Video games are not strangers to museums and galleries. Over the last few years games have landed in places like the V&A and the MoMA. But it’s still relatively rare to have games sharing the same space as other artworks, let alone for a gallery to ensure they’re playable for the audience, just like they are in their living rooms.
Merging the art world with the video game world comes instinctively for contemporary artist Larry Achiampong, however, whose works span multiple disciplines from sculpture to film to collages and more. While postcolonialism and pan-Africanism are key themes in the British Ghanaian artist’s works, so are video games, having been a part of his life since growing up in East London and Essex in the late 80s and early 90s.
“Even when I think about it now, I felt like I didn’t entirely have a place where I totally fit in,” Achiampong tells me when we meet at the Copperfield Gallery in South London in the first half of this year. “The space of gaming allowed a chance for me to exist in a way where I felt accepted, compared to other kinds of spaces.”
Coming from a working class background in an era where film and TV were far less diverse than they are today, video games made for a better space in which Achiampong could explore his identity. Of course, games weren’t exactly diverse in representation back then either, but 8-bit pixels and more abstract characters like Pac-Man and Sonic (“we’re literally talking about a hedgehog that runs!”) made it less of a barrier and offered a degree of agency.
“You get to take control, you get to embody, you get to become a part of and affect the environment in which you’re in, and you can go back again, and again, and again,” Achiampong tells me. “You can be very guarded or you can be reckless, it’s a place of multiple facets of travel, emotionally and mentally.”
Yet while games may have been dismissed as a juvenile waste of time compared to reading a book or actually admiring the fine arts, games were in fact Achiampong’s entry into other mediums. Even with his very first console, the Master System II, he vividly recalls playing Shinobi, which, in its first New York-set level, features Andy Warhol’s screen prints of Marilyn Monroe in the background.
It wasn’t just Shinobi. “I wasn’t that much into reading,” Achiampong says. “But The Legend of Zelda brought me into reading, as did the likes of Metal Gear Solid.” He pauses. “There was a space for me to be able to breathe a set of identities that IRL just wasn’t acceptable.”
Indeed, A Link to the Past, as well as other games, are among the inspirations behind Achiampong’s first major solo exhibition last year, a feature-length film called Wayfinder. Wayfinder follows a young woman known only as the Wanderer as she journeys across England from North to South. While it has been described as a pandemic film, the image of a lone character wandering across vast deserted landscapes has much in common with single-player adventure games like Journey, Below or Shadow of the Colossus.
Making that link all the more explicit, this film, commissioned by the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, even included a gaming room where visitors who have watched the film can then sit down to play the games and consciously understand the inspirations behind what they have just seen. That said, Achiampong feels there’s more to it than just making references or footnotes, like a typical gallery label giving context to a work.
“I would say as a practitioner who has a trajectory within the art scene, even though gaming is more accepted nowadays, I wanted to really create a space in which gaming as an art form can be just as much respected hopefully over time as the old masters,” he explains. “I studied the masters like Rembrandt, but you think about the way in which certain creators like Miyamoto-san figured out the idea of a vast landscape with Zelda, that relationship of the sublime is literally bedfellows with the likes of Turner.”
For the exhibition which I visit, ‘And I saw a new heaven’, which ran until June in the Copperfield Gallery, the artwork and playable games are displayed side by side, the two in explicit dialogue with one another. The works mingle, the perceived high culture of religion in his collaged paintings mixing with the perceived low culture of video games.
These collage paintings, which are based on real religious posters found in Ghana, weird in their own way in how they mash together clipart of objects or typos like ‘Chirst’, but also where Jesus is depicted as white, blond, and blue-eyed, calls to attention the whitewashing legacy of white missionaries amongst congregations of colour that persists to this day. Achiampong subverts this by painting over the faces of white Jesus and his white disciples with big black circles and big red lips, a reference to the racist golly caricature, now repurposed to what he calls ‘Cloud Face’.
“I was trying to talk about the experience of the feeling of racism, the feeling of being othered, the feeling of being turned into some thing, and how all these look the same,” he explains. “So I wanted to challenge a set of myths with another kind of myth.”
This iconography was first used in Achiampong’s 2007 montage series ‘Lemme Skool U’ where he scanned family photos into Photoshop, drew circles over everyone’s faces and just filled them in black. Yet there’s also a bit of a playful reference; Achiampong tells me the minimalist Cloud Face is partly inspired by Pac-Man, a character who’s being chased by ghosts, which for him isn’t all too different from being a person of colour being persecuted.
But what do these paintings have to do with the games being displayed alongside them? Well, The Binding of Isaac and Blasphemous certainly contain overt religious references, with the former’s developer Edmund McMillen taking inspiration from his own childhood with a Catholic and born-again Christian upbringing, which Achiampong shares. Others, like Bayonetta 2 feel somewhat more tenuous. (Bayonetta 2 also happened to be set up on a Switch console with Bioshock Infinite installed, and switching between games led to a rather long awkward wait between splash screens and marketing ads from 2K, which feels like a whole other commentary altogether.)
Rather than just surface-level aesthetics, however, these games also raise the same problematic whitewashing as the posters in Achiampong’s collages, where there is minimal representation of minorities, apart from Rodin in Bayonetta whose role is small, as well as something of a racial stereotype. The inclusion of Bioshock Infinite perhaps raises the most eyebrows, having been retrospectively derided over its hamfisted depiction of racism, which Achiampong is conscious of.
“It’s an example of a kind of game that creates an almost bystander situation, you’re just staring at something, and it’s not really deconstructing anything,” he says. “There is definitely a critique going on within the show in which I’m pulling in gaming. They’re not just a set of references but also conversation around implication as well.”
What’s important then is that while this exhibition intends to elevate games to the same status as any other artwork, they’re not on a pedestal, but presented as critique. This makes it a refreshing approach and one so often lacking in the gaming sphere, where the industry and its advocates want all of the validation but none of the criticism.
These are conversations Achiampong plans to carry on with another upcoming work, while he also has ambitions to make his own game in the future. When we meet early in 2023, however, as you might expect from a Zelda fan, he’s just very excited about playing Tears of the Kingdom.
“My son’s been really excited about it, he’s been replaying Breath of the Wild. This is going to sound really nerdy, but I sorted out my tax returns so I’ve just got time to play it. I’m so hyped!”
Achiampong’s most recent show was at Frieze London this October.
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