A bite of the virtual reality sandwich

by

Special To The Japan Times

What happens when you take the Nazi zombies, coin collecting, cuddly creatures, xenomorphs, etc., out of video games and you just wander around virtual reality?

While pondering that, we could also ask, “How realistic is it to be Utopian?,” “What is life without work?” and “How does the billion-dollar game industry contribute, not to giving us new fantasies, but to reinforcing existing realities?”

“3Drifts,” an exhibition of computer generated spaces, provokes such questions. Hosted in the small, repurposed domestic space of the Asakusa Gallery, a converted Showa Era (1926-1989) home of modest proportions, the exhibits are set up so that they can only be fully experienced by one person at a time.

In contrast to almost all video games, the three CGI works, chosen by curator-in-residence Federica Buzzi in collaboration with gallery founder and director Koichiro Osaka, are totally unpopulated; they are ultimate utopias of social withdrawal.

Serafin Alvarez’s work “Maze Walkthrough” (2014) is a play on the sci-fi, horror movie and video game trope of walking or running through corridors. Splicing together interiors from source material such as “Forbidden Planet,” “Solaris” and “Star Trek,” Alvarez’s work is an homage to the kind of tracking shot that Stanley Kubrick made famous in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Shining.”

Lawrence Lek’s “Unreal Estate (The Royal Academy is Yours)” (2015) envisages London’s Burlington House occupied by you, the user, as a Chinese billionaire who can decorate the interior with wallpaper by Yayoi Kusama and sculptures by Jeff Koons. The graphics are reminiscent of early versions of the video game “Resident Evil.” In Lek’s gaudy spaces, however, the jump-scares of being attacked by mutations and zombies are replaced by the horror of bad taste and the vacuity of art as trophies.

“Dear Esther,” a program created by British software development studio The Chinese Room Ltd. and available for purchase as a “game,” is a hyper-realistic rendering of an island in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. As there are no tasks to perform or puzzles to solve, it has been dubbed a “non-game.” There is a story — the protagonist’s wife, Esther, has died in a car accident and various narratives unfold as the user walks around the windswept island.

If you ever need to explain the word “sabi,” “Dear Esther” is the perfect visual aid, being at once beautiful and sad. However, its inclusion in this exhibition is not necessarily due to its technical achievement or its emotive power, but because it contributes to a discussion of what non-physical space can tell us about how we mentally construct reality.

Buzzi couches the three exhibits within a proposition put forward in an essay by McKenzie Wark, author of the book “Gamer Theory,” that “The strange thing about the game is that it is not less than the world it describes, it is more than it.” This is not just trivial wordplay, but an urgent and timely reminder that even if we can manage to agree on some fixed qualities of reality, when it comes to how we interact with it, there is everything to play for.

“3Drifts: Serafin Alvarez, Lawrence Lek, The Chinese Room” at Asakusa Gallery runs until Aug. 7; open Sat.-Mon. 12 noon — 7 p.m. Free. www.asakusa-o.com/3Drifts.html