Ultrasubjective Space

Pre-Modern Knowledge and Ancient Japanese Spatial Recognition

The World as a Japanese Painting

teamLab explore what contemporary society has discarded as a result of a lack of compatibility. In particular, teamLab explores a sense of spatial awareness interpreted in premodern Japanese art.

Until the late nineteenth century, people in Japan depicted the world differently than today. This ancient Japanese sense of spatial recognition has been lost in modern times. With our work, we explore whether the world itself has changed spatially, or if people have lost sight of how they once saw things.

Traditional Japanese painting is generally described as “flat.” We believe that our ancestors saw the world exactly as depicted in ancient Japanese paintings, to the same extent that contemporary Japanese conceptualize space as seen in modern perspective-based paintings or photos.

In other words, we believe that our forebears developed a logical structure of spatial recognition that differs from the Western Renaissance perspective. Since influences from neighboring Asian countries greatly shaped premodern Japan, it might be said that this specific spatial awareness applied to ancient Asia as a whole.

Ancient Japan’s Spatial Awareness as Ultrasubjective Space

teamLab are attempting to use a scientific approach to discover the logical structure of ultrasubjective space by employing new, digital methods. We use a computer to build a world of 3-D objects in a 3-D space. Then, we explore the logical structure of that space in a way that makes the 3-D space appear flat, as in traditional Japanese art. We call that logical structure ultrasubjective space.

We are not animating by drawing a picture on a plane. We are creating 3-D objects in a 3-D space and then flattening them using the logical constructs of ultrasubjective space. This logical structure enables the production of creative works that are interactive and continuously changing. The creative process allows for the discovery of features and phenomena that exist only in ultrasubjective space. Through this exploration of space, we can generate new viewing experiences and raise questions about how modern people understand the world. [figs. 1, 2].

[Figure 1] View of 3-D objects in a 3-D space, flattened using perspective (from Flower and Corpse Glitch Set of 12: Prosperity and Disaster) [Figure 2] View of 3-D objects in a 3-D space, flattened using the logic of ultrasubjective space (from Flower and Corpse Glitch Set of 12: Prosperity and Disaster)

Mov. 1:Finished painting (from “Flower and Corpse Animation Diorama”)

How the Human Eye Sees

In simplified terms, Western perspective originated from hand-drawn paintings [fig. 3], which depict a linear system in which objects recede in space [fig. 4]. The viewer sees the world, as depicted in paintings and photographs, through a hand-drawn perspective.

Let’s assume that people in pre-modern Japan saw the world as depicted in a Japanese painting [fig. 5], where figures and objects exist on a single plane of depth [fig. 6]. It may seem impossible to perceive dimensionality from this alternative vantage point; however, it can also be argued that it is unnatural to only see the world from a single-point perspective.

What the human eye sees in a given moment is much more narrow and shallow than most people realize. We do not see the wide perspective often depicted in paintings or photographs. Human visual perception is determined by the natural movement of our eyes and the way we switch focus over time. The range of narrow and shallow focus is synthesized in the brain, and we believe that people merely feel that they are seeing perspective as in a photo or picture.

teamLab believes, in other words, that people use their eyes like an extremely weak camera. They continuously take an infinite number of mental photos of their surroundings, synthesizing the huge volume of these images in their brains, thereby creating an understanding of those images spatially. If you think that the brain’s synthesis uses a logical structure that differs from perspective, it would not be strange if the world were seen as shown in figure 6.

[Figure 3] Mona Lisa © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado / distributed by AMF-DNPartcom [ Figure 4 ] [ Figure 5 ] Honensho picture scroll [ Figure 6 ]

Become Part of a Picture or Photo

If you pretend that you are a character in a perspective-based picture or photo [fig. 7, Red human figure], the visible landscape changes. If the portrait is front-facing, you will see the world as seen by an external viewer [fig. 7, pink part].

