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Meet the Artist Behind Animal Crossing’s Art Museum Island

The art within Shing Yin Khor’s virtual world represents a sassy response to the game’s built-in natural history museum

Artist Shing Yin Khor is recreating famous works of art, including Marina Abramovic's The Artist Is Present, in "Animal Crossing." (Courtesy of Shing Yin Khor)
smithsonianmag.com

Amid a spate of museum closures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, art and gaming have found an unusual opportunity to collide. Thanks to installation artist Shing Yin Khor, smash hit game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” now boasts an island teeming with a digital trove of reimagined artworks from the real world, reports Sarah Cascone for artnet News.

The latest installment of the popular Nintendo video game, which plops players into a village inhabited by various anthropomorphic animals, ended up being an impromptu artistic outlet for Khor, whose schedule has unfortunately been cleared by the outbreak for the foreseeable future, according to Polygon’s Nicole Carpenter. A new “Animal Crossing” player, Khor turned to the game as a “space to goof off” with a few tongue-in-cheek homages to famous masterpieces, built through a handful of customization options offered by the interface.

Each player begins the “New Horizons” game with a move to a desert island that they can then cultivate, customize and settle with the help of a charming cast of animals. By gathering items from across the game’s small universe, players can personalize their space—and, through online features, visit islands curated and crafted by friends.

Khor used these tools to painstakingly cobble together “Animal Crossing”-esque versions of artworks like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Umbrellas, both of which were particularly amenable to a beachside setting. Also on Khor’s island is a text homage to Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground) that states, “Your turnips are a battleground.” (The root vegetables are a hot commodity in the game.)

Some of Khor’s installations are even interactive. Last week, for instance, they recreated Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present using a table and two chairs. Then, the artist dressed their avatar in a plain red dress and invited the public to participate in the performance piece. In the hour that followed, a drove of players poured in to play patron to the bespoke “museum,” with about 15 making it into the coveted chair opposite Khor’s Abramović.

“[The game’s] travel system does not make it easy for large volumes of people trying to visit,” Khor tells artnet News. (Players must board a Dodo Airlines flight to reach the island; even in the virtual world, air traffic can create some hurdles.) “But it probably replicated the effect of standing in line at a museum a little,” says the artist to Polygon.

For the few who made it into the “exhibition,” the experience appeared to be worth the hassle.

“I think The Artist is Present in ‘Animal Crossing’ especially resonated with people in this particular time where we are so isolated from other people,” Khor tells artnet News. “Lots of people said that the experience was surprisingly emotional. … The simple act of sitting in a chair and staring at another person without speaking is still a moving experience, even if mediated by the internet and a video game.”

Khor had another, cheekier reason for setting up their island establishment: a sardonic sense of rivalry with the game’s built-in natural history museum, run by a well-informed owl named Blathers. The museum must be unlocked through gameplay, but it eventually reveals three exhibits that feature fossils, fish and insects—collections that can grow as the player accumulates seasonal island treasures throughout the year.

Though fictional, the museum is no slouch. As Simon Parkin writes for the Guardian, “It is obviously the work of a team who adore these public spaces and want to celebrate them for both their aesthetic and educational potential.”

Conspicuously absent from Blather’s setup, though, is fine art. On March 28, Khor tweeted a rousing rebuttal to the cultural oversight: “screw you, Blathers, imma gonna build MoMA.” The first artworks appeared on their island shortly thereafter.

Khor’s work isn’t done. As they tell Polygon, their next project tackles a reimagining of Chris Burden’s Urban Light, the famous streetlamp “selfie magnet” in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Recreating the expansive display, which consists of 202 street lamps in real life, will take some time: In the “Animal Crossing” universe, comparable light fixtures don’t come cheap.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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