Wenxin Zhang The Chinese artist blurs the real world with simulation

Cover Image - Wenxin Zhang
WordsAlix-Rose Cowie

Through various virtual reality apps, it’s now possible to travel from the top of Mount Everest to the bottom of the Grand Canyon without leaving your house. Building on this changing idea of travel, Chinese multimedia artist Wenxin Zhang’s personal project Polymorphic Expedition is inspired by what it means to go on a journey. “In tourism theories,” she says, “people are fascinated with traveling because our genes still carry the memories of hunting from our ancestors. Curiosity is another reason.”

Wenxin describes Polymorphic Expedition as the revisiting of the surreal odyssey archetype found so often in western storytelling like Don Quixote and Easy Rider. It is a series of photographs and a multimedia experience which exists as a scrollable virtual journey through computer generated images, 3D models, screenshots from Google Earth and photographic GIFs, all set to an eery ambient soundtrack. The images that make up the work sit at the edge of reality and the imagined.

Wenxin is based in Anhui, China but lived in the States while completing her MFA degree at California College of the Arts. The images for Polymorphic Expedition were photographed in both locations as well as at Widow Jane Mine in upstate New York and Hong Kong’s Victoria Bay.

For the purpose of the project though, the locations are obscured. “My intention is to make the locations as indistinguishable as possible so that the virtual aspect of the images may manifest,” she explains.

What begin as sublime landscapes, Wenxin interrupts subtly with parodies of video games, architecture-modelling software and panoramic online maps to the point where the viewer is not quite sure whether they can believe their eyes.

It's no surprise to learn she was obsessed with video games when she was younger. “The world in video games was so bizarre yet fascinating to me. The estrangement and loneliness in PC games attracted me deeply,” she says.

As a gamer, she describes herself as nostalgic, opting for 90s PC games like Sims, Need for Speed and Chinese swordsmen games. Like an avatar in a video game there is a character at the centre of Polymorphic Expedition who is making their way through this world.

“The protagonist is like Odysseus,” Wenxin explains, “he/she doesn’t have any choice but to enter the journey and is destined to experience a metamorphosis through the journey.”

Unlike the levels you progress through in a video game on a quest to reach the end and clock the game, there is no intended destination for the Expedition. In the shot inside the highway tunnel, you never make it around the corner to see what’s on the other side. In another moving image, the same car drives past, arriving again on the left as soon as it has left the frame on the right. “The aim of this journey is getting lost and diving into a virtual dimension.”

Wenxin begins each new project with drawing and writing before she constructs a framework. Deciding which medium to use comes much later.

“I enjoy the boundary-less art practice,” she says. “In some cases photography is the most direct way of presenting ideas, while under other circumstances, video or installation may convey more sophisticated messages.”

The message most prominent in Polymorphic Expedition is how blurry the distinction is becoming between our real world and simulated ones. “I don’t think we can separate the digital part from our lives anymore,” Wenxin says. “They have become an organic entity. My work reflects my reality in which simulation plays a large part.”