Michael Young talks to the multi-media Chinese artist Lu Yang in Shanghai, about animé, films, and neuroscience
Lu Yang is a 38 year old multi-media artist based in Shanghai, who is known mostly for her startling video works that utilise the visual lingua franca of the gaming generation to explore the universal themes of death, mortality, and consciousness mediated by her passion for neuroscience, Hindu polytheism, and technology. The fast paced and vividly colourful films are populated by a digitally created motley crew, who maraud and dance their way through dystopian landscapes to the sound of booming techno music. Into this mash-up, Lu casts herself as a gender neutral avatar, spinning in a frenzied stupor, through sci-fi worlds.
Japanese Animé and Pop Sub-culture
Inspired by Eastern deities, Japanese animé and no end of pop sub-cultures, the films flit in equal measure between dead-pan violence and understated humour while negotiating the precarious boundary between life and death. They are often violent, always irreverent, and disturbingly controversial. You might see dead frogs being animated by electrical stimulation or skulls pierced by transcranial needles or cancer cells displaying assumed ‘cute’ personas. Lu’s world is a curious and gruesome one. But you know what you are getting with Lu’s work and – ultimately – you either love it or hate it.
I interviewed Lu several months ago, at her studio/home 15 minutes by taxi east of central Shanghai.I had been told by her gallerist that she no longer liked giving interviews and that she would resist having her photograph taken. Also that she no longer thought of herself as an artist. On her website, and in printed material, she had taken to referring to herself in some text by the pronoun ‘he’. There seems not to be a statement of a definite preference. However, this is a device that can establish and maintain the anonymity she craves, an anonymity predicated on her name that is gender neutral. Whether she is male or female had no relevance to her work she later said. ‘I do not want people to know what I look like. None of my work is gender specific and all is available freely on (the file sharing platforms) Vimeo and YouTube. I am just a creator,’ she explained.
Science and Ancient Asian Polytheism
She may prefer to be called a creator, but what she has created, since leaving art school in 2010, is the work of an extraordinary contemporary artist who has mastered the technical wizardry of the internet and, in doing so, has gained an international reputation. Her videos have been seen in locations around the globe. Just recently her high-energy computer environments have featured in exhibitions in Paris and Berlin, as well as on the advertising screens that glare over the iconic Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo. But far from being designed simply to dazzle and entertain youth sub-cultures with attention spans that flit rapidly from one image to the next, they are constructed around Lu’s multi-layered and profound interest in science and ancient Asian polytheism. There is a restless ongoing search for the root of human consciousness – interests that have captivated her since art school.
Lu’s studio is also her home, a 1960s duplex apartment at the top of a two-storey block that she shares with her pug, Biabia. ‘It was my ambition from very early on to have a pug in my life,’ she said. Its wrinkly, short-muzzled face had often appeared in her work, as well as being a feature at her exhibition openings where it would be dressed to match the occasion.
Lu and I met on the main tree-lined road outside. Lu was gregarious and welcoming, and wore a dark track suit – rather than the vividly colourful punk Cosplay- inspired clothes that have become her signature look. Her hair had been dyed a startling, bluey-purple.
Access to the studio was at the back of the block, reached along a narrow alley where the few plants that grew were caked with Shanghai’s ubiquitous grey dust. There was no lift and we climbed several flights of stairs that reminded me of a slightly grubby Parisian stairwell.
Lu Yang’s Studio
The apartment had been tastefully renovated and had polished floorboards, ceramic floor tiles and sculpted plaster ceilings, and it was bathed in light that flooded in through doors that opened onto a balcony that ran the length of the apartment. In the main room, upstairs, were several glass-fronted 1940s cabinets that contained Yang’s inspirational collection of toys, models, and votive figurines, inflatable faces from the green frog Keroro to Pikachu and Godzilla, alongside various bric-à-brac. They formed a visually compelling and entertaining, three-dimensional bricolage reflecting the hybridised figures and the worlds that Lu renders in her practice. However, there was nothing chaotic about this mélange, each piece had been carefully positioned on the shelves.
Lu’s work area, in the space adjoining the living room, had more animé paraphernalia and bookcases packed with publications, as well as three over-sized desks on which sat a host of screens and keyboards. It was here that, in early 2019, Lu began to spend 14-hour days constructing a new, combat-based computer game, The Great Adventure of the Material World, which pits a cast of superheroes from her past works against a cult of demons scattered through ancient temples, hyper-urban cities, and the galaxy. After almost a year of this gruelling schedule, however, she decided to shift her mode of working and turned instead to painting. ‘I needed to find a way to relax. I thought, maybe I can paint something,’ she told me. It was not such a far-fetched idea.
Lu was, in fact, no stranger to the medium. Her first degree was from the painting department of the prestigious China Academy of Fine Art in Hangzhou, where her professor and mentor had been Zhang Peili – a new-media pioneer in China (see Asian Art Newspaper June 2020). Lu graduated in 2007 with a Bachelor of Fine Art, followed by a Master of Fine Art in 2010 and is currently studying for her doctorate degree in robotics in Hangzhou, again supervised by Peili.
To one side of Lu’s computer desk there was an easel, but no paintings. Those had left the studio for her exhibition at Shanghai’s Bank Society Gallery. Entitled Debut, the show presented brightly hued canvases with the figures inspired by traditional Chinese folktales, Greco-Roman divinities, and wide-eyed manga characters. The figures are seen in acts of torture and murder alongside grinning, faces, some of which are based on the artist’s own likeness. The paintings possessed the same confronting imagery as Lu’s videos with columns of spurting blood, decapitations, and grimacing faces, graphically depicted in a demonic Danse Macabre. The premise of the paintings was to blur the binary of good and evil.
