions Natsumi. The picture with the red lanterns has probably given her the wrong idea.
Others bail out by simply citing health concerns. “I have low blood pressure,“ Raffaela says, apologetically.
While sauna, red lights, and Roppongi might trigger a fight or flight reaction in some, any fear is misplaced when it comes to teamLab. The Tokyo-based art collective keeps opening new exhibitions of its signature otherworldly art, and one of them is the digital art bathhouse and sauna called teamLab Reconnect in Tokyo’s affluent Roppongi district.
The exhibition aims to put visitors into a “sauna trance,” a form of meditative, heightened mental state that results in a new form of art perception. “When entering a sauna trance, the senses sharpen, the mind clears, the beauty of the surrounding world comes into focus, and what normally goes unnoticed can be experienced,” explains teamLab on its website.
So far so good. Put into practice, this means wearing a swimsuit, sweating inside a sauna, followed by a cold shower, and then cooling down and resting while watching digital art. As nobody wants to join me to test out the new art-on-sauna experience of teamLab, I am heading out alone.
TeamLab has taken possession of an empty corner plot opposite Mori Tower. As the corner comes into view, it becomes clear that the whole event is hosted in a tent, albeit a really big one.
First up, some video to explain what awaits the visitor and run them through the “dos and don’ts.” Got it. There will be three cycles of sauna, cold shower, and art experience.
Next up is the swim suit rental. Praise to the god of elastics: the biggest size fits; and praise to the goddess of electricity: the lights are dim.
Next, I get two towels. There is a maze of saunas waiting for me.
Selfies in Swimsuits
TeamLab is not only famous for its immensely popular immersive exhibitions, it has also taken the art of the selfie to new heights. Those enamored with taking a self-portrait shot in a dazzling environment will also get their money’s worth at teamLab Reconnect, although conditions apply. No cameras inside the sauna, and no cameras inside the showers or dressing areas, but everything else is fair game. Smartphones can be placed into waterproof covers and taken around the exhibition.
The heat and humidity have already fogged up my glasses. As I wander around the sauna with my two towels, one of them is already wet.
The first sauna feels really hot — so hot that I step right back outside. I check the digital display. It reads 100 Celsius, intense heat. I can only agree and go on a search for more moderate heat to start out. I pass another five saunas with either 100 C or 90 C. Then, the last one says medium, with a temperature of 80 C. It seems my best bet.
I enter and a staffer is just straightening out the mats on floors and benches. Maybe I can dry my wet towel. I am supposed to stay for 10 minutes, but think it is best to leave after two. It’s getting really hot here.
Next up is the cold shower. The section is dark with mist falling down from the ceiling and lights forming rings on the ground. This artwork is based on ensou, the Zen school practice of drawing a circle with one uninhibited brush stroke.
I feel less Zen inside the cold shower, however, while I try to stretch out one arm trying to keep my towels dry. There is a storage place for towels above the shower heads, as I discover way too late. The recommended time in the cold shower is two minutes. I wisely settle for two seconds.
Time to move on to the art experience called “Ephemeral Solidified Light.” It’s a labyrinth of blue light and mirrors with water cascading from above, forming strands that look like glowing, pulsing raindrops. A man and a boy are quietly sitting on the floor in the center of the room, enjoying a shower of cold water inside a maze of moving lights and colors.
Finnish Traditions with Green Tea Taste
I head back to the sauna. As I pass the shower section, a young woman is screaming in despair. It seems her boyfriend is pushing her under the cold shower and keeping her there for exactly two minutes while she holds onto him for support, her head resting on his shoulder, her whole body shivering. We all know that Ikea is a relationship death-trap for couples, but could the teamLab sauna even be worse?
As I head back into my next sauna, another couple is already sitting there, whispering to each other with no signs of tension. Well, maybe it is not that bad. Maybe the Saunatonttu, little sauna elves, the guardians of the sauna in Finnish folklore, are around, bringing us all luck while we respectfully sit around a hot 100-kilogram stone together.
A staff member arrives with a water can and pours the contents onto the hot sauna stone, sending steam and the aroma of green tea into the air. This infusion goes by the Finnish word löyly.
As the vapor fogs up my glasses and the temperature inside the sauna rises, I also rise to head to the next art experience with a somewhat long and winding name: “Proliferating Immense Life in the Rain — A Whole Year per Year.”
I must have arrived around August, because the sunflowers are out, growing, withering, scattering their petals. Sitting on a long bench in a swimsuit watching flowers grow, die, and come back is a truly beautiful experience.
Another blitz shower and I find myself in the last art room: “Levitation — Flattening Red and Blue & Blurred Violet.” This is supposed to evoke some supernatural feelings, but, alas, maybe my shower was just not long enough. Instead of red and violet, I only see two white light globes slowly moving up and down, the abstract vision of a person coming closer while keeping distant.
Now that both of my towels are soaking wet, it is time to visit all the art rooms for a final time. I quickly dry off in the women-only sauna, and then head back out.
It’s been relaxing for sure. And I’ll tell Natsumi there is nothing really dubious going on here.
teamLab Reconnect will run until November 23, 2021. Weekday tickets cost ¥4,800 per person, tickets on weekends and holidays are ¥5,800. Admission is for people 12 years and above only.
Author: Agnes TandlerAgnes Tandler is a German foreign correspondent who also reports for JAPAN Forward. Find her articles in English at this link.