From military to monks, to virtual art galleries
Imagine you’re standing in front of a captive audience at a Taiwanese stationery store. You’re an artist, and you’re there to show off your work - but this isn’t your typical show and tell. You’re Benedict Yu, a multi-disciplinary artist and researcher who explores Eastern philosophy, psychology, and human behavior through the lens of contemporary arts, technology, and artificial intelligence. Now imagine you’re there to introduce Occupy White Walls to a room full of people who might never have played a videogame. Exciting, isn’t it?
I got the chance to chat with Yu about how he wound up exhibiting an OWW gallery featuring his work to physical audiences and the role he sees the game playing in an art world still dominated by capitalist structures.
Yu’s only 24, but he’s already lived a more interesting life than most. Despite growing up in Taiwan, as a dual citizen of Singapore, he served two years of military service in the Singaporean army. While there, he kept an art diary, with pieces that reflected and expressed his homesickness - and then the pain of returning to a home that no longer felt the same, with his experiences overseas laying bear “political problems and social illusions” that were now clear for him to see.
As Yu puts it on his website, “leaving home is tough, but accepting the reality of those changes is harder.”
Confronting those changes was, in part, what ultimately lead him to Tibet. After securing an art residency at the Lasalle College of the Arts and exhibiting his work in London, Taiwan, and Singapore, Yu’s college sponsored a trip that saw him live and work with Tibetan monks. The result of that trip is a sprawling mandala entitled “Conversations between Heaven and Earth,” reflecting Yu’s belief that our souls can communicate and exchange the energy between us to the heavens and the earth. To the monks, that manifested through song - and through Yu, into art.
But let’s go back to that stationery store in Taiwan and how Yu first started dabbling with Occupy White Walls. His interest was sparked by the global pandemic and the resulting closures of local art galleries. To Yu, the virus was as much a threat as it was an opportunity to explore new artistic horizons - except he didn’t quite have the kit. That’s when the boss of Ipaper, that stationery store, stepped in and lent Yu a PC powerful enough to boot the game. You can see how Yu set about building his gallery for yourself here. For those who can’t make it to Taiwan, it’s well worth visiting in-game, too. Just search for Benedict Yu.
It’s a sprawling place, split into four wings that explore consciousness, intelligence, gender identity, and religion. Yu’s exhibited his in-game gallery at four separate events, each time seeking to explain how Occupy White Walls acts as a platform to explore those ideas. Many, though, are impressed by the platform itself:
“The audiences are quite amazed by the quality of the rendering, and the entire game idea,” Yu told me.
Unsurprisingly, younger people tend to be “more drawn to this imaginary world” - although they do have some reservations. “There are still a lot of restrictions,” Yu points out, “like how the artworks are all in rectangular forms.”
It’s a fair point. No matter how OWW is expanded and improved on; physical galleries will always allow for possibilities you won’t find online. Possibility cuts both ways, though.
Yu envisages a future where “art festivals, museums, and other major presentations” incorporate physical and virtual elements. He sees online exhibits playing a role in international outreach and diplomacy, where participants can embrace “the impossible functions of games and roles playing.”
I see what he’s getting at. Digital worlds are ideal places to foster communities that transcend nations, and OWW is poised to connect people in an artistic sphere that isn’t dominated by the snobbery of a wealthy elite. Despite his success, Yu’s well aware that creating under market conditions is far from an easy or untainted path. “The problems with the art ecosystem lie in the accessibility of these arts and its fundamental capitalist structures,” he said and was keen to elaborate.
“Capitalist structures have, in a way, shaped my rigid structure of approaching art. I am trained and taught to paint on canvas, make sellable artworks, monetize them, and market myself. I do have many exhibitions and a rather successful journey. However, there is more to just selling your artworks all the time: it’s about curiosity, exploration, and constantly challenging the ‘frame’ that I have trapped myself in. This frame is the capitalist world and what society expects to see from me. "
"OWW, in a way, gives me that freedom to explore the possibilities that cannot be achieved in the real physical world.”
There’s a leveling effect, too, in removing what Yu sees as “a certain hierarchy to the art ‘industry.’” While tempered by the way you do first need a decent PC to play, Yu still sees OWW as an accessible alternative to the traditional art world.
“OWW diminishes those boundaries and gives creatives the freedom to share their creations equally. "
"For a creative's journey, you have to go from making art to the galleries, then one day to the museum. However, we can see more non-profit initiatives have formed because they know this system of structures is not inclusive enough. There are places like art residencies that give artists opportunities to research and explore the areas they are interested in or collectives that help artists and art-lovers connect. I believe OWW is in this position as well.”
The fundamental structure of our society may well be bigger than one game (no matter how innovative) can take on, but that’s why Yu talks about OWW in the context of other initiatives.
OWW sits at a unique intersection between, as Yu rattles off, “artists, curators, audiences, participants and gamers.”
It’s both a new sphere for artists trying to make a living and a way of introducing people to art and artistic roles they’d never have otherwise encountered.
It’s also a platform that’s allowed a former Singaporean soldier’s art to reach me, sat in my bedroom over in the UK. As I like to think Yu would appreciate, there’s an echo of the interconnectivity he came to value while living with those monks. I saw his art (and you’re reading this article) thanks to a game, a global pandemic, and the generosity of a Taiwanese stationery store manager. Take that, capitalism.