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KAWS Serpentine

The Serpentine Enters the Multiverse with KAWS and New Fiction

Ophelia Sanderson

25 January 2022

With the start of the new year, the Serpentine takes on a new realm, giving us clues to what the future may hold as the metaverse engages the art space. In KAWS’s first major show in London, “NEW FICTION,” the gallery exhibits a myriad of new and recent works combining physical, virtual, and augmented realities into one paralleled experience. The global multi-layered project, on view until February 27, offers a unique way to create and display art to the public, simultaneously taking place on two online platforms: the gaming behemoth Fortnite and the augmented reality (AR) app Acute Art, thus reaching its largest exhibition audience to date.

For the artist, “NEW FICTION” is an opportunity to engage with the masses, expanding the range of his already well-established audience within the art, design, and commercial cultures. In his own words, art has always been about communication: “a chance to create a dialogue.”

KAWS Serpentine

Installation view of “KAWS: NEW FICTION” at Serpentine, featuring “FAMILY” (2021) and “UNTITLED” (2019), photo by © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of KAWS.

KAWS Serpentine

“KAWS: NEW FICTION” in Fortnite, © Epic Games.

Considered one of the most innovative artists of his generation, his prolific and eclectic body of work spans from collectible toys and clothing collabs to astute abstract acrylic paintings and monumental sculptures presented within the upper echelons of the art scene.

All in all, his art has the tendency to transcend the genres that confine them—both on and off the canvas—defying traditional hierarchies. With a long-standing habit of engaging audiences old and young, here and there, spanning across the food chain, his latest show continues to engage audiences beyond what is typical of the art world.

With 400 million players online, Fortnite’s user count is massive, particularly when compared with the usual footfall of an art show. And, as stated by Daniel Birnbaum, the artistic director of Acute Art and curator of the exhibit, “NEW FICTION will reach a larger and more diverse audience than any other exhibit,” in turn marking “a new chapter,” “reaching local and global audiences simultaneously.”

KAWS Serpentine

KAWS, “COMPANION (EXPANDED),” 2020, augmented reality sculpture at Serpentine North Gallery, courtesy of KAWS and Acute Art.

Upon entering the physical space, some of KAWS’s familiar characters, like Companion (Expanded), swiftly appear and disappear between realms, lost in the interval in-betweens of switching to and from virtual and physical worlds, like a Russian doll exhibit revealing elements of creations within one another.

Visitors ambulate throughout the maze-like space, walking besides KAWS’s iconography of sculptures, murals, and acrylic paintings of vivid colors and shapes, sometimes oscillating between portals—one via your phone with the Acute Art app and the other the real space around you experienced through your eyes and senses. The two occasionally intermix, forming an optical illusion of the like, hazed in conjunction of two parallel worlds, causing one to occasionally fall to the next.

KAWS Serpentine

Installation view of “KAWS: NEW FICTION” at Serpentine featuring “MIRROR” (2018), “SLEEPLESS” (2018), “GETTING THE CALL” (2018) and “WHAT PARTY” (2020), photo by © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of KAWS.

KAWS Serpentine

“KAWS: NEW FICTION” in Fortnite, © Epic Games.

The exhibition, the Serpentine’s latest in a series of technology-inspired projects, can be enjoyed at home, too. Via Acute Art, viewers are afforded a miniature topographic clone of the exhibit while Fortnite allows players to become the show’s characters themselves. Taking their form, you can move inside and out of the gallery, beyond the constraints of opening hours or the general public which usually befalls the audience.

In turn, this opens up many questions. While exhibitions usually prompted asinine questions of the sort, “Is it art?” now we found ourselves in a place to say, “Is it real?” Well, perhaps not, but what about art has ever been real in the first place.

KAWS Serpentine

Installation view of “KAWS: NEW FICTION” at Serpentine, featuring “WATCHING” (2018), “NEW FICTION” (2018) and “SEEING” (2018), photo by © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of KAWS.

Originally labeled a process of “mimesis” or mere imitation of reality, 21st-century art has already become an “augmented reality” of some kind or another.  And in the end, as believed by KAWS anyway, it’s a tool of communication. For those non-digital natives yet to explore the metaverse, one may dismiss it as just another trend or video game, but along with exploring the Serpentine and the artworks displayed, the possibilities are endless. Altogether, all it requires is a shift in mindset.

KAWS Serpentine

Installation view of “KAWS: NEW FICTION” at Serpentine, featuring “GETTING THE CALL” (2018) and “WHAT PARTY” (2020), photo by © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of KAWS.

KAWS Serpentine

“KAWS: NEW FICTION” in Fortnite, © Epic Games.

KAWS Serpentine

Installation view of “KAWS: NEW FICTION” at Serpentine, featuring “UNTITLED (BAM)” (2013), “SO CLOSE” (2021), “SO FAR” (2021) and “NEW RIVALS” (2021), photo by © Jonty Wilde, courtesy pf KAWS.

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