Digital magic

Pioneering artist Miguel Chevalier lights up Iconsiam

When Miguel Chevalier started out as a digital artist three decades ago, it never crossed his mind that he'd ever be exhibiting his works in a faraway country like Thailand. Regarded as the mastermind and pioneer of digital and virtual arts, Chevalier had to overcome multiple obstacles in order to push the boundaries of art and art history.

To avoid repeating any artistic endeavours that have been done in the past, Chevalier uses computer technology rather than physical materials like paint or canvases as his artistic means of expression. The result is immersive site-specific artworks where visitors can interact and be at one with the art.

Now the 59-year-old artist has transformed the spacious riverbank of Bangkok's newly-opened Iconsiam into an interactive and captivating magical carpet. Every evening, the grounds next to the Chao Phraya River manifest into varying patterns, from Thai motifs to modern designs. Visitors are encouraged to step out of reality into Chevalier's digital world. They can walk on the patterns, morphing and transforming them, depending on how many people are playing and interacting with the piece.

With this being one of the largest interactive pieces he's ever done, Life felt it was a good opportunity to meet up with Chevalier to talk about his art and pioneering work.

You've been involved in digital art, pioneering the medium, since the 1980s. How did that come to be?

For me, when you look at art history, you can see the evolution of materials and techniques. You can understand, for example, in the 1920s, photography was considered only technical -- not art. And then an artist like Man Ray took photography and showed that he could do specific things that you couldn't do with painting. And now, photography is considered art. In the 1970s, a Korean artist [Nam June Paik] used video like art. Now, video is considered art. To me, digital is like painting or photography. But it's a tool that can give me and other artists new possibilities. For me, I think it's the medium that's best for the 21st century.

How did you come to create this exhibition with Iconsiam?

When Chadatip [Chutrakul] -- the woman behind Iconsiam -- saw an installation that I made three years ago in Singapore, she was very excited to imagine something in Bangkok. Last summer, I received an email and she explained that Iconsiam was built. They asked me if I could create a new version of Magic Carpet. I was open to this because they give me an opportunity in front of the Chao Phraya. For me, it's very exciting because this exhibition is at the scale of the landscape, and it's open for everybody. They don't need the notion of art history. This kind of installation is to have an experience -- an experience of immersion in the image, in the light. And when you move, depending on where you are, you have some sensors transforming this piece. The more people walk, the more the pattern is transformed. For this piece, I integrated in total 60 patterns and six new patterns in relation to Thailand.

What is special about digital art to you?

Generally, when you see a painting, photograph or video, you have a distance. Here, you can play with this piece. I think it's something very specific to digital art that you cannot do with other mediums. It's an experience that you can share with several people or alone. Normally, I show my art in a private gallery or museum, but here in Iconsiam, they give the opportunity to show something [that's not just in a museum].

Why is digital art not yet that prominent when we're surrounded by technology?

Because private galleries are afraid of immateriality. What's immaterial -- how do you sell it? They have some curators who are not so open to this medium. They are afraid about how to keep [the artwork] for the future, because the evolution of the technique is changing all the time. Also, it's not cheap. It's quite expensive. You need a computer, you need video projectors and all of this costs a bit. So there are many things like this that give some trouble. But step by step, because digital is everywhere, it's normal that an artist uses this tool. And I think if more artists use it, we have more possibilities to see.

Miguel Chevalier.

What was the reception like when you first started?

When I started 35 years ago, most people thought that I was completely crazy. Probably, 30 years ago, I would not believe I would come to Bangkok.

How were you able to push this art form to where it is today?

You need to convince [people] that it's not only technical. The first piece that I showed, most people felt, 'Oh, this is not art, this is only technique'. By chance, I met curators who have a lot of knowledge of art history and they could understand why this medium can maybe be an art for the future. It's important to have a lot of perseverance, to follow what you believe, step by step. Now it's more easy for me. But of course in the beginning it was hard to find some people to convince to show my work.

Miguel Chevalier's Magic Carpet is projected on Iconsiam's riverbank until tomorrow and again from Jan 5-31.