BY Gary Zhexi Zhang in Features | 25 FEB 19
Featured in
Issue 201

Lu Yang’s Final Fantasy

Materialism, metaphysics and mysticism collide in the Shanghai-based artist’s maximalist installations

BY Gary Zhexi Zhang in Features | 25 FEB 19

Lu Yang was born in 1984, the same year that Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (1975) was published in Chinese. A bestseller of the 1970s psychedelic countercultural zeitgeist, Capra’s orientalist ode was received in post-reform China under a truncated title, Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, implicitly subordinating the former to the latter. Capra’s aim was to ‘overcome the gap between rational, analytical thinking and the meditative experience of mystical truth’. Lu might be driven by a similar desire, joining the dots between Buddhism, neuroscience and biology in an oeuvre that resembles a manga franchise populated by a psychotic cast of gods, demons and cyborgs – as well as the artist herself. While Capra’s new-age tome sought to attune ‘modern’ scientific minds in the West to the ‘ancient wisdom’ of Eastern spirituality, Lu’s science-fiction approach to religious iconography is a joyously accelerationist affair, fusing inquiries into consciousness and control in a dizzying cosmological cocktail.

‘Zhongguo 2185’, a 2017 group exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ in London, featured Lu prominently amongst a cohort of young Chinese artists including Xu Qu and Chen Tianzhuo (Lu’s fellow pop-spiritualist provocateur and spouse). Named after the 1989 novel by celebrated sci-fi writer Liu Cixin, the show featured a number of works that melded science fiction and religious symbolism in figments of folk nostalgia and performative futurity. (Xu, for instance, dangled a floor-to-ceiling string of broken CCTV cameras like a set of prayer beads.) Lu’s contribution, Power of Will – Final Shooting (2016), was unmissable: a giant inflated balloon of her grinning, deranged CGI face with glowing eyes and pneumatic medusa locks piled in a tangled sprawl against the gallery floor. Her maniacal godhead is an avatar in the original sense: an incarnation of a deity of soul in bodily form on earth, before instant messaging and James Cameron hijacked the term. Heretofore seen only as the CGI protagonist of her videos, Lu’s avatar is both the supreme being of her personal cosmology and the tortured cadaver of her Frankenstein’s lab (A 2017 solo show at Société, Berlin, was called ‘Welcome to Lu Yang Hell’.)

Lu Yang, Delusional Mandala, 2015, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Société, Berlin, and the Shanghai Biennale

Lu graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, in the new media department led by Zhang Peili, a practitioner and pedagogue whose influence is felt keenly amongst contemporary Chinese video artists. Growing up in Shanghai with a Buddhist grandmother and on a steady diet of Japanese anime, manga and games, Lu’s work is deeply influenced by Japanese otaku (video game and manga fandom) subculture. At the Academy, her art practice formed through a confluence of interests in science, religion and popular culture, exploring grandiose questions of consciousness through dazzling and technically extravagant animations, video games, life-sized action figures and other popular otaku media. 

Uterus Man (2013), an anthropomorphized womb who is also a battle-ready superhero in the typical anime mould, is an early opus which crystallizes the darkly humorous and subversive approach to biology, (a)sexuality and cyborgian bodies that runs through much of Lu’s best work. The 11-minute film is a frantic CGI montage resembling a video-game trailer or anime title credits, introducing the eponymous hero’s features, abilities, weapons and upgrades against an unrelenting arcade-style dubstep soundtrack. The character was originally inspired by the gender-neutral Japanese artist Mao Sugiyama, who famously served their surgically removed male genitalia in a banquet. In Lu’s version, Uterus Man is equipped with a sanitary-pad skateboard, swings a foetus on an umbilical lasso and mounts a quadrupedal ‘pelvis chariot’: a skeletal sci-fi crossover between the gothic visions of H.R. Giger and the mecha cyborg aesthetics of popular anime series such as Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995–96). His abilities include flight by menstrual-blood jet propulsion, an ‘XY chromosome attack’ and a special pregnancy attack involving ‘summoning the baby weapon’.

Of course, as is evident in classic titles such as the cyberpunk noir Akira (1988) and the recently Americanized Ghost in the Shell (first serialized in 1989), these fleshy, cyborgian themes of posthumanist, existentialist speculation have long been explored in anime and manga culture. Vanquishing his enemies by scrambling their genetic code, Uterus Man may be the hero we deserve in these uncertain biopolitical times, as the regimes of heteronormativity become increasingly violent even as traditional categorizations of gender and sexuality are destabilized. There is a thrilling proliferation of technoscientific provocations in Uterus Man’s synthetic, genetic, unapologetically transhumanist and deliciously queer bio-aesthetics. With her richly detailed graphic sensibility, Lu is an otaku at heart and evidently takes pleasure in producing the kind of geekish adrenaline rush that characterizes the franchises she loves.

Lu Yang, Material World Knight, 2018, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Société, Berlin, and the Shanghai Biennale

While videos like Uterus Man digest Lu’s posthumanist preoccupations into popular narrative forms, her sculptural works approach these cybernetic themes more directly. The project Revived Zombie Frogs Underwater Ballet (2009) features a series of dead frogs, connected to electrodes, suspended in a long tank. As a MIDI signals from an electronic soundtrack pulse through the electrodes, nervous contractions cause their legs to jolt, forming an undead amphibian dance troupe. A more ethically ambiguous project called Krafttremor – Parkinson’s Disease Orchestra (2011) features Parkinson’s-afflicted individuals performing direct to camera with a variety of percussive instruments, their impaired motor functions translating into a stark soundtrack of stuttering electronic noise. Citing the behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner as an influence, these works speak to Lu’s fascination with control. The body – human and animal – is conceived of as an assembly of muscular and nervous mechanisms, functioning or malfunctioning with ambivalence to the philosophical determinations of mind or spirit. Indeed, most of Lu’s digital productions involve manipulating rigged 3D models – cadavers of another kind – to do her bidding, while recent works have employed other forms of choreographic control such as live motion capture performance.

