Despite the controversy surrounding the medium, these five Asian artists are pioneering the field of video game art.

2012 was a landmark year for the fledgling medium of video game art. Museum exhibitions and major acquisitions of video game-related artwork are on the rise, and there are a number of artists in Asia who are at the forefront of the art form. Art Radar profiles five of the earliest adopters from the region.

Image from Feng Mengbo, 'Long March: Restart', 2008, video game.

US museums show, collect video games

In November 2012, MoMA announced that it had acquired fourteen video games as part of its department of architecture and design. The museum aims to collect around forty games in total and will display them as part of its permanent collection. Already acquired works include classics like Pong, Space Invaders and Donkey Kong.

Video games are receiving a lot of attention on the exhibition circuit as well. In March 2012, the Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C. opened the show “The Art of Video Games“. The exhibition brought together eighty video games selected by public vote and displayed them in one of the United States’ most prestigious art institutions, turning the typical high culture-pop culture dichotomy on its head.

But are video games really art?

Implicit in these moves is the controversial assumption that video games themselves are an art form. The MoMA acquisitions kicked off a firestorm of press both supporting and criticising the notion that video games can be art. Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones was adamant that video games are incompatible with the concept of individual creative vision that underpins all art. He notes,

Walk around the Museum of Modern Art, look at those masterpieces it holds by Picasso and Jackson Pollock, and what you are seeing is a series of personal visions. A work of art is one person’s reaction to life. Any definition of art that robs it of this inner response by a human creator is a worthless definition. Art may be made with a paintbrush or selected as a ready-made, but it has to be an act of personal imagination.

Other critics of video games include legendary film critic Roger Ebert, who published the controversial article “Video Games Can Never Be Art” on his web journal.

Though much ink has been spilled over whether pop video games have reached or have the potential to reach the level of “art”, these critics have also overlooked the fact that many contemporary artists actually make video games; albeit games that are distinctly unlike what one would buy in a local electronics shop, forming an artistic category unto themselves. Artists adopt the new media format for a variety of different reasons, chief among them being the interactivity that it enables.

5 Asian video game artists

Below, we take a closer look at five Asian contemporary artists who use video games as a medium for their artwork.

Toshio Iwai, 'Composition on the Table', 1998-1999, sound and video installation.

Toshio Iwai

Japanese contemporary artist Toshio Iwai is unique in that he is the only figure on the list who, in addition to making video game-based art, has also made commercial video games. Iwai is one of the first internationally-recognised gallery artists to work in conventional video games. A graduate of the fine art department of the University of Tsukuba, Iwai has spent decades exploring the relationship between image and sound in his interactive installation art.

Major projects in this style include the work Resonance of 4 from 1994, in which four players each stand at a podium and control the placement of dots placed into sixteen by sixteen grids projected onto the floor. The dots all correspond with musical notes. After placements, a bar will sweep over each player’s grid, synchronising their notes. The work was featured in both the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle and the Barbican in London.

Iwai’s video game work Composition on the Table similarly used four digital interfaces projected onto white tables from above. Audiences could create new sounds and images by manipulating the interface elements, ultimately creating an environment in which participants are able to collaborate on an audio-visual piece. Iwai later incorporated elements from this work into his Nintendo DS video game Electroplankton.

Ryota Kuwakubo, 'LoopScape', 2003, LED screen and video game installation.

Ryota Kuwakubo

Like Iwai, Japanese artist Ryota Kuwakubo was also a graduate of the fine art department of the University of Tsukuba, specialising in plastic art and mixed media. Though many of his works would more accurately be called interactive audio-visual installation art, Kuwakubo also incorporates the aesthetics and mechanics of video games into his work.

One such installation work, The Tenth Sentimentwon Kuwakubo a prize of excellence at the 14th Japan Media Arts Festival in 2011. The work uses an LED light affixed to a toy train that moves through a darkened room. The train passes by a variety of objects, casting shadows on the wall and giving the viewers the sense that they are witnessing a changing landscape from inside the train itself.

Kuwakubo’s LoopScape is clearly video-game inspired. In this work, two players control ships on a circular screen, attempting to shoot each other down, but, since the screen is circular, players may end up shooting themselves down, too. Kuwakubo was interested in the interaction between a closed virtual world and the physical world, and he was delighted to see participants playfully roughing each other up in the real world to gain a virtual advantage.

Image from Feng Mengbo, 'Long March: Restart', 2008, video game.

Feng Mengbo

Born in Beijing, Feng Mengbo was one of the first Chinese contemporary artists to embrace video games and digital media as an art form. Feng began his artistic career making acrylic works that incorporated eight-bit video game aesthetics into his memories of the Cultural Revolution. At the same time, Feng created the personal CD-ROM artwork My Private Diary, a digital collection of family photos and memorabilia.

In 1997, Feng began devoting most of his time to video game and computer art. For his seminal work Taking Mount Doom by Strategy, Feng hacked and reprogrammed the code for the classic shooter video game Doom to include scenes from the Mao-era play Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, one of the eight model plays allowed to be shown during the Cultural Revolution.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Feng continued to produce artwork inspired by video games. For the works in his “Quake Series”, Feng altered the code of the first-person shooter game Quake, replacing the face of each character in the game with his own so that he could indulge in his childhood fantasy to be the hero. More recently, Feng produced the video game Long March: Restart, a Super Mario-esque game where the protagonist plays through the events of Mao’s Long March.

Cao Fei, 'RMB City', 2008, digital artwork.

Cao Fei

Video games have always been an influence in Guangzhou-born Cao Fei‘s artwork. Cao first made a name for herself with her COSplayers series; images and video of Chinese youth in normal settings yet clad in outfits from famous Japanese anime shows or video games. The disjoint between the pop drama of youth culture and the realities of day-to-day life has been a central concern in Cao Fei’s artwork.

Cao’s biggest video game art project, however, is her use of the online virtual world Second Life. Using her avatar, China Tracy, Cao designed and created RMB City, a digital metropolis she uses as a staging ground for a number of art projects. In addition to stills and digital photography, in 2009, Cao created The Birth of RMB City, a documentary film about the rise and fall of her urban landscape. Launched in 2008, the city itself remains open to the public to this day. Institutions and collectors even host art events and exhibitions within the city that are open to Second Life members.

Screenshot from Alan Kwan, 'Bad Trip', 2012, video game programme.

Alan Kwan

By far the youngest artist on the list, Alan Kwan is a Hong Kong-based media artist and filmmaker. A recent graduate of the City University School of Creative Media in Hong Kong, Kwan’s project Bad Trip made quite a splash on art and news blogs. Kwan is a life logger and since November 2011, he has recorded all of the events of his life via a camera attached to his glasses.

In 2012, Kwan used this database as the source material for a distinctly personal video game project. In Bad Trip, the user navigates a dramatic landscape populated with houses. Each building contains a real memory from Kwan’s life. The more hidden or difficult to reach a house is, the more private the recollection it contains. There are even houses floating in the sky, completely inaccessible and containing the artist’s most secret memories.

Do you know of any other Asian video game artists? What is your take on the issue? Can video games be art? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.


Related Topics: video game art, electronic art, interactive art

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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