Bio-Art and Neurosicence
Since her student days, Lu has had an ongoing interest in bio-art and neuroscience and even now voraciously reads science books. For her video Revived Zombie Frogs Underwater Ballet (2016), which she initiated in 2009, she used electricity to stimulate the muscles of dead frogs. ‘You see [the frogs] move and you wonder if it is still alive or dead,’ Lu said. On the bottom left corner of the video a pair of gloved hands manipulate the electric signals via a MIDI controller. This pair of hands brings to the fore one of Lu’s core concerns: what are the limitations of human control on life and death? In subsequent works, Lu furthered this question, probing how humans have attempted to overwrite the physiological bounds of their control through technological means.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, which utilises electric currents to manipulate brainwaves to diagnose the connections between the brain and the body’s muscles, is a procedure frequently used with patients suffering from strokes, multiple sclerosis, and neural diseases, as well as those with anxiety and depression. Lu’s video Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Exorcism (2018) takes it an imaginative step further and begins with a pseudo-informational sequence featuring a doctor who demonstrates the process’s applications on a man. Eventually, the same procedure is used to cure the patient from demonic possession. The work thus toys with the idea that physical changes can also alter the state of a person’s spirit. This leads to another complex set of questions: where is consciousness located—in the brain? Soul? Body? If our consciousness can be manipulated, is what we understand to be reality a result of the exploitation of our consciousness? In Lu’s animated Delusional Mandala (2016) there are questions but no answers, though the work, featuring the artist’s avatar undergoing a series of neuroscientific tests, was driven by these conundrums.
Delusional Mandala also brought to the fore the other major conundrum in Lu’s work. The simulacrum of Lu’s body is neither female nor male, thereby conferring on her the online anonymity she craves. ‘A lot of my work is not gender-based, so a lot of people do not know that I am female,’ she stated. ‘People who meet me, or follow me on the internet, do not know who I am,’ she continued.
Notwithstanding such eccentricities, Lu’s life is, it seems, relatively ordinary. ‘I hardly go out anywhere. I live on the internet,’ she said. Lunch, often dinner, would be noodles at a local restaurant, with Biabia in attendance.
But there are exceptions. Even though courting anonymity, Lu’s international reputation has attracted a certain cachet. Last year she met and lunched with President Macron, who was in Shanghai to open the new outpost of the Centre Pompidou named the Centre Pompidou x West Bund Museum project. Twenty Shanghai born artists and actors were invited, Lu included. ‘I wanted to take an (Instagram) photo with him. That is the reason I went,’ she explained. Yang sat opposite not only Macron, but internationally acclaimed Chinese actor, Gong Li, along with the Shanghai-based superstar artist Zhang Huan. Lu admitted she was a little star struck.
Lu has travelled widely – less so in the now Covid-19 infected world – and exhibited in countries as far flung as, Denmark, United Kingdom, US and Japan and was included in the China Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 with a video/installation Moving Gods (2015), where men are cast as Buddhist deities walking solemnly through computer-manipulated temple scenes and urban landscapes that eventually form what is revealed to be a mandala – a part of the artist’s ongoing iconoclastic meditation on the origin and nature of consciousness.
Uterus Man by Lu Yang
Recently (end of 2019 through January 2020) her animated work was on show in Germany, where she was part of an exhibition, New Media Art from China, at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin with her mentor Zhang Peili and artist Cao Fei. Her work was immensely popular, a three-dimensional video Uterus Man (2013) featuring a genderless superhero who skateboards on a winged sanitary pad and uses a baby attached to an umbilical cord as a mace, locked in a battle to save an imagined future universe. Uterus Man was originally inspired by Japanese artist Mao Sugiyama, whose hatred of gender labels led him to have his own genitals surgically removed, cooked and served to paying guests. Later Sugiyama had his nipples surgically removed to become a nullo, the term used to describe genital nullification.
Nullo and Doku
Lu, who has corresponded at length with Mao Sugiyama, has digitally embraced the idea of the nullo in a music video commissioned by the British rock band ‘The 1975’ that responded to a track from their recent album, Notes on a Conditional Form. In the video, Lu appeared with her now familiar gender-neutral body with upper limbs and torso emblazoned with iridescent neon patterns, dancing in a digitally created world. Lu has named the character ‘Doku’ and said it reflected her personal sense of beauty. ‘I consider Doku as my digital reincarnation,’ she said. A recent collaboration with the Chinese sport fashion brand Li-Ning has seen Doku reappear in the brand’s promotional video at September 2020 Paris Fashion Week as a dramatic backdrop to the strutting models and it is the video for this collaboration that can also be seen looming over Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing.
With such a heavy digital workload Lu has temporarily set aside her painting project, Lu said recently by phone from Shanghai. ‘But I hope I can continue (painting) each year. It is really more like a vacation,’ she said somewhat wistfully. As Lu escorted me back to the road outside the studio, she defensively reiterated her need for anonymity inside the internet. ‘If people like your work they do not really care who you are.’ Or where you are, for that matter, I thought. With Covid-19 forcing much of the world into physical isolation and quarantine, the idea of a life lived productively through the internet rather than one predicated on human contact, no longer seems at all far-fetched. Lu sprinted off along the main drag shouting over her shoulder as she went, that she was getting noodles for lunch.
BY MICHAEL YOUNG