“I don’t like being called an artist — I’m more like an entertainer,” says Lu Yang, and though I might regard such a claim as disingenuous coming from most people with as many art world successes as this 33-year-old from Shanghai has notched, in her case I think it’s the truth.
Maybe this attitude goes back to her time as a student in the New Media Department of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou*, known for minting some of the most active and imaginative artists that have come out of China in the post-internet age. Lu credits program director Zhang Peili — one of China’s first video artists — and her “guru,” Taiwan-born sound artist and curator Yao Dajuin, for their openness to new frontiers and ambivalence towards traditional art media as key to her formative years. “They didn’t really teach us a lot about art — I don’t think art can be taught. They just said, ‘Do whatever you want, you’re the best.'”
This confidence has clearly carried over to Lu’s more recent works, 3D-animated videos like 2013’s Uterus Man and 2015’s LuYang Delusional Mandala that cheerfully shred social, sexual, and religious taboos, making fun out of the grotesque and the uncanny. Encephalon Heaven, her new solo show recently opened at the M WOODS museum in Beijing’s 798 art district, includes these two works along with a trio of newly commissioned pieces that continue the reluctant artist’s careful, often joyful dissection of humanity in our fractured digital age.
Encephalon Heaven is a very loud, very bright affair. The centerpiece is a giant altar flanked by four gods of Lu Yang’s creation. One looks like a mixture between blue-skinned Shiva and skull-wreathed Kali; another resembles Yecha, the fierce Buddhist guardian deity.
Entitled Electromagnetic Brainology, this towering shrine is maybe the clearest distillation of Lu Yang’s particular fusion of ritual depth with sardonic levity: her four demigods prance together in meticulously coordinated dance sequences based on Japanese animation program MikuMikuDance, rendered in the style of a video game title screen through a collaboration she undertook with Beijing motion tracking company Noitom (诺亦腾), and soundtracked by a piece made in collaboration with celebrated J-pop producers Invisible Manners.
“That’s the one quite new medium I use in this show — we collaborated on all the characters’ movements,” Lu says of her work with Noitom. Another first for her in this show is an Augmented Reality (AR) work in a second-floor gallery space: the viewer kneels at the kind of cushioned altar one finds at any Buddhist temple, opens a specially created iPad app and points the camera at a mandala to see a virtual deity arise and begin a ritual dance on the screen. “This is very simple technology, I don’t think it’s new media. But if you use it in an original way, there are some interesting ideas inside.”
Elsewhere, Uterus Man plays on loop, accompanied by a half-dozen television screens blaring other Lu Yang hits like 2014’s Cancer Baby, and even an arcade-style Uterus Man video game console. The walls are hung with so much neon that M WOODS’ staff was worried the show might crash a power grid. Most of the work is indeed digital, vaporous and light, but the show is not entirely untethered from the physical world — one room is filled with holograms projected in heavy resin blocks that took three people apiece to mount.
I caught up with Lu Yang a few days before the show’s opening, as she was rushing to finish an installation delayed by the 19th Party Congress and its attendant impact on factory production and delivery schedules. See Radii’s video collage of Encephalon Heaven‘s cosplay opening party below, and below that, read what Lu Yang has to say about art, entertainment, spirituality, and why neuroscience is like a ghost story:
There are some interesting pan-Asian elements in this exhibition, like the pantheon of four gods you’ve created, drawing across traditions from India, Tibet and China. How did you become interested in these religious topics?
It’s just an interest, like what kind of music you like. For me religion is a very important part of life, it helps me to think about or know about this world. You can’t say the world is exactly like what you see — you have to use some background knowledge from other religions. Once you read through all the religions you can tell which fits you, or which you think is right. I really agree with a lot of points in some religions, especially Buddhism and its ideas about reincarnation and suffering. In Buddhism they say there are eight different kinds of suffering, whether you’re happy or you’re mad or whatever emotion you have, it’s all painful.
Do you see any parallels between your work — creating virtual worlds, inserting a 3D version of yourself in them — and religious descriptions of reality? For example, both Hindu and Buddhist philosophies contain the idea that the reality we perceive is illusory, a sort of virtual projection.
Yeah, I’m creating a fictional world in which I can place myself, and play around. When I walk out the door, I feel that I’m actually going into the real world. But I also believe, in a Buddhist way, that you can you live your entire life, even up to the point that you die, and not actually experience the real world.
This reminds me of something you’ve said in a previous interview, that one aspect of 3D video that appeals to you is that it gives you the ability to create a virtual version of yourself where you can control or change elements of your physical identity, such as gender. Your 3D avatar in videos like Delusional Mandala, for instance, is basically a sexless version of yourself. What role does gender or lack of gender play in your recent work?
