The installation that occupied the entire lower floor of the Musée Départemental des Arts Asiatiques in Nice this spring could be read as an opulent three-dimensional trailer for the feature film that Paris-based Taiwanese artist Shu Lea Cheang is finalizing. That forthcoming work is a sequel to the artist’s pornographic sci-fi I.K.U. (2000), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The first installment dealt with a multinational firm that, by having an army of cyborgs copulate with humans and extract and save the pleasurable memories and sensations of the act, has turned the rush of climax into a marketable commodity, accessible on portable electronic devices. The sequel follows the company as it mines biological data from handshakes and perfects a drug that allows consumers to modify their genetics to magnify their pleasure on a more sophisticated level unattainable through the previous cyborg-based technology. The details of the plot remain somewhat blurry, but Cheang’s exhibition, titled “Virus Becoming,” fleshed out the characters and mechanics. PETRI DISH (2021), for example, a new video playing on a horizontal screen atop a minimalist plinth, depicts bacterial cultures that will serve as re-engineering agents for the drug consumers’ red blood cells.
Elsewhere in the exhibition—which was organized by Paris-based curator Florent To Lay with New York– and Beijing-based writer Banyi Huang, in collaboration with the local yearly art film festival OVNi—were two “advertisements” for the company’s super-pill itself, RED PILL: Your Pleasure Our Business and RED PILL: Bloody Red (both 2021). Through their repetition on multiple screens in the main gallery, the advert-artworks referred to (and immersively replicated) the media-theory-driven emphasis on ads in much dystopian science fiction—think of the imposing aerial screens in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) or the invasive LED billboards chasing the characters in Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem (2013). They also emphasized the very nature of the exhibition as a teaser for a product to come.
An entire room was dedicated to UKI Virus Rising (2018/2021), a video in which one of the I.K.U. humanoids, its former function exhausted, lies abandoned in a landfill, caught in the process of self-reactivating and continuously shape-shifting. The aesthetics and camera movements suggest in equal parts a form of electronic psychedelia and the platforms of early interactive real-life emulators such as the essentially defunct social platform Second Life. The background resembles a Boschian nightmare landscape made of computer waste, but was in fact inspired by a research trip the artist took to a landfill in Lagos, Nigeria, where reusable copper is extracted from techno-carcasses. Cheang’s dystopian future is modeled on a reality of labor exploitation and material extraction that is not commonly acknowledged.
The exhibition ended with RED PILL (2021), a sculpture that replicates one of the capsules at a length of roughly three feet, surrounded by more of the fake red blood cells it contains. Encased in a vitrine, the assembly evoked a natural history museum display. In this last work, a further possible reading of the exhibition unfolded. By presenting a fragment of fiction as an object of contemplation—on the same level as the historical artifacts preserved in country-specific pavilions elsewhere in this museum of Asian arts—the gigantic pill complicated and extended the institution’s mission of fabricating a narrative of historical and geographical continuities through the display of its collection. Cheang’s pill read as yet another cultural artifact, perhaps from a future or alternate Asia, whose purpose might be somehow linked to that of the Buddhas and apotropaic bronze animals arranged on the floors above.
“Virus Becoming” operates within a logic that the video-game industry calls “world-building”: creating a setting that one perceives as self-contained and that allows intelligible stories to emerge. Cheang’s world-building involves disseminating clues—transcriptions of fragmented conversations between scientists appeared in a script printed on a panel and “hacked” room lights glowed red to blur the boundaries between the exhibition design and the represented fiction itself. But Cheang’s built world also encompassed museumgoers. The artist’s presentation suggested that viewers were visiting the display from a time even further in the future than that of her film, examining the evidence of genetic manipulation and the indiscriminate commercial exploitation of bodies and their desires—and trying to understand how society had turned out like this.