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In the first half, I will demonstrate an efficient and general approach for realizing non-trivial quantum states, such as quantum critical and topologically ordered states, in quantum simulators. In the second half, I will present a related variational ansatz for many-body quantum systems that is remarkably efficient. In particular, representing the critical point of the one-dimensional transverse field Ising model only requires a number of variational parameters scaling logarithmically with system size. Though optimizing the ansatz generally requires Monte Carlo sampling, our ansatz potentially enables a partial mitigation of the sign problem at the expense of having to optimize a few parameters.