At Superblue, Mind-Bending Meditations on the World Around Us

The long-awaited experiential art center opens in Miami with immersive displays by Es Devlin, James Turrell, and TeamLab that serve as portals into new worlds while sparking urgent conversations about the one we inhabit.

“Forest of Us” (2021) by Es Devlin. Photography by Andrea Mora

Immediately upon entering Superblue, the buzzed-about new experiential art venture in Miami’s rising Allapattah neighborhood, an upside-down landscape of mechanical flowers opening and closing in a poetic choreography enlivens the cavernous admissions hall. It’s the latest iteration of Meadow, a kinetic sculpture by Amsterdam-based Drift, which mimics the biological behavior of nyctinasty—the rhythmic movement of certain plants that bloom in the daytime and close their petals at night. As they wander underneath the suspended blooms, visitors operate as sunlight proxies, activating motion sensors that cause the petals to react and change color.

Drift co-founder Lonneke Gordjin describes Meadow as “uniting us in a shared moment, a shared presence of being; at once still and singular yet collective and connected.” Not only does the installation set the stage for what’s in store as one wanders through Superblue, but it offers a hopeful glimmer of our post-pandemic future—the return to symbiotic, face-to-face interaction that disappeared during lockdown. 

“Meadow” (2017) by Drift. Photography by Oriol Tarridas

Superblue, whose debut features phantasmagoric digital environments by Es Devlin, TeamLab, and James Turrell, couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time. Located directly across from the Rubell Museum, home to the namesake family’s world-class contemporary art collection, the venture transforms a vast former industrial building into a canvas for experiential art. 

The project is the brainchild of Marc Glimcher, president and CEO of Pace Gallery, and Mollie-Dent Brocklehurst, former president of Pace’s London outpost. (Though affiliated with Pace, Superblue is a separate company; Emerson Collective, the social change engine founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow to Steve, also supports the venture.) Glimcher describes Superblue as a natural outgrowth of PaceX, which he created in response to growing public interest in experiential art and the needs of artists eschewing object-based practices. “Superblue represents a necessary evolution and disruption of the arts ecosystem, providing artists with the resources they need for realizing their most ambitious ideas and engaging the public in the ways they envisioned.” 

The Superblue seed was first planted in 2015, when Glimcher was inaugurating Pace’s Silicon Valley outpost—then called Pace Art + Technology—with an exhibition of wildly colorful, mind-bending visuals by TeamLab, an international art collective of more than 700 artists, designers, engineers, and programmers working under the creative direction of co-founder Toshiyuki Inoko. Shortly before the show was scheduled to open, Inoko asked Glimcher if he planned on selling tickets for admission. Glimcher at first dismissed the idea because galleries had always been free for visitors, but soon realized that Inoko was onto something.

“Universe of Water Particles, Transcending Boundaries” (2017) by TeamLab. Sound by Hideaki Takahashi, image courtesy of Pace Gallery

Experiential art has existed since at least the 1950s, when Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine built environments and staged performances in the basement of Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The next decade, Andy Warhol teamed with Bell Labs engineers to mastermind Silver Clouds, which transformed the then-new material Scotchpak into interactive helium-filled balloons that float like pillows through space and notably became part of the choreography of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest. Christo and Jeanne-Claude went on to adorn several islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay with pink polypropylene fabric “skirts” in 1983.

And only a couple years prior to TeamLab’s first outing at Pace, installations like Random International’s Rain Room at the Museum of Modern Art and Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms at David Zwirner attracted scores of younger, smartphone-equipped art lovers lining up for hours outside. These young people, Glimcher notes, have long been priced out of the fine art market, but are eager to document their 45-second escapades in exchange for Instagram likes.

Glimcher aims to achieve a similar effect with Superblue. Tickets are $36 each (visitors can pay an extra $12 to see a second installation by TeamLab), and the venture will share admission revenue with artists to help commission new works without the tedium of working with cities or festivals—a process often tangled in red tape. Foot traffic may be slow at first; Superblue is currently operating at 50 percent capacity in accordance with health requirements, but that’s expected to pick up as the vaccine rollout progresses. One would also imagine the creative cognoscenti, recently stuck looking at art through lackluster virtual viewing rooms, is again craving sensory experiences after a year of deprivation.

