‘Square One’: Digital Media and Design Master of Fine Arts students explore culture, identity and fantasy


Square One is the title of this year’s MFA exhibition at UConn.  Photo courtesy of the    Benton Museum

Square One is the title of this year’s MFA exhibition at UConn. Photo courtesy of the Benton Museum

Along with the many other changes that the School of Fine Arts (SFA) has had to implement with the transition to virtual classes, the annual exhibition for students’ work has similarly had to adjust. Normally housed in the William Benton Museum of Art at the end of the school year, the 2020 Thesis Exhibitions for graduating students in the Studio Art and Digital Media Design (DMD) Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs have been adapted to online exhibits through the museum’s website. This year, DMD MFA candidates present “Square One,” which I feature today, while Studio Art MFA candidates present “Tideland,” which shall be featured tomorrow.

“In the show, this diverse cohort explores a variety of mediums including narrative film, hybrid digital and physical games, animation, installation and project mapping,” the description for “Square One” reads. The DMD exhibition features the work of Karin Ching, Jasmine Rajavadee, Laurel Pehmoeller, Jonathan Amipiaw and Stefan Lopuszanski, and draws inspiration from their artistic and personal beginnings. “Each exhibited work acts as a window through which the audience can access new worlds, personal memories and cultural reflections, connecting visitors to where each artist started from, ‘Square One.’”

A picture from MFA student Jonathan Amipiaw’s 3D game Mythren.  Photo courtesy of the    Benton Museum

A picture from MFA student Jonathan Amipiaw’s 3D game Mythren. Photo courtesy of the Benton Museum

Jonathan Amipiaw, a 3D animator and game developer, created the video game “Mythren” as an ode to the “monster raising genre,” according to his artist statement.

“By raising a virtual pet, players are encouraged to learn about personal development and social growth through the journey of a character named Kaiya,” Ampiaw’s statement says, mentioning “Mythren’s” intention to break the stereotype of virtual pet games typically associated with being made for children. In the game, the core themes of social growth, personal development and cultural identity are explored. Exhibit goers can download the game through Ampiaw’s exhibition page.

“Bian Dang” is comprised of multiple short films and multimedia projects made with animation, projection and found objects to explore artist Karin Ching’s Taiwanese culture.

“Through movies and novels, we know that there is a big gap between Asian and Western food culture,” Ching, a digital artist, says in her artist statement, citing the stereotypical culture represented in the media. Her installation features “Home Cooking Class,” “Bubble Memories” and “Missing in American Supermarkets,” which also can be viewed on Vimeo. “Bian Dang is a traditional lunchbox in Taiwan … [it] also resembles a storage box. Thus, opening the Bian Dang becomes the starting point of a journey into my Taiwanese memories.”

In a fashion fitting with the currently changing face of digital and tabletop games, Stefan Lopuszanski’s “Auto-Combat” is a “digital hybrid board game adaptation of the new ‘auto-battler genre’” popularized in early 2019.

“I have a strong passion for a large variety of games and while many view digital games as distancing us from the physical world, I see the divide between the two continually narrowing,” Lopuszanski, a game designer and researcher, says in his artist statement. He uses the advantages of both mediums for “Auto-Combat,” which can be downloaded through a link on the installation’s page. The turn-based game takes familiar gameplay aspects from similar games, but also features physical components. “Since no single medium has all the answers, I decided that delving into a combination of them would be an ideal starting point for uncovering something rarely studied in academia.”

As her first foray into traditional narrative filmmaking, “Late Shift” was inspired by Laurel Pehmoeller’s “own feelings of dislocation; an unpleasant sensation of not having a proper place in the great scheme of things,” which is represented in Emma, the short film’s protagonist. Emma’s struggle in navigating the world and finding a job, as well as her relationship with her older sister, serves as the focus of Pehmoeller’s work.

“Though each step of this [meticulously planned] process involved substantial creative decisions on my part, the rigid filmmaking structure also enabled me to lead a team in a way that I had not experienced previously as an independent artist,” Pehmoeller says in her artist statement, discussing how her filmmaking process differed from her previous projects. “In the end, I believe that some will find themselves watching Emma’s struggle with a sense of nostalgia or compassion, while others may be nonplussed at the hopelessness of her insecurities and aspirations. In telling this story I was able to hyperbolize my own mistakes and examine them, coming to grips with the types of missteps that plague many of us in our early twenties, and forging my own path forward.”

The final installation of “Square One” is a part of the series of “SHRINE” installations by multimedia artist and animator Jasmine Rajavadee. “Eternal Belonging” explores her multicultural Lao-American upbringing, with the viewer put in the place as a guest in a miniaturized Buddhist temple complex comprised of projected animations and laser-etched repurposed cardboard, which can be seen in a video of the installation views or through a series of images on the project’s page.

“In ‘Eternal Belonging,’ personal memories reimagined as fantastical animation represent spiritual concepts in Buddhism,” Rajavadee’s artist statement says, describing the physical installation’s three main projection spaces that include its main characters.  “Character designs, etched patterns and sequential progressions follow the Wheel — in Buddhist terms, an auspicious sign representing the interconnectedness of everything, or karma.”

Hollie Lao is a staff writer and the social media manager for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at hollianne.lao@uconn.edu.

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