Digital art

how artist Lawrence Lek built a virtual world of healing at Art Dubai

how artist Lawrence Lek built a virtual world of healing at Art Dubai
Written by Publishing Team

“Welcome to Nepenthe Valley. You came here to forget. Don’t you remember?”

These are opening lines of a poem for Nepenthe Valleya virtual world and NFT project created by the artist Lawrence Lek.

Scattered across the valley’s misty and mountainous landscape are various structures, including a lodge and a treehouse, that possess classical elements such as columns and arches, as well as futuristic neon lines that run across the facades.

It is a liminal world, both familiar and strange. The scenes themselves are tranquil, evoking the rugged mountains of the Alpine region, though architectural ruins hint at a cyber, post-human world.

The first of three chapters of this virtual world has recently been launched at Art Dubai, which takes place until Sunday.


On view at the fair’s inaugural digital art section, Nepenthe Valley is presented by Horizons, a collaboration between media collective So-Far from Singapore and virtual gallery Aora.

Glimpses of the valley, including video animations on screens, prints and 3D-printed architecture models, can be seen at the Horizons booth in the halls of Jumeirah Mina A’Salam. Each looping video is accompanied by a unique soundscape that adds to the valley’s serene settings.

A multimedia artist who works with architecture, gaming, CGI, sound and fiction, Lek is known for building worlds and universes (which he has called “Sinofuturist”) that touch on ideas of the future, technology and politics.

'The Shrine' in 'Nepenthe Valley' by Lawrence Lek.  Photo: Horizons (So-Far x Aora)

While there are speculations and worries around the psychological effects of the metaverse, Lek’s project considers the possibilities of virtual reality as a remedy or at least a space for respite.

“I’ve been interested in the link between media art and psychological states for a long time,” he says, tracing it back to his 2017 narrative CGI film Geomancer. The film follows a satellite AI who comes to Earth in hopes of becoming an artist.

In the film, the main AI character has a built-in self-help program called Guanyin, named after the Buddhist goddess of compassion. So, like there have been a lot of mindfulness apps for phones in recent years, I imagined how a future AI would also require a similar sort of built-in healing program to help them make sense of the world,” Lek says.

“With Nepenthe Valleyit’s taking a similar idea but reflecting current conditions of the world, but making these ideas embedded in the virtual landscape rather than a textual narrative.”

His plan for the project is detailed and expansive. After its launch at Art Dubai, Nepenthe Valley will continue to exist online and will run until Singapore Art Week in January 2023.

One of the architectural models of 'Nepenthe Valley' on view at Art Dubai.  Photo: Horizons (So-Far x Aora)

The first chapter of the project, The Sourcereveals the first four locations in the valley, which include The Spring, The Lodge, The Shrine and The Treehouse.

The other resting locations — there are a total of nine — will unfold in the second chapter named The Journey.

Finally, the project culminates with The Pointwhere the entire landscape of Nepenthe Valley can be seen and explored.

So far, a total of eight NFTs, each with 111 versions, have been minted on the Solana blockchain and are available on the So-Far NFT marketplace.

In The Spring is a temple-like building that sits on top of a cascading waterfall and houses a reflecting pool and a fire altar.

Meanwhile, The Treehouse shows a structure built around a tree. Stairs lead up to the top of the tree’s branches, and it is easy to imagine virtual visitors circling it as a form of meditation.

'The Treehouse' in 'Nepenthe Valley' by Lawrence Lek.  Photo: Horizons (So-Far x Aora)

Lek points to two main references for the work. The first is sublime landscape paintings by artists such as Caspar David Friedrich. In particular, Lek explains that he sought to discover how the German Romantic painter “would embed ideas about life and death within trees and mountains, sunsets and architecture.”

The second resource is fantasy video games. “I wanted to create places that were timeless, drawn from fantasy video games like The Legend of Zelda or Skyrim,” he says, imagining places that would evoke an “alternate world, but also mysterious and eternal.”

As the project continues, the ultimate shape for Nepenthe Valley will exist as an open-world video game where players can walk through and explore the environment with game controllers.

“For this first iteration, I wanted to evoke a sense of healing and regeneration, so I focused on creating virtual architecture and images of the landscape and music that could enable that,” he says.

Born in Germany and of Malaysian-Chinese descent, Lek studied architecture at the University of Cambridge. In addition to producing films and digital works, he is a doctoral candidate in machine learning in London.

As an artist who has exhibited worldwide and whose works have been collected by prestigious institutions, Lek sees the crypto art world as an opportunity for artists to receive support more directly from patrons. “It’s not only crypto,” he says, “but other forms of patronage such as Patreon or subscribers.”

“From an economic or social point of view, artists are basically freelance self-employed producers who are extremely vulnerable to changing economic conditions. Very rarely is there any real kind of safety net, especially for artists who predominantly use digital tools or make time-based or performance-based work,” he says. The challenge for creatives, he says, is to learn new tools and to manage the promotion of their works in the nascent digital marketplace.

The Horizons booth at Art Dubai presenting 'Nepenthe Valley', an NFT project by Lawrence Lek.  Photo: Horizons (So-Far x Aora)

One of the highlights of Art Dubai’s digital art section, Nepenthe Valley exemplifies a type of digital art that is conceptually astute and produced with sharp creative vision and execution.

The wave of digital art and NFTs has already washed over us. The metaverse is already here. At the same, the “real world” rages on with wars, a pandemic and climate change. Through Lek’s cinematic universes, we can explore the implications and complexities of all these and perhaps imagine new ways of rest and healing.

‘Nepenthe Valley’ is on view at the Horizons booth at Art Dubai until March 13. It can be viewed online on the So-Far website

Scroll through the gallery on the bottom to see more of Art Dubai.

Updated: March 12, 2022, 9:10 AM

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