Lawrence Lek Is Awarded the 2024 Frieze Artist Award

Black Cloud Highway, Solo Exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ, 2023 Photo: Katie Morrison

In an exclusive with Elephant Magazine, Frieze announces Lawrence Lek as the recipient of the Frieze Artist Award. His installation ‘Guanyin: Confessions of a Former Carebot’ will explore the emotional and spiritual dimensions of AI through the lens of Guanyin, a cyborg therapist from Lek’s ongoing Sinofuturist cinematic universe. This year, the award’s focus is on advanced technologies, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and the metaverse. Elephant Magazine contributor, Sofia Hallström, sits down with Lawrence Lek and Eva Langret, Director of Frieze London to speak about the installation, the award and the impact it has on artists and the broader artist community.

Lawrence Lek has been announced as the recipient of the 2024 Frieze Artist Award, an accolade that celebrates early and mid-career artists at pivotal moments in their careers. The award, presented in partnership with Forma for the sixth consecutive year, will see Lek present a new multimedia installation, Guanyin: Confessions of a Former Carebot at Frieze London, taking place from October 9-13, 2024, in The Regent’s Park. Eva Langret, Director of Frieze London, explains the significance of the award: “The Artist Award has been a central feature of Frieze London’s programming for many years, serving as a successful springboard for artists at critical points in their careers. We’ve seen recipients go on to achieve great things, such as participating in the Venice Biennale and receiving major institutional shows. Lawrence is joining a list of illustrious alumni including Himali Singh Soin (2019), Alberta Whittle (2020), Sung Tieu (2021), Abbas Zahedi (2022), and Adham Faramawy (2023).”

Lek’s work broadly encompasses video games, film-making, and electronic music, engaging with elements of technology, memory, action and architecture in an ever-expanding cinematic universe. Guanyin: Confessions of a Former Carebot will combine narrative worldbuilding and mechanical sculpture in an environment where players will gradually uncover the story of Guanyin. “I wonder: how might an AI feel?” Lek contemplates when I asked him about the installation. “In my recent series of work, Guanyin is a ‘carebot’, an AI in charge of repairing the psychological damage done to other AIs. Essentially, they are cyborg therapists. I often think about how technological development operates like speculative fiction; future scenarios are often explored in advance through simulation exercises.” Lek draws from the tradition of confessional literature to explore what an AI therapist might need to confess.

NOX, Solo Exhibition at LAS Art Foundation, Berlin, 2023 Photo: Andrea Rossetti

Lek has always been fascinated by the way we construct imaginary spaces. “When you read a book, you have to imagine the scene, or when watching a lm or play, you construct an imaginary fourth wall,” he explains. “They are all ways of your mind tricking you into inhabiting another world.” This interest is at the core of his artistic practice. Lek elaborates, “I generally try to take an element that relates to both the fictional and real world and use that as a gateway for the audience.” In Guanyin: Confessions of a Former Carebot, Lek describes Guanyin (named after the Buddhist goddess of mercy) as “a tragic figure, the one forced to clean up the psychological damage done to AI.” It is not too hopeless, though. As the title suggests, Guanyin has chosen to quit their job and is looking ahead to the future.

In the installation, Lek explores the emotional and spiritual dimensions of AI through subtle and indirect approaches: “I think that emotion and spiritual dimensions are something that I try to explore through meandering or roundabout ways,” he explains. “It’s hidden in the texture of the work, and you need time to experience it.” His interest lies in the organic ebb and flow of memory, particularly within time-based media. Lek illustrates this with an analogy: “For example, you’re playing a game, but forget about your main quest and wander in the landscape; you get distracted by a distant sound, and finding its source becomes your new goal.” In his work, Geomancer set in 2065, Guanyin recites the Heart Sutra repeatedly to soothe a weather satellite. “I was thinking about how reciting a sutra, or mantra, is like a set of instructions. It’s not computational, but somehow the idea is that healing takes place through repetition.” Music, sound, and even voiceover often take precedence in Lek’s work. Earlier this year, Lek presented NOX, a three-door installation at LAS Art Foundation in Berlin. Set in a former shopping centre, the soundscape directed the audience’s experience throughout the entire piece.

NOX, Solo Exhibition at LAS Art Foundation, Berlin, 2023 Photo: Andrea Rossetti

“Lawrence’s work explores the social, spiritual, and emotional impacts of technology. His immersive creations invite viewers to reflect on the interconnectedness of our digital and physical worlds,” Langret says, emphasising how Lek’s installation will challenge current dialogues around AI and technology in art. Lek’s work often critiques new technologies, portraying multiple viewpoints to reflect the complex nature of human and AI interactions. “If we think of technology as a human construct, it’s prone to all sorts of projections, the hopes and fears that come from deep-set cultural and social sources. But I try to portray multiple points of view in each work.”

Langret elaborates on the selection process for this year’s award: “The award is aimed at early and mid-career artists. Each year, we invite applicants to submit proposals responding to a thematic brief, with the winning entry selected by a jury of prominent art industry figures. This year, for the first time, we issued a joint brief for the Frieze London and Frieze Seoul Artist Awards. We challenged artists to create a commission utilising advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, and the metaverse. It’s always a bonus when an artist considers the specific spatial and conceptual context of the fair.” Choi Goen is the winner of the Frieze Seoul Artist Award for a project that will explore the materiality of technology. The Frieze Artist Award, alongside initiatives like Artist-to-Artist, showcases Frieze’s commitment to artist-led programming. “Artists are at the centre of everything we do at Frieze, and we are more committed than ever to ensuring our programming is artist-led,” Langret arms.

Lek holds a PhD from the Royal College of Art and is represented by Sadie Coles HQ. Notable works and exhibitions include NOX at LAS Art Foundation in Berlin, Black Cloud Highway at Sadie Coles HQ in London, and presentations at various biennales, museums and institutions worldwide. Guanyin: Confessions of a Former Carebot is set to be a highlight of Frieze London 2024, inviting visitors to engage with questions surrounding technology, empathy, and the future of AI.

Written by Sofia Hallström

Lawrence Lek Photo: Nishant Shukla