New Horizons

Evan Garza on Animal Crossing’s art offerings

Avatars for Marc Goehring (left) and the author (right) standing on top of Goehring’s in-game reproduction of an untitled Wade Guyton internet painting.

IT’S A BIG NIGHT FOR ME: I’m leading a crowd of friends on a gallery tour at Gay Gardens, my own private island, where my museum is finally open to the public. Millions now know this feeling—the Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons has raked in record-breaking sales since its opportune release last month, amid a global lockdown. Players build and grow a village on a deserted island, participate in an adorable form of capitalism, fly to friends’ isles, and work with a dapper curator owl to amass a three-wing collection of fossils and living creatures. In an environment with so much stuff—oranges, garden chairs, subway tile walls, mounted blue marlin, studded pleather shorts—art is noticeably absent, prompting quarantined gamers and artists to use custom design features to merge art and Animal Crossing worlds.

Last weekend, I caught a private Dodo Airlines seaplane to the Berlin island of Marc Goehring, the fashion director at 032c magazine, for an exclusive sneak peek at a fifty-six-piece replica of a Wade Guyton he was busy installing on an empty field. The painting—a manipulated screengrab of a gay sailor gang bang on xvideos.com—first caught Goehring’s eye at Guyton’s 2019 solo show at Galerie Chantal Crousel, in Paris. Virtually standing before this work in progress, I felt reproductions of the thrill I often get in the studio with an artist. And, TBH—in a way both sad and deeply gratifying—I really felt like I’d been somewhere. Wearing a face mask (for maximum verisimilitude) and with dopamine pulsing through my brain, I embarked on a global studio visit tour.

The author’s avatar with Brendan Harwood’s reproduction of William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s The Virgin of Consolation, c. 1875.

Jet lag doesn’t exist in Animal Crossing. But time is synced with users’ seasons and zones, so when I landed in Perth minutes later, it was actually the future—and autumn. (Whatever escapism the game provides it offsets by making us while away our seemingly endless hours of self-isolation in real time.) The Virgin of Consolation, an 1875 painting by the Neoclassicist William-Adolphe Bouguereau, is lit only by a candle in a cavernous chamber of Melbournian artist Brendan Harwood’s in-game hermitage. Harwood, whose IRL practice involves digitalizing the surfaces of physical objects, had created a temple of isolation. “I’ve always found a calm in silence and a regenerative effect when allowed time alone,” he tells me as we wish upon shooting stars. “In a selfish sense, this is a room for me to mellow myself from the world I occupy.”

Sydney-based artist Abdul Abdullah’s avatar, holed up in a private hideaway and surrounded by stockpiles of valuables, might best capture the pandemic’s panic-buying vibe. “It’s a bit ridiculous,” Abdullah tells me, “but the game offers something of a purpose when everything else seems so uncertain.”

The avatar of artist Abdul Abdullah.

Next I was off to the Philippines, but not before a layover in LA, where artist Shing Yin Khor is using her virtual home for restagings of Marina Abramović’s 2010 performance opus The Artist Is Present, complete with an Abramović doppelgänger seated motionless at a table in a red dress. My IG followers are going to be so jealous.

Quarantined with family in Manila, where she grew up, Hong Kong–based artist Kara Chung is the brain behind @animalcrossingfashionarchive, an Instagram record of ready-to-wear fashions that she and others have introduced in the New Horizons world during the lockdown. Custom designs for Animal Crossing garments are made by users on a pixel-like grid, ideal for linear SS 2020 designs including Craig Green gingham caftans and Jacquemus dress shirts.

“Representation of Southeast Asian designers was important to me,” Chung tells me as we gallivant around her village, modeled after a Studio Ghibli–style Tokyo. “People are home and can make things without commercial value, and that’s what’s so great about the game.”

Right on cue, museums are now getting in on Animal Crossing’s cachet, but with highly sanitized attempts at art experiences. Beijing’s M Woods hatched a “virtual gallery” on its island to display past solo shows by David Hockney, Nicolas Party, Andy Warhol, and Lu Yang. Alas, the line to get in was too long (servers allow only eight users at one time), and the vibe was pretty lame. Back on Gay Gardens, my museum opening proved a hit and enjoyed a full-capacity turnout. But I had to head out early—I was running late for a queer disco sex party on Zoom.