A piece of advice before you step into Curator’s Office to watch Jonathan Monaghan’s new work of digitally animated video art: Suspend your ninja logic.
Fans of Mortal Kombat will remember Sub-Zero as a silent masked combatant who fires ice projectiles from his hands, but in Monaghan’s video, “Sacrifice of the Mushroom Kings,” the ninja assassin has all the gusto of a bored kid at scout camp, seated in the gun turret of a Sherman tank, scrolling through his smart phone.
Elsewhere in the video, Monaghan lifts characters from the Street Fighter franchise and scenic elements from Mario Kart 64. Even the title design and typeface—“S.A.CRIFICE”—is borrowed from G.I. Joe. Plenty of artists sift through the stew of pop-culture and remove the meaty bits, usually for clever one-liners or something short of irony. Monaghan jumps these hurdles to make a statement about power and the predictable gender attitudes of his juvenile source material.
A former fellow at Hamiltonian Gallery and recent MFA graduate of the University of Maryland, Monaghan is no stranger to animations. He composed much of his graduate work in 3D Studio Max, and his videos have quirky narratives that obliquely poke fun at symbols of power through unlikely juxtapositions, sometimes involving Romanesque architecture and exotic imperial animals (emperor penguin, the king of the jungle).
Even if you didn’t waste time in the 1990s playing video games, the basic ingredients from the borrowed franchises are familiar. Mario runs through levels and jumps on cranky fungi in order to save damsel-in-distress Princess Toadstool. In fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, martial-arts experts—mostly male—fight to the death. The narratives are shallow.
Monaghan’s charm is to first humanize these automatons. The two main characters, Guile and M. Bison from Street Fighter, majestically ride around the Mario Kart track atop domesticated animals. The track then dissolves into the gilded age of American capitalism, as the beefy characters walk cautiously through buildings built by J.P. Morgan and Philip Lehman. Dwarfed by the powers of old money, the protagonists are symbolically emasculated and eventually metrosexualized, appearing next in Princess Toadstool’s beauty salon.
While the title of the video alludes to Princess Toadstool’s father, it’s also a subtle phallic and drug reference. Mushrooms can produce altered states, as can playing video games for several consecutive hours. Mushrooms also can refer to the tips of penises, and the demographic buying most of the videogames in the 1990s had them. The end of Monaghan’s video acknowledges the gender disparity within fighting games and Mario Bros. Though Street Fighter II was the first fighting game to include a playable female character, 20 years later the inclusion seems more like a sexist act of placation: Chun-Li’s absurdly proportioned design defies the laws of physics, and though her inclusion might have opened the door to a new market of players, she served mostly as eye-candy for the boys. Perhaps it’s fitting that the video concludes with Chun-Li leading a band of tank-driving ninjas to Princess Toadstool’s castle.
Of course, kids don’t intellectualize their video games; they pause to review cheat codes between swigs of Mountain Dew. In appropriating this content, Monaghan is critiquing his own childhood pasttime, not to mention a gaming industry that still perpetuates bad gender stereotypes. It’s about time video games got pwned.