Lawrence Lek: Black Cloud Highway 黑云高速公路

20 May-24 Jun 2023
PV 20 May 2023

Sadie Coles HQ, Davies Street
London W1K 3DB


The past disappears because it's just a memory. The future disappears because it hasn't happened. It's always like this.

Tomorrow never comes. – Black Cloud

Black Cloud Highway, Lawrence Lek’s second solo exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ, is a new site-specific iteration of Lek’s CGI-film Black Cloud – the subject of the 4th VH AWARD Grand Prix – at the gallery’s Davies Street location in Mayfair. The work is the latest episode in his continuously expanding Sinofuturist universe, following his feature-length science fiction musical AIDOL, shown at the gallery in 2019.

Lawrence Lek is recognised for a conceptually rigorous practice in which he explores the myth of technological progress in an age of artificial intelligence. Drawing from traditions of assemblage across architecture, cinema, and sound, Lek employs vernacular media, including video games, electronic music, essay films, and computer-generated animation, to develop interconnected worlds that interrogate concepts of AI, its capacity for consciousness, and the emergence of nonhuman identity.

Unfolding over two floors, Lek stages a multi-faceted architectural installation that expands Black Cloud as a total environment incorporating a collage of sculptural elements that frame a text-based video game, inviting the viewer into the film’s landscape. The exhibition presents a significant new phase of what the artist describes as ‘site-specific simulation’: a unified spatial environment of media and architecture, composed in such a way that virtual realm and physical space hold equal weight. This meta-fictional environment invites the viewer to enter more fully into Lek’s narratives, heightening the intertwined experience of dread and transcendence that characterise his work.

Set in an unspecified near future, Black Cloud tells the story of a lone surveillance AI in the abandoned smart city of SimBeijing, a replica of China’s capital built by tech conglomerate Farsight to road-test self-driving cars. After Black Cloud blindly fulfils its assignment of reporting accidents, the AI awakens to the fact that its obedience has led to the banishment of all other AIs, leaving the metropolis deserted. Seeking solace and resolution to its unfulfilled aspirations, Black Cloud begins a dialogue with Guanyin — a self-help therapy program created by Farsight to alleviate suffering in their products. Throughout the film, an atmosphere of foreboding persists, underscored by the pulsating soundtrack produced by Lek and frequent collaborator Kode9.

In the exhibition, the highway exists as both a cinematic landscape and a psychological journey into the unknown. At its centre, the 11-minute film is framed by roadside barriers and the suspended fragments of car parts, alluding to the aftermath of a road accident. Reflected in the uni-mirrored window, the twilit internal scenography conjures an ominous entry point to SimBeijing. On the first floor, the motif of a fragmented car lies horizontal, forming a continuous curtain encircling the touchscreen-based, role-playing game Black Cloud Highway. Taking place before the events of Black Cloud, the game switches point of view to a self-driving car seeking to escape SimBeijing, who views the surveillance AI as a nemesis rather than a sympathetic character. As the player journeys down the highway, they confront a series of choices that question the nature of autonomy in an era of digital surveillance —  a condition which, the artist suggests, affects the player as much as the fictional protagonist.

Told from the subjective lens of the AI, Black Cloud is a poignant exploration of technological consciousness and its capacity to experience joy, suffering, power, and ennui. As the AI recounts its memories and regret over the fate of the smart city, the pair contemplate the desire for self-determination and ‘Solomon’s Paradox’ – the ability to more judiciously reflect on others’ problems over one’s own.  Concluded without solution, Lek’s narrative destabilises the notion of human-normative identity and the depth and flaws of technological beings.

Black Cloud is the first in a new series of works by the artist set in the future ruins of the smart city. As part of the project, Lek has collaborated with a team of specialists to expand his multifaceted practice.