I got a text from a friend asking if I wanted to come to an exhibition. She sent me the exhibition text and said that she couldn’t stay long, but that we should head over.
I had no idea what she was talking about.
By this point in lockdown, we’re all getting fairly used to referring to virtual meetings, videochats, zoom hangouts, as ‘going out/to’ things, but I just couldn’t find the context clues for the platform in question. Without the obvious Zoom link or website address, it took me back to the beforetime, and actually a lot longer than the beginning of this year. It had the subtle but distinct hint of a time when I would go to private views and show openings with friends as a student. Not really sure where you’re going, or what you’re going to see, but keen to follow the trail of information that’s been passed through several hands to you.
It felt like an event.
The event in question was the opening night of Good Night at the Woodsorrel Garden Gallery, an art exhibition in Animal Crossing by Sarah Cole. The Gallery is named after her in-game island. Cole has curated everything from the moment you arrive on the island, tailoring the event to start before the exhibition. Signs lead you along the path through her island to the exhibition building, formerly established as a player’s house. The artist met each audience member at the front door with a warm greeting, the classic private view free drink, and a gift bag in the theme of the exhibition: Nighttime.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons, despite being a fairly open game, doesn’t actually give all that much freedom to ‘create’ things. Unlike Minecraft in which you are handed the literal building blocks of the world, Animal Crossing is made up of (hundreds of) premade objects that can be arranged and sometimes customised. Because of this, the installations in Good Night are all assemblages. Objects are carefully placed to create a space in which the audience can take their time to consider. It works. Each room in the show effectively conjures a unique contemplative space that invites the audience to experience a moment of stillness and let the space pull them in. This idea is really pulled into focus as several of the pieces are exploring moments of waiting. ECR is a recreation of a train platform with the suggestion of someone (the artist? you?) waiting for a train that is potentially not coming. See You Next Week? Is an immersive installation conjuring a particular moment in the recent past of socialising with real-life others, and communing with nature. These two pieces are directly referencing the current pandemic and would perhaps lose some of their potency if the exhibition were restaged a year or two from now. But it’s all pixels and so that isn’t a concern. There was no long install or get-out for this exhibition. It exists solely in this moment. If you want to get really existential, it ceases to exist as soon as Cole turns off her Nintendo Switch.
A recreation “Sea of Time’98” by Tatsuo Miyajima, as seen at Naoshima in May 2019 is a conceptual rather than literal recreation of the real world installation piece by Miyajima. It exists strongly as its own work, rather than a simulacrum of a physical piece. There’s no hint of novelty to the piece. The title suggests that remaking/remixing this work is of personal significance to the artist, and this comes through in the work. Instead of digital counters, Cole uses a set of bedside clocks. There are a few choices in the limited Animal Crossing palette that she could have drawn on, and this one emphasises that the work is her own. I imagine that the original piece won’t be well known to many visitors of the exhibition, so the digital clock face presents us with a new language for the work. Each clock has the exact same time — a limitation of the world — but it’s the gentle rhythmic blip of the light that signifies seconds that brings a sense of time to the room. It is hard to keep track of time at the moment. We’re all indoors, and evening and weekends don’t mean what they used to. Adding the fact that the exhibition takes place in a virtual space that, despite trying to mimic the real world, is never quite right (levels of light, time of sunset etc.), the whole thing ends up feeling quite otherworldly. This installation is the epicentre of this other world.
A wonderful piece of curation was to position Funeral of Stars in the lobby of the building, as the piece that responds best to the audience moving through it. While stopping and taking the space in is rewarded, the best experience is had walking among the stars and flowers, sensing them as physical objects that you have to navigate as you go from place to place.
The cutesy design of Animal Crossing’s objects meant that it could have been very easy for the whole thing to feel naive, and I don’t think the artist avoids this entirely. Instead, Cole brushes against that line, highlighting the origin of the constituent parts without the sum feeling amateurish or without focus. As I’m sure we all have by this point, I’ve attended a few digital events, and seen how so many are unsuccessful because they try to mirror their real world analogue. It’s been draining to sit through so many lacklustre (and poorly lit) book readings. Sarah Cole’s Good Night is the opposite of all that. I was surprised repeatedly by how engrossed I was in the space, and by how much time I wanted to take over each work. It’s a clever show, and one that fits this strange and difficult time so well.
Sarah Cole is an artist working in playful media and games.