Take that lunch hour museum visit you keep pretending you’re going to do.
All images captured by author, courtesy The Zium Museum
One of the most memorable pieces of art I’ve ever seen in person is Jorge Macchi’s Last Minute . It consists of a long iron beam, around the length of a family sedan, slowly spun in a circle on a pivot, like the minute hand of a clock. On one end is a steel spike that scrapes the ground like the stylus on a record player, reading its imperfections, producing a continuous haunting sound that is played out of a large speaker on the other end.
Set into the octagonal atrium of a large art museum, it was the first thing I saw when I came in, sometime in 2009. But its noise echoed through the entire building, always in the background, following me around while I stared at the other exhibits. Meanwhile, Last Minute’s clock-like look was only really visible from above; it was designed in such a way as to make a new visual impression once you climbed up to one of the upper floors and looked down from a balcony into the atrium.
Installation art has can be totalizing in this way; it can take over an entire building or completely transform a space. But you can’t hold an installation in your hand; you can get prints of a painting, you can obviously get recordings of a concert, you can even get reproductions of a sculpture. Installations mostly exist as inaccessible and ephemeral events that happen at a specific place and then disappear. I can’t even find a good high-resolution photo of Last Minute.
If The Zium Museum is about anything, it’s about that experience of going to an art gallery or a museum and encountering the cumulative effect that rises out of having all this disparate art put together in the same space; the way installations recast the more traditional art around them, the way curation places individual pieces so that they build upon each other. Virtual spaces allow for this experience to be stored and reproduced; they allow for installations that you can hold in your hand.
Zium isn’t alone in implementing the virtual gallery concept (see for example localhost.gallery, an art gallery inside a Minecraft server). But it’s set apart by its anthology and format, containing works from 37 artists (3D modelers, game designers, and traditional 2D artists) mostly produced specifically for this collection.
Beyond that, the best work here pushes against the boundaries of traditional visual art. As you walk in, you see some “installations” are entire separate levels in their own right, small worlds of self-contained imagery that pursue the breathtaking effect of a video game vista. There’s a sculpture gallery of 3D models varying from the mundane to the surreal; I particularly liked SpaceBackyard’s “negative space” sculptures. There’s traditional 2D art, placidly framed on the walls and juxtaposed to AlphaGravy’s distorted 3D model of a woman in t-pose, or the floating pink hearts that wander the entire gallery, spawned by Matthew Keff’s Fountain. It ranges from the immersive and beautiful (Tom Kitchen’s Home, itself a tiny exploration game in its own right) to the conceptually wry (Pippin Barr’s cheeky The Available Space I & II).
In trying to bring the experience of gallery-going to a video game, it succeeds in building something you can’t really find either in video games or in art galleries. It contains a lot of work that points towards the aesthetics and visual languages in games that are neither the photoreal uncanny valley gloss of AAA, nor a nostalgia-soaked reproduction of what game art looked 10, 20, or 30 years ago.
It is very much a contemporary thing. Like a lot of art made in turbulent times, it functions as a reminder of how, in spite of it all, it’s good that we have made it here together and are able to make things that could not have existed a scant few years ago.