“Every Wall Is a Door,” the inaugural program at Superblue, is a phenomenal reintroduction to in-person experiences. The four environments, on view through at least 2022, sprawl across Superblue’s more than 30,000 square feet of exhibition space. “Each artist provokes us to see our relationship to the world and each other in completely new ways,” says Dent-Brocklehurst. “Collectively, they reflect the arc of experiential art as a movement and the remarkable ways that artists are innovating with emerging mediums and placing audiences at the center of the work.”

“Forest of Us” (2021) by Es Devlin. Photography by Andrea Mora
“Forest of Us” (2021) by Es Devlin. Photography by Andrea Mora

Superblue’s artists are also centering big ideas. Devlin’s installation, called Forest of Us, draws parallels between human breathing structures and structures around us that make breathing possible: the bronchial trees that exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide within our lungs and the trees which exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen in the environment. It starts out as a film of a journey through the forest. “Gradually, the forest leads you toward understanding the branching structures of trees,” she tells the New York Times. “Then you find that you’re not looking at a tree, actually, but at a bronchial tree: You’re looking inside the lungs, and you make the connection. You understand that the exchange of gas that’s going on inside of us and outside of us is mutually dependent.” 

Forest of Us responds to Miami’s impending environmental peril—predictions suggest that rising sea levels will displace nearly one million Floridians before 2100. Climatic concerns have recently been top of mind for the celebrity-favorite stage designer, recently named the artistic director of the London Design Biennale, who will plant a 400-tree forest outside the city’s Somerset House for this year’s event. “In literature, forests are often places of transformation—the forest of Arden in Shakespeare, the enchanted forests of the Brothers Grimm,” she tells GQ, noting how she hopes that interaction with the forest will have a transformative impact on the public’s attitudes toward environmentalism. 

That same mindset underscores Forest of Us. Once the three-minute film concludes, the screen becomes a portal into a two-story labyrinth akin to a hedge maze, only with optical-glass mirrors and polished aluminum dividers in lieu of topiaries. At a shallow pool, standing on marked circles triggers a funhouse image of the viewer’s reflection. Devlin likens her dizzying labyrinth to contemporary eco-philosophers who use the hall of mirrors “as a metaphor for the glimmering feedback loops of human design that enchant our gaze so seductively that we lose awareness of our symbiotic connection to the rest of the biosphere.” One critic likened it to watching the death of the planet.

“Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled but Live Together - Transcending Boundaries, A Whole Year per Hour” (2017) by TeamLab. Sound by Hideaki Takahashi, image courtesy of Pace Gallery

Earth’s impending destruction lends itself to TeamLab’s installation, a suite of interconnected multimedia works that illustrate the fraught relationship between nature and humanity. In one room, “Flowers and People, Cannot Be Controlled but Live Together,” computer-generated imagery showcases the seasonal cycle of flowers growing, blossoming, withering, and decaying. Virtual flowers stepped on by visitors scatter and wither; blossoms observed in stillness flourish. In another room, one can practically feel the waterfall of digital flowers cascading down a wall set to tonal music; touching the blossoms hastens their demise. It’s both a comment on man’s destructive interference and a compelling tableau of Japan’s approach to the delicate, ephemeral nature of beauty. 

Though the flower rooms are nothing short of magical, TeamLab outdid themselves with “Massless Clouds Between Sculpture and Life.” A first-of-its-kind living sculpture, soap bubbles infused with the energy of airflow form, hover, cling to visitors, and dissipate. Even when physically pushed through, the sculpture breaks and naturally repairs itself like a living object; but when the clouds are destroyed beyond what it can repair, it can no longer mend itself, and collapses. The concept, according to Inoko, explores the “middle state” between living and non-living entities such as viruses.

“Massless Clouds Between Sculpture and Life” (2020) by TeamLab. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery

James Turrell, the light and space artist widely considered a forefather of the experiential art movement, debuts one of his Ganzfeld works—a German word denoting the loss of spatial perception that occurs in an unstructured, monochrome stimulation field. As the color of the light gradually changes, Turrell’s work, called AKHU, gives rise to a contemplative if not slightly disorienting mood in line with the neighboring works. 

The critic Arthur Lubow, writing for the New York Times, rightfully questions whether the rise of experiential art signals “a forward step in the march of modernism or a debasement of art into theme-park entertainment,” but Superblue feels right for this moment. It heralds the arrival of the post-pandemic era—a time in which we could all use a salve for the past year of disconnection. “Your heart soars,” Glimcher tells the Miami Herald. “You have to reconsider how you think about the world around you and your place in it. I hope people come away with that gift.” 

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