Assuming that the people of premodern Japan viewed the world as shown in figure 8, a viewer pretending to be a character [fig. 9, Red human figure] in a traditional Japanese painting will see the pink part of figure 9. The character in the painting, in other words, perceives almost the same landscape that an external viewer of the painting sees [fig. 9]. So, viewers can continue to view the landscape in the picture even if they step into the shoes of a character depicted in the painting. While viewing a painting, a viewer can pretend to enter and move around freely within the space of that painting. The viewer does not hold a dominant perspective over the depicted space, and is instead merged into the comprehensive experience.

[ Figure 7 ] [ Figure 8 ] [ Figure 9 ]

Viewer Centricity

Suppose that you make one large photograph by combining a number of photographs depicting objects [fig. 10]. The result will differ completely from a photograph taken at a distance of the series of objects as a whole [fig. 11]. In Western linear perspective, even if we create one large plane by combining several planes in the vicinity of the point of view, where a small area is reflected in the projection plane subject to space [fig. 10], it is not possible to make a large plane that reflects the entire space in the distant perspective, where the entire space is reflected on that plane [fig. 11].

In the case of ultrasubjective space, recognizing a plane that combines multiple detailed planes [fig. 12] is logically the same as recognizing a plane of the entire space [fig. 13]. The plane consisting of combined parts of space—each recognized in detail—is equivalent to the plane where the entire space is recognized.

This means that viewer centricity is possible. When you view a painting from a position where it can be seen in its entirety, you can imagine yourself inside the entire space represented in the painting. Step closer to the painting so that you can see only one part of it, and you visually enter only that part of the represented space in the painting [fig. 12]. You can see the picture freely from anywhere. There is no limit to the point of view, which can move freely [fig. 13].

Traditional Japanese picture scroll and paper screen paintings are created based on this concept. Scroll paintings are placed on a table and their separate scenes are viewed by unrolling the scroll with the left hand. You look, in other words, at the individual parts of a larger whole. Paper screen paintings are also painted with the understanding that the individual screens will be moved.

[Figure 10] A plane that is pieced together from smaller planes, with each representing a part of the space in perspective [Figure 11] A plane that recognizes the entire space in perspective [Figure 12] A plane that is pieced together from multiple, finely detailed planes that each represent a part of the space in ultrasubjective space [Figure 13] A plane that recognizes the entire space in ultrasubjective space

Split, Fold, or Join

Ultrasubjective space allows us to freely “split” the plane into parts. If you view only part of a painting, you visually enter the space represented by only that part. You can also divide by “folding” the plane. With perspective-based photos or paintings, it is not possible to fold, split, or join the image, as is common practice with traditional Japanese art.

Byobu screens are by definition a folded canvas. Fusuma sliding doors are a split canvas. If ancient people saw the world in terms of ultrasubjective space, the world they saw would remain almost unchanged regardless of the canvas it was presented on. They easily and completely entered the images depicted in the art of their time and saw them as they saw the world. They readily felt themselves to be an integral part of their world, whether seeing it in reality or in art.

No Boundary between Viewer and World in Ultrasubjective Space

When you are looking at the world as depicted in Western perspective, it appears to be distinct from your reality and you cannot fully become a person in that world. Understanding this, we can conclude that it is possible to gain a new way of seeing the world,stemming from the connection between the appearance of the world and our behavior within it.

The behavior of our Japanese forebears toward nature was not merely one of observation. Their belief that they were a part of nature was not the result of a way of thinking. Rather, they fully entered the world which they were observing, and easily understood how they were a part of it.

If you have seen the world through Western perspective, you can understand how a clear boundary divides you from the world you are observing. It is not possible to exist in that world. In other words, the world is one to be observed.

It is common to hear people of today chant, “We are a part of the Earth.” However, many people behave as if there is a clear boundary between themselves and their world, and they act as if the world is different from the one that they are in. Perhaps this is a result of the abundance of photos and live videos currently presented in modern society, which force us to remove ourselves from the world that we are observing.