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Life-Size Death

A Chinese artist puts video game chaos into perspective.

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Art history is precisely what I would like to leave behind in today's discussion," announced Hamza Walker, education director of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. "The museum and gallery must forgo its claims to 'legitimate' culture, as the goods can only be deemed legit by members of that culture."

Walker was introducing the latest installation at the society's art gallery, nestled among the classrooms at Cobb Hall. Q4U, by Beijing artist Feng Mengbo, is an overwhelming, immersive version of the kill-crazy computer game Quake 3. The gallery's windows were heavily shaded to block out daylight, and a curved, waist-high desk held three computer mice that players could use to aim and fire ten types of weapons. Beyond the desk stood a trio of 10-by-13-foot video projection screens showing the game's deep-space dungeon, with the barrel of the weapon visible at the bottom. The player, a "first-person shooter," can move along corridors, up and down staircases, and across plazas, engaging in an endless firefight with humanoid enemies--in this case, images of the artist. Stereo speakers delivered a steady din of gunfire and explosions, while insults and salutes from other players popped up on-screen among the fireballs, gore, and debris. The Renaissance Society also runs a server, so people anywhere in the world can log on and play; in a sense, Q4U is a throwback to the old arcade scene of the 1980s, with state-of-the-art video and audio.

In the early days of the communist revolution, Mao Tse-tung urged mah-jongg players to replace the traditional markings on their game pieces with communist symbols, a notion Feng satirizes in his modifications of Japanese and American electronic games. For The Long March Goes On he adapted the Nintendo game Super Mario Brothers, replacing Mario with Mao and enabling combatants to hurl Coca-Cola cans as bombs. In Taking Mt. Doom by Strategy an Apple Computer logo takes the place of the little red book held at the end of a heroic comrade's outstretched arm. The Red Detachment of Women pirates imagery from Jurassic Park, with a toothy T. rex detaching soldiers' heads.

Quake 3, the game Feng adapted for his latest work, has an open code that allows any player to customize the game's environments (called levels) and outfit its 32 humanoid fighters with faces and fashions of their choice (called skins). In an E-mail to the Renaissance Society, Feng explained his fondness for the game: "Q4U is quite simple: No more stories. No more dialogues. Only gun fires. Bloods. Death." He replaced the game's combatants with himself, "with naked torso, U.S. army pants, and a MiniDV camcorder in my left hand....The result: the artist are anywhere, fight and kill each other."

Video games have become a hot issue in China: in August 2000 China Daily reported a five-day crackdown in which more than 300,000 cops closed 1,014 video arcades and 323 mah-jongg rooms, and a year later, according to Beijing Youth Daily, about a thousand unlicensed computer-game parlors and Internet cafes were shut down. But Feng didn't seem much interested in the political implications of his work. "If Quake had turned up during the Cultural Revolution, what would be the party line on it?" I asked him as we stood by the wine table. He stared blankly and asked me to simplify my question. "What does the government say about video games today?" I asked. This time he understood, but he dismissed the question: "I do my job. I'm very private. I don't know about those things."

At the question-and-answer session people asked him about pre-video game playing in China, narrative intricacy, militarization, virtual violence, state censorship of the Internet, and models of binary choices on the geopolitical level, but Feng seemed to have less to say about his work than his host did. "What kind of movies do you like?" someone finally asked. "I go every day almost," he replied, sounding happy to hear a simple question. "Any kind of movie I like. If it's a good movie I like it." He also became animated when recalling how he'd obliterated his self-image on the computer screen with his two-year-old son sitting on his lap. "Kill my father!" hollered the tyke. There was no time to explore the Freudian subtext.

Apparently Quake is passe compared to games like Counter-Strike, which features hostage-holding terrorists versus counterterrorists. But the Renaissance Society seems determined to transcend the 20th-century concept of the museum: Feng designed the artwork so that the server remains on even when the gallery is closed, so players elsewhere can log on 24 hours a day. The artist himself played a few games on Sunday and then headed home on Monday, planning to take part from Beijing. "I am very glad I may be the first artist can be [downloaded] via Internet!" Feng wrote in his E-mail. Legitimate or not, Q4U delivers the peculiar spectacle of a man endlessly slaughtering his own clones--suicide by DELETE key.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.

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