Ian Cheng Emissariesby Charlene K. Lau
MoMA PS1 | April 9 – September 25, 2017
Recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, Ian Cheng’s epic “live simulation” trilogy, Emissary (2015 – 17) is installed in its entirety for the first time at both MoMA PS1 and live-streamed on Twitch, a social video platform for gamers. The work has been described by the artist as “a video game that plays itself”—its episodic content an open-ended narrative generated by a game engine. Comprised of the individual works Emissary in the Squat of Gods (2015), Emissary Forks at Perfection (2015 – 16), and Emissary Sunsets the Self (2017), the trilogy focuses on three landscapes—Volcano, Crater Lake, and Sentient Atoll—each featuring an emissary who functions alongside other characters as a narrative agent.
In the first room, Emissary in the Squat of Gods presents two projections side by side: on the left, a large projection shows a macro view of an ancient volcanic landscape; on the right, a smaller “micro” projection shows detail of the left image. Populated by a host of characters, including the Young Ancient (this episode’s emissary), a corpse-like agent named Father Still With Us, a diminutive Snake Boy, The Shaman, and a somewhat outsized Echoing Owl, the barren landscape seems unforgiving, dotted sparsely with plant life. On my visit, it was difficult to tell if the characters were living happily, as the wall text suggests, or barely existing. Sounds of fire and wind—presumably from the volcano—are audible, crackling away as life carries on, until suddenly unleashed destruction: an eruption leaving a trail of dead bodies in its wake. It seemed like life was just beginning, yet now it is over. At that moment, I notice the scene is strangely littered with Starbucks or take-out coffee cups, the detritus of contemporary life.
Behind this room is Emissary Forks at Perfection, projected on a single panoramic “screen” that stretches almost entirely across the width of the gallery. The volcano from the previous episode (3,000 years earlier) is now Crater Lake, populated by the emissary Shiba (named for and taking her form from the Japanese dog breed), Celebrity (a slightly drunken human figure of indiscernible sex from the 21st century), and AI (a golden leash that is sentient and—as the name suggests—intelligent). A large boulder of plant life and soil tumbles around the tropical desert landscape to the percussive soundtrack of clinking metal and glass. While the narrative of this chapter is less clear, it does speak to an evolution of sorts—a pleasant existence without humans. Eventually, a raging storm brings destruction and more human-made detritus from “civilization”: a Brancusi Endless Column, what looks to be a couch, the frame of a chaise lounge. These objects co-exist in the wild landscape, now resembling more of a dirty beach, complete with red Solo cups. Though there’s something inherently future-contemporary about the color palette—muted blues, violets, coral, and forest green—it is difficult to temporally place the scene. It is neither fully past, present, nor future.
The final episode, Emissary Sunsets the Self is projected in a more intimate screening room. Here, Crater Lake has evolved to Sentient Atoll, a white-ish hybrid oceanic landscape/environment. Emissary AI Puddle inhabits the terrain, along with biosynthetic, anthropomorphic figures called Oomen and the Oomen rancher, who herds tumbling, combusting masses of Wormleaf. Confused? So am I. Without the accompanying two-dollar fold-out exhibition guide putting names to faces (and flora/fauna), I would be lost. But, amidst sounds of fire, quacking, and metal chain whipping, I detect a slow-burning chaos that is strangely calming. In the most opaque narrative of the trilogy, some kind of rebirth of biological forms—a life after death—cycles within the chapter.
Cheng’s Emissary interweaves history, myth, and possibility in a glitchy presentation, I trust a result of both intention and software. As the narrative for each episode is in part at the behest of technology, the viewer is left wondering: what is and is not controlled by the artist? How much agency does the game engine have in determining the outcome of the work? And, what exactly is the work if it is in constant transformation? These questions, however, can be read as a symptom of the wider uncertainty that lies ahead for humanity. In these simulated yet somehow innately human realms, Cheng attempts to make sense of disorder and destruction, only to have the rest open to chance. As we move consciously through the Anthropocene, there is no turning back.
ContributorCharlene K. Lau