Lots of people think that Uterus Man is a feminist work, but actually I just use it to make fun of people. I think gender only exists when lots of people are together. In society you can tell this is a guy, this is a woman, or this is an asexual, whatever. But mostly, humans must face themselves, alone. During that time you must have your own world. I think that’s the first thing, is that you are a spirit, you’re just there, and you think about everything. Gender only exists in the [context of] society.
Do you think this is related to the internet? People can create their own personality online, shut off interactions in the real world, and live in a cyber version of themselves.
I think on the surface this is more suitable for me. Most people don’t know if I’m a girl or boy. They just think, “This is someone who created this thing.” They don’t even think about it as something made by a human, they just think it’s a video. Most of the time when people see my work over the internet, they’re not necessarily using my gender as a first basis from which to tag my work. Mostly [these tags] are from Western countries. I think Western people always like to put tags on something when they first see it. Like this is what, this is what, this is a Chinese artist, this is feminist. Chinese curators don’t feel my work is feminist or whatever, they just know I’m a female, and they always invite me to female artist group shows, which is very funny.
How do you feel about that?
I say no or I just ignore it. I think to separate by gender is quite stupid. Because you haven’t seen the work. Why do you think my work is talking about female [issues]? If you talk about female [issues] you can put this work into a female group show, but just because I’m a woman, I think that’s stupid. So I really want to be a guy in this way.
How do you interact with your audience? Is it mostly online?
I upload my works to Vimeo, and I can see how many people and from which countries view my work. US is #1, and Japan is #2. Because of the Chinese government, Chinese people are #6 in terms of audience. I think more people see my work online than in real life. And I think this is a very good thing for artists now, they don’t need to spend as much energy on socializing.
Your current show at M WOODS is quite loud. How does music figure into your work?
This time I collaborated with three different artists for three new works. One is about Indian dance, and I collaborated with Gameface, a very popular dark trap musician. This work I made in India, and he is actually from Sri Lanka. He used traditional Sri Lankan music and made it into trap. He found me online. For lots of [people I work with], we just know each other online.
For the main piece [Electromagnetic Brainology] I collaborated with Invisible Manners, they’re two guys who’ve made music for pop stars like Kinki Kids, one of the most popular idol groups in Japan. They can make all kinds of music actually, they’re super strong. For our next work I’ll cooperate with a Japanese idol, we’re gonna make J-hip hop, hip hop in Japanese style.
And for another piece in this show, I collaborated with a local band here in Beijing, their name is Multi-Ego, they’re a post-core band. Very emo. I really like Japanese animations, they have very powerful, very strong music, mostly this kind trance-core or post-core. I didn’t know any this kind of band abroad, so I found one in Beijing. Actually I sent them messages on Weibo and email but they didn’t reply, so I messaged them on [e-commerce site] Taobao pretending to buy a t-shirt, and that’s how we got in touch.
Mostly I collaborate with pop music [producers]. But I only choose music if it fits the work. In the past I’ve collaborated with opera musicians, death metal, electronic music.
Multi-Ego soundtracks a new video in this exhibit, TMS Exorcism, which has live actors but also incorporates some of your ideas about the parallels between religion and the brain. Can you introduce the new video?
In brain science, they have a [method] called TMS: Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. You can use TMS to stop someone’s speech. So I started to think about whether you can use TMS to cure someone with Tourettes’ syndrome. In early times, people used to think that people with Tourettes’ had devils in them. So I used a TMS stick to make a cross, or a kind of magic stick, to stop this devil.
It seems that this video continues from some of your previous works, like Delusional Mandala, which also treats ideas like reincarnation or the afterlife as “delusions” that are basically equivalent to changes in brain chemistry.
Yeah, something really like that. Because you can tell, a lot of things are because of the chemical elements in your brain. Sometimes you like to eat sweets, sometimes you really don’t want to eat sweets, it’s just because the brain wants to. I think the brain is the control center of your whole body, and there’s another consciousness on top of your brain. I always think about this kind of question, but never have the answer. But I’m more [likely to] believe people have a consciousness on top of the brain, and that’s what gets reincarnated.
Do you do a lot of reading about brain chemistry?
I really like to read scientific studies about the brain. I think reading those kinds of books is like reading a ghost story, or a criminal story. Some people, their frontal lobe is very, very small, tiny, so they don’t fear anything, they can do everything. And if they kill someone they don’t feel guilty. This is very interesting. In Christianity, God says everyone has original sin. But God also said that God created humans. Why did God create this kind of body? Why wouldn’t God create a perfect body? Something about this is very interesting to me.
Translation assistance by Greg Young
* The New Media Department of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou is now named the School of Intermedia Art (SIMA); Lu Yang was among the first generation of students to graduate from the department under its original name. return to article