Lu’s matter-of-fact conceptualism is inflected by her more sensationalist genre instincts, often funny and irreverently deployed, though at times given to questionable indulgence in tropes around deformity and disability. The fluorescent-lit grotesquerie of the dissected frogs’ wiring echoes the surgical paraphernalia and anatomical motifs that populate her animation works, while the men in Krafttremor appear in monochrome, with bulbous, black eyes, frenetically edited like a budget horror trailer.

Lu Yang, Material World Knight, 2018, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Société, Berlin, and the Shanghai Biennale

Another video, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Exorcism (2017), cartoonishly recapitulates the historic stigma linking Tourette’s syndrome to demonic possession. Lu often cites SymbioticA, the legendary Perth-based bio-art lab which was the first to synthesize meat, and Stelarc, the pioneering performance artist who surgically attached an ear to his arm, as important in terms of advancing a practical engagement between the arts and life sciences. Lamenting the lack of opportunity for rigorous art-science collaborations in China, Lu notes that most contemporary artists are barely scratching the surface in their engagements with technology. Technological advancement is inevitable, she tells me: bio-art represents what is possible when artists work at the forefront of scientific research, provoking and interrogating rather than following in its wake.

‘Lu Yang Hell’ could describe a descent into an arcade, a laboratory, a religion, a fashion label or a comic book, which is only to say that it reflects the hypermediated nature of the contemporary East Asian culture industry. A recent project, Material World Knight (2018), at the Shanghai Biennale, is a typically sprawling installation featuring murals, massive LCD displays and a suite of smaller videos embedded in classic arcade machines. The central diorama features a jump-suited boy poised in a face-off against a skull-headed villain in surgical scrubs and a massively engorged brain, all on the ruins of a retro-futurist Japanese city. On screen, a music video shows a towering Japanese girl in a cute robot outfit (played by Japanese pop idol Chanmomo) in a kaiju-style face-off/dance-off against the brain villain. The English title of the installation translates ‘material world’ from 器世界, the world of /器. This Taoist/Buddhist concept roughly corresponds to the world of technics, tools or utensils, bridging physical and metaphysical realms: a reflection of Lu’s ongoing fascination with mind-bending technologies and the neurophysiological basis of consciousness.

Lu Yang, Material World Knight, 2018, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Société, Berlin, and the Shanghai Biennale

A survey show at M Woods in Beijing in 2017, entitled ‘Encephalon Heaven’, offered a panoramic view inside the artist’s own hyperactive head. Screen-based works were installed against walls covered floor to ceiling in aggressively vibrant character illustrations, packaging each video like a new action figure. One such mural was lined with a pantheon of Hindu-esque gods and monsters against a cosmic backdrop, flanking the title graphics of Lu’s neuroscientific religion, ‘Electromagnetic Brainology’, whose primary motif is a golden halo appropriated from headgear used in stereotactic brain surgery. In Delusional Mandala (2015), Lu digitally reconstructs herself as a sexless test subject for a series of neurological experiments, dancing and flailing as it is scanned, syringed and reincarnated in the image of Buddhist figures, eventually speeding across a desert landscape in the guise of a neon-lit truck-cum-hearse-cum-shrine. Its sequel, Delusional Crime and Punishment (2016) begins with the figure of a Judaeo-Christian god, proceeds through a few circles of hell before arriving in a survival-horror-style industrial facility presided over by a rather hunky rendition of the horned Satanic deity Baphomet.

The frenetic intensity of Lu’s works creates a spectacle at once stimulating and exhausting: an iconographic pick-and-mix that, while producing a quasi-spiritualist sugar rush, can ultimately leave you wanting the show itself, rather than what looks like an endless slew of trailers and merchandise. From anime to art world, idols to idolatry, Lu mobilizes a dizzying array of pop-cultural effects that say less about neuroscience or religion per se than the structures of belief, communion and consumption by which our market-driven culture is compelled. Lu professes to ‘live on the internet’: I imagine that she works with a lot of tabs open at once, picking through these disparate domains with a visceral sense of humour and a nerdish eye for detail. Like a short circuit in the already hypermediated visual culture of which they enthusiastically partake, Lu’s works are more interested in provocation than reflection, in sensationalist flourishes that overwhelm our ability to respond. Often, their relentless maximalism is watched over tirelessly by her own avatar: the grinning, mad-eyed expression of an artist losing a little of her mind to the delirium of chaos and cosmos, and having a great time in the process. 

Lu Yang is based in Shanghai, China. Her work is included in the 12th Shanghai Biennale until 10 March and is screening as part of ‘Low Form. Images and Visions in the Age of Artificial Intelligence’ at MAXXI, Rome, Italy, until 3 March. Later this year, she will have a solo show at CC Foundation, Shanghai.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 201 with the headline ‘Lu Yang’s Final Fantasy’

Main image: Lu Yang, Material World Knight, 2018, installation view, Power Station of Art, Shanghai. Courtesy: the artist, Société, Berlin, and the Shanghai Biennale

Gary Zhexi Zhang is an artist and writer based in New York, USA.