Outside of board games, on the digital web

The capricious whirlwind of Internet culture produces more main characters, apocrypha, and relics than we can handle. Remember when the Canadian musician known as Grimes… former partner of one of the most powerful men in the world, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk — brought a sword to the 2021 Met Gala? The image of a futuristic pop star lugging a medieval blade (made from a melted AR-15, no less) on the red carpet summed up the mysterious way contemporary culture seems to run in all directions, a la pursuit of myths both new and old.

Simon Denny, an artist working in Berlin, creates sculptures, installations, videos and prints inspired by the aesthetics of technology companies. In two simultaneous exhibitions in Manhattan, he seized on omens like the blade to explore the sociopolitical fallout of the tech industry’s taste for medieval traditions. According to Denny, the dreams of wizards and blacksmiths, dark forests and dank castles shape the new digital realms.

“Dungeon,” Denny’s fifth exhibition at New York’s Petzel Gallery presents a sort of shrine to Grimes: puffs from an automatic steamer inflate a black “Game of Thrones” T-shirt that belonged to the star, installed in a Plexiglass case like a suit of armor. The sculpture is plugged into a power strip that Denny obtained during a Twitter clearance sale during his Musk-mandated transition to X.

Downtown, “Read, write, own” Denny’s first exhibition at the Dunkunsthalle, an artist-run space in the financial district, features recent paintings from his “Metaverse Landscape” series as well as sculptures made using whiteboards auctioned off by Twitter after Musk took the reins. The book suggests that Internet culture, and by extension our highly connected society, resembles the fantasy landscapes evoked by Dungeons & Dragons, or “The Lord of the Rings.” In other words, technology-augmented life can be understood as a massive role-playing game, in which the physical and virtual realms merge, and Musk et al. make the rules. (Denny also curated a current group exhibition at Petzel featuring like-minded artists exploring fantasy genres with new media such as 3D printing.)

“Dungeon” presents a new series of paintings depicting top-down views of various role-playing game maps – truly digital prints on canvas, coated with oil pigments, for a photorealistic yet distressed effect. In a rendering of a HeroQuest board, gray, blue, and green bricks simmer in the darkness in blocks like a geometric abstraction. Other paintings further the idea of ​​“dungeon”: a smudged figure eight is the board for a Hannah Montana-branded version of the tabletop game Mall Madness. An attractive iridescent pattern on another board might represent rows of columns or shelves, but the Nvidia company name in the corner tells you that it’s actually a graphics card of the type often suited to handle cryptocurrency transactions.

Denny’s skeptical view of the tech industry in “Dungeon” is a bit obvious; this deepens when looking at the exhibition at the Dunkunsthalle, where “metaverse landscapes” represent virtual real estate. A smooth earth-toned map highlights “waterfront” terrain. Others look like pixelated maps of streets and storefronts.

The idea of ​​metaverse “landscapes” plays on the history of landscape paintings, which in Europe historically served as a boast of royal possessions, and in the United States as an advertisement for westward expansion, offering images (fake and romantic) pristine nature to take away. . By including the Metaverse in this lineage, Denny highlights the sad fact that today’s land grabs often don’t involve actual land. So many people can’t afford a real house that the idea of ​​investing in digital land is a bitter mockery. QR codes on the sides of the works link to blockchain entries that track the current owners of these weightless plots. The visual charm of the paintings is seconded to the intoxicating allure of owning a painting of someone else’s virtual property and, as Denny seems to point out, this image on canvas is, fundamentally, the more real of the two.

Denny doesn’t so much push the art style in new directions as he studies the aesthetics of the tech industry. Part of his 2015 trade show-style exhibit at MoMA PS1 in Queens featured replicas of items seized during the spectacular fall of Kim Dotcom, also known as Kim Schmitz, a German and Finnish internet entrepreneur. Included was a huge statue of a predator of the sci-fi action movies. Denny’s previous show at Petzel, in 2021, covered an Amazon patent for a comically bulbous delivery drone.

Looking at these objects in the light of reality, the aesthetics of the technology seem a bit shabby. But the stupidity of the future shouldn’t make us laugh, Denny suggests – it should disturb us.

There’s also a sword at Petzel’s: Across the room, next to the T-shirt shrine, hangs a replica of Anduril, an elven blade from “Lord of the Rings,” which Denny fashioned to from coffee-tinted resin. It is based on the sword owned by Palmer Luckey, the defense contractor and inventor of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset (he sold the company he founded to Facebook for $2 billion). Luckey once modified a helmet – as a joke – with explosives so that if your avatar dies in a game, you die in real life. He also founded a defense technology company, Anduril Industries. (Several of his partners in this venture came from the big data company Palantir, also named after a treasure from “Lord of the Rings.”)

That a virtual reality guru makes real military drones and robotic sentries, branded as an imaginary weapon, does not inspire confidence. Neither does the slogan, inscribed in Petzel on a dark UV print depicting one of Anduril’s autonomous fighter jets: “Fight Unfair.”

Is this a game for these digital pioneers? Do they know where virtual reality ends and “meat space” begin? Denny reminds us that the more interconnected our lives are, the more the rules of technology limit our fantasies.


Through March 30, Petzel Gallery, 35 East 67th Street, Manhattan; 212-680-9467, petzel.com.

Read Write Own

Through March 31, Dunkunsthalle, 64 Fulton Street, Lower Manhattan; 917-382-4744, dunkunsthalle.com.