How video games became a new playground for artists

Uterus Man is an unlikely superhero. Sporting spiky white hair and armour the colour of muscle and sinew, he boasts several special attacks, the least outrageous of which might be “blood column” or “umbilical cord whip”. He gets around riding a “sanitary pad skateboard” or sometimes the speedier “pelvis chariot”. The exuberant film clip which introduces Uterus Man resembles a cutscene from a fighting game such as Tekken, though I first encountered him not on my PlayStation at home but at the Zabludowicz Collection, an art gallery in north London. It is part of a retrospective on Chinese digital artist LuYang, whose work sits at the fertile intersection of gaming and contemporary art.

Born in Shanghai in 1984 and based in Tokyo, LuYang is part of a generation of artists who grew up on a diet of video games and now deconstruct their themes and repurpose their visual language. They show how games are expanding the horizons of fine art, not just in subject matter but also by providing new tools that radically increase the scope and scale of what a single artist can create.

The exhibition centres around LuYang’s half-hour animated film DOKU the Self, which premiered at this year’s Venice Biennale and explores existential questions around reincarnation and the nature of consciousness. Its multiple characters and high-fidelity dance sequences might have taken millions of dollars and a huge team to produce 20 years ago, but can now be made by a single artist with a modest budget using game engines such as Unity and Unreal Engine.

All artists are world-builders in a sense, creating their own aesthetic universes with characters, forms and concerns that recur across their work, but these tools allow digital assets to be generated, manipulated and reused with minimum fuss. Other artists using similar techniques include Lawrence Lek, whose game-like films are driven by sci-fi narratives exploring the future of technology in China, and Ian Cheng, whose work interrogating AI has been shown at MoMA and the Whitney in New York.

Several glowing arcade gaming machines stand in a room against a wall decorated with vivid gaming-related images
LuYang’s exhibition features a retro-futurist gaming arcade © David Bebber

Down a corridor at the back of the LuYang exhibition is a surprise: a huge retro-futurist arcade with a checkerboard floor and pulsing neon lights, containing playable arcade machines made by the artist. They include a dancing game and a Uterus Man-themed racer in which you ride a life-size plastic motorbike. For a gamer, these experiences might feel unpolished, but they still offer a thrilling opportunity to become an active participant in LuYang’s world and so grapple more closely with their recurring characters and ideas.

The ideas are fascinating. The characters in DOKU are presented as stylish fighters, but each in fact represents a different path to Buddhist reincarnation. The videos are great fun and highly fantastical, but they also engage sincerely with urgent contemporary questions: what becomes of the human soul in a digitally mediated world? And what is gained and lost when the body is recreated in virtual space, when flesh and blood become pixel and polygon? Even Uterus Man is not just played for laughs, but also prompts questions about gender and the reproductive system.

As a teenager who grew up with anime and games, I recognised that these questions were often present under the surface of convoluted Japanese role-playing games and sci-fi anime, where everyone always seems to be either sermonising about the afterlife or killing God. Yet the gallery space encouraged me to consider the ideas more profoundly, particularly in a soul-quieting space like the Zabludowicz’s main room, which was once the nave of a Methodist church.

The most joyous quality LuYang borrows from anime is the melodramatic tone, which enables stories to be hyper-colourful and highly camp but still ask important questions. A similar technique is used by Theo Triantafyllidis, whose film Radicalization Pipeline, made using a game engine, reimagines social media platforms as video game conflict zones where MAGA-cap-wearing Trump supporters do battle with orcs wielding medieval weapons.

The artists at the vanguard of digital art are using software that will only become more powerful and accessible in the coming years. Their work will give art-lovers who have never understood gaming an opportunity to see what video games have to offer. The reverse is also true. At several points in the exhibition, I passed two young women with pink hair filming themselves dancing to LuYang’s complex choreography while listening to his selections of techno-pop. They seemed delighted to have discovered art that truly spoke their language.

‘LuYang NetiNeti’ at the Zabludowicz Collection to Feb 12,


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