Thirst Trap: Getting Sweaty in teamLab’s ‘Sauna Trance’

‘Fire Red’. Courtesy teamLab

The digital collective’s newest experiential work in Tokyo requires viewers to strip down and enter a state of ‘aroused discomfort’

Fans of teamLab are used to climbing, falling, getting wet, being gently knocked from behind by giant balloons. To see the digital collective’s newest experiential work in Tokyo, however, viewers also have to strip down. Swimsuits and optional loungewear are provided by the venue.

teamLab Reconnect moves visitors ever deeper towards a mode of viewing art that engages the entire body, which here is pushed between extremes of hot and cold with the goal of triggering a trancelike mental state. From there, their senses heightened, participants rest and view art in aroused discomfort.

The sensory-overload part undoubtedly works. Viewers first face a series of doors leading to seven different saunas. ‘Underground River’, a bold blue, is heated to the maximum 100° c, and has a pine scent, to evoke Finnish saunas. In the ‘Fire Red’ room, at a more modest 90°c, hōjicha, roasted green tea, is poured over the stove instead of water. A lovely nutty aroma wafts around as a background to your physical suffering, while you inevitably wonder if you, too, are being roasted for consumption.

‘Step into the Light Circle’. Courtesy teamLab

The instinct to take deep breaths to get through the pain makes sense. It also hurts. On the inhale, the lungs fill with a light burning; an exhale moves across the tiny hairs of the upper lip like a desert blast. Ears feel like they’re being peeled by the sun; hair seems aflame.

After five to ten minutes of heat, participants move to a minute-long icy shower. From there they can rest in one of three ‘art’ rooms. ‘Ephemeral Solidified Light’ presents a grid of laserlike lines of water, each containing dancing lights the size of paperclips. Like teamLab’s ‘Infinite Crystal Universe’, this room is ready-made for Instagram, except here viewers can enter and touch the work, and, importantly, in a bikini. Purveyors of the thirst trap carve out space for the rare chance to shoot their butts being drenched by a technicolour disco shower.

In the last room, a sphere floats untethered and self-directed, surrounded by darkness. It’s filled with a combination of gases (teamLab declined to name which ones) that shift to make the sphere ascend, fall and move sideways, the colour changing with the direction. By its third cycle of temperature change, the body slumps against the benches that line the room, the other spectators hidden in darkness. ‘Levitation: Flattening Red and Blue & Blurred Violet’ makes a pretty boring photo, and viewers can’t interact with it, unusual in a teamLab context. Slow and languid, even prone to getting stuck, the suspended sphere looks completely flat when it moves vertically, a red or blue circle that’s being slowly dragged against black paper. When it moves laterally, the sphere takes on an extra dimension, becoming a purple-pink orb. Here there’s nothing for the body to do, no way for it to affect the action. It’s a pleasant respite.

‘Ephemeral Solidified Light’. Courtesy teamLab

The concept of a ‘sauna trance’ is built up in a wall text as a well-studied neurological fact, steeped in traditional sauna culture, but it is neither. One description claims that, based on a study of 30 people, the sauna trance ‘will help you relax deeply, increase your creativity, sharpen your senses, and feel clear-headed’, going on to assert that it ‘can be described as a state similar to meditation’. The seamlessness of that dream is complicated by a logistical dance of trying to keep phones, towels and masks dry and away from heat. teamLab Reconnect tries hard to bring viewers to a sweaty zen, but a more honest description might work better: an afternoon of half-naked people brought into intimate, whispering proximity, blasted by extreme temperatures before being released into a wet playground to try and catch a good ’gram. Viewers may find that, in lieu of a meditative state, what they gain is an intense awareness of their upper-ab flesh.

But there’s joy to be found in that jiggle. It’s rare to have an art experience so corporeal that it brings new focus to one’s own thighs. Here viewers also commune with other bodies, in all their diversity, squeezed into (or out of) shape by the standard-issue swimwear. Everything is on display (except faces, given that masks are required outside the sauna rooms). It feels impolite to gaze, and indeed you might try not to look, observe, feel – but then, why else did you come?

teamLab, Reconnect, Roppongi, Tokyo, until 31 August

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