Yesterday on my lunch break, I spent about 15 minutes wandering the halls of the Serpentine gallery, looking at the “New Fiction” exhibition from pop artist Brian Donnelly, better known by his alias Kaws. There were all kinds of statues of his iconic “Companion” character — you may recognize its Mickey Mouse-like visage from copious vinyl figures or as an awards statue for the MTV VMAs — along with some huge, colorful paintings. It was a pleasant way to soak in some culture — and it all took place inside Fortnite.
The Fortnite exhibition was essentially a virtual recreation of an IRL display at the real Serpentine in London, which is currently underway. Compared to other, similar virtual events, it’s pretty simple. It doesn’t have the surreal interactivity of “Your Progress Will Be Saved,” a virtual Fortnite installation from 2020, or the Kid A Mnesia exhibition that was created as a collaboration between Radiohead and Fortnite developer Epic Games. Instead, it’s a fairly straightforward recreation of the gallery, where you can wander around and take in the exhibits at your own pace; aside from the building, there’s a big outdoor garden with some towering Kaws statues. (If you attend the show in-person, there’s also an AR element through the Acute mobile app.)
The most interesting thing about the Fortnite version of the show is how it’s being presented. It’s not tucked away in its own section of the Creative mode, where most players will probably miss it. Instead, for the next week, it is the main hub. So if you want to hop in to see what the latest popular Creative mode games are, you’ll be dropped into the garden outside of the gallery. From there, you can wander around and pick games and experiences to try, but you also might be tempted by the giant red Companion statue lingering in the background, luring you to see what this “New Fiction” exhibit is all about.
It’s basically a Trojan horse for pop art. Whatever you think of Kaws’ work, making it prominently available inside one of the most popular video games on the planet is a big deal. And it’s all part of an ongoing process of Epic sneaking culture into what is ostensibly a multiplayer shooter.
There are high-profile examples, of course, like the massive musical events from the likes of Marshmello and Ariana Grande. There have also been smaller-scale — and much stranger — virtual performances, along with music everywhere from the dance club on the Party Royale island to radio stations while players drive around in battle royale. Meanwhile, prominent artists like Christian Ward and Yuko Shimizu have created loading screens and other in-game art, and last Halloween, players could buy a Kaws-designed in-game character. Fortnite is a big, messy mashup of pop culture, and increasingly that includes more than just big brands like Marvel and Star Wars.
In an interview with The Guardian, Donnelly described these kinds of projects as a way “to throw bridges to a new generation.” It doesn’t replace the experience of attending a real gallery. But it is a way to get this work in front of people who would otherwise probably never see it. Love it or hate it, Fortnite commands a lot of attention — and it’s nice to see that being used to highlight something other than the latest blockbuster movie.