Timur Si-Qin, Poquauhock/Mercenaria 1, 2018, 3-D-printed SLA resin, acrylic, 34 1⁄4 × 27 1⁄2 × 16 1⁄2".

Timur Si-Qin, Poquauhock/Mercenaria 1, 2018, 3-D-printed SLA resin, acrylic, 34 1⁄4 × 27 1⁄2 × 16 1⁄2".

Timur Si-Qin

When artists experiment with virtual reality, they often lose themselves in the medium’s overwhelming possibilities. So A New Protocol VR v.1.2, 2018, the sole VR piece in Timur Si-Qin’s “East, South, West, North,” is a pleasant surprise. Among the pieces on display in this show, it is the one that most clearly expresses the artist’s intentions, thematically and visually uniting the other works. Broadly speaking, Si-Qin is advocating for a “new spirituality” to help humanity move past a binary relationship between the human and natural worlds.

Walking into the gallery’s back room, one sees a seat shaped like a round white rock and two VR headsets. The headsets put viewers in a desert at dawn, beside a campfire. A voice starts to explain New Peace, Si-Qin’s brand and “protocol,” conceived as a secular spiritual code emphasizing that humans are only one part of a complex world of interconnected systems. The voice then calls for a break from the oppositional relationship with the natural world that agricultural society first instilled in us. Suddenly, the spectator rises from the ground and begins flying over the crests of hills. The visual experience is compelling; it allows the viewer to connect with Si-Qin’s message on an emotional level.

After watching A New Protocol VR v.1.2, one finds the logic behind the works encountered earlier in the front room becoming clearer. For example, the landscape shown on New Peace light boxes—a digital simulation combining elements of Arizona and northwest China—is similar to that in the VR work (here it is worth mentioning that Si-Qin is part Mongolian Chinese and spent a portion of his childhood in Arizona). Three sculptures are a bit more typical of post-internet art, a movement with which Si-Qin is often associated. Their burnished surfaces and streamlined forms suggest digital animation made physical, or advertising for sports and tech brands. This aesthetic is on the verge of becoming a cliché, but the works manage to stand apart due to a fascinating biomechanical quality and thoughtful details. Tree roots turn pipelike, and the mollusk shell of Poquauhock/Mercenaria 1, 2018, is positioned like a radar dish, while the new peace banners in NP Contingency Altar, 2018, echo Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags, the clever visual cue underlining the importance of the spiritual to Si-Qin’s project.

Si-Qin’s use of the visual language of advertising is not to be taken as a critique of consumerism; rather, he recognizes the power of branding and is adopting it for his own ends. Indeed, it very easy to imagine a new religious sect using VR as a promotional tool. In this context, and in China in particular, Si-Qin is an interesting figure: He exhibited work around the themes of religion and advertising in China fairly early on (in 2014 and 2015), and artists such as Guan Xiao and Yu Honglei can be seen to cover similar ground sculpturally. This past October, Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art opened a new space, UCCA Dune, in the seaside resort of Beidaihe, with the group show “After Nature.” The exhibition’s theme exemplified the growing attention the Chinese art world is paying to the relationship between humans and nature. But without careful consideration, such gestures can feel Janus-faced: In a Chinese economy fueled by ecologically destructive manufacturing and (real estate) speculation, does pivoting to New Materialism mean simply abandoning the possibility of political critique as impractical, while embracing a cutting-edge philosophy that can be utilized to serve the status quo? If object-oriented ontology purports to give material its own voice, is it not odd that this often turns out to sound like the siren song of a seductive material, practically begging to be used? In other words, this philosophy risks functioning as an intellectualized advertisement for unfettered tech optimism and resource extraction. Perhaps by pushing past specific materials to focus on the spiritual within, Si-Qin manages to avoid such pitfalls and uses these theories in a humble attempt to clearly articulate his understanding of the ways in which humanity might move forward.

Simon Frank