For decades, artists have worked across physical and digital canvases, especially in public installations, where a virtual component can lend a futuristic frisson to traditional works. The current brouhaha about NFTs – digital artworks to which proof of ownership can be bought, assigning currently indeterminate rights to the buyer – makes the Serpentine Gallery’s New Fiction exhibition feel especially of the moment, however. The show (admission free) features physical and digital works by Kaws, AKA the Brooklyn-based artist Brian Donnelly, the digital works viewed via a third-party augmented reality app downloaded on to a smartphone.
Visitors must calibrate the app on arrival; point your phone camera at a QR code outside the gallery and the scene fills with towering, brightly painted figures, including an emaciated Cookie Monster-like character who sits, legs a-dangling, from the plinth above the entrance. Inside, you must again calibrate the app, at which point you wander around the rooms, figuratively brushing shoulders with virtual “visitors” who also form part of the installation. It’s an uncanny feeling seeing virtual characters observe physical works of art (typically, these days, it’s us, the corporeal, who perennially gaze upon the digital), and the sense of discombobulation is compounded by the fact that the exhibit features actual brightly painted bronze statues.
Donnelly’s work is ideally suited to the moment in its aesthetic and subject matter, too. His cartoonish characters have the feel of post-apocalyptic Disney classics, cuddly but also fraught, with Xs for eyes. On the canvas, these characters seem lost in mazes built from the debris of modern civilization: snapped steel beams, tyre fragments. This feels like Armageddon, but painted in the fashionable neon colours of 90s-era sports Lycra. Donnelly’s juxtaposition of candy curved shapes and colour with scenes of desecration resonates with our current species-wide anxieties: our saturated state of constant entertainment (usually administered via digital channels) at odds with our fears about the state of the physical world, and our complicity in its decline.
Fitting, too, that this show should have been made in collaboration with Epic Games, creators of Fortnite, arguably the dominant digital playground for young people. Epic were responsible for last year’s superlative Kid A Mnesia digital exhibition, released for PlayStation, Mac and Window to coincide with the 21st anniversary of the release of Radiohead’s seminal records, which succeeded in providing players with a mesmerising and highly memorable experience by blending the traditional gallery experience with flourishes that would have been impossible outside a virtual context.
New Fiction, which has also been rendered in Fortnite to allow players anywhere in the world to “visit”, is a more conservative effort, perhaps due to the fact it also had to work in person. It is, nevertheless, a mostly successful experiment in this rapidly evolving blend of the physical and digital. Some argue that the old distinctions between the real and the virtual are now meaningless (anyone who has experienced an online pile-on and been left feeling as though they had been physically attacked will agree). New Fiction shows that it is possible, in an artistic context, to ignore those old distinctions. Then again, put the phone in your pocket and, in reality, you won’t miss too much.