Video Games as High Art

"Grand Theft Auto," it's not. For his first U.S. solo exhibition, artist Ian Cheng takes on nothing less than the evolution of consciousness in his computer simulations.

Photo courtesy of Ian Cheng

A video game becomes a colorful, ever-changing art installation in Ian Cheng’s “Emissaries,” the artist’s first solo exhibition in the U.S. Ten-foot-tall video projections splash on the white walls of three rooms, making this presentation akin to going to the movies…only you can wander in and out of the films whenever you choose.

Cheng’s describes his computer simulation work as “a video game that plays itself.” In “Emissaries,” he takes viewers through a trio of different worlds related to the evolution of consciousness: The first video simulates an ancient community living under the threat of a volcanic eruption; in the second, the volcano has been transformed into a verdant environment in which an Artificial Intelligence emissary gathers information about humans; in the last video, the AI has become a sentient substance searching for a radical evolutionary successor. That’s a lot of information to take in, right? I thought so, too.

Photo courtesy of Ian Cheng

The simulations continue endlessly, and they are non-narrative, so there’s no real story to follow. In the first room, museum-goers sat completely silent, watching figures in the ancient world performing ritualistic movements on a gray mountain over and over again. The second simulation features a fertile landscape dotted with eye-catching yellows and pinks. Hybrid animals—something between a fox and a dog—frolic, and water quickly rises and falls. A character called “the Celebrity,” a skeleton wearing sunglasses and necklaces, wanders through the environment. In the third room, a pendulum-like object swings in the center of the video, and cute Teletubby-like figures enter and exit the screen. The colors change from beige and white to a glowing, warm orange that filled the entire white room, before melting into a deep, inky blue. I never did quite understand what was going on—but I also didn’t care.The longer I stayed in each of the rooms, the more meditative the experience became.

This exhibition may be inscrutable, but it sure is beautiful.

Photo courtesy of Ian Cheng

Why You Should Go:  Cheng’s mysterious worlds makes terrific use of the soaring spaces in Queen’s MoMA PS1 and will leave you puzzling over the artist’s message (in a good way) for days.

“Ian Cheng: Emissaries”
22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City
Through Monday, September 25
$10; seniors and students, $5; ages 16 and under, free