Lu Yang

Lu Yang

Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang

Shanghai: Bright laughter and the early blooms of spring greet me around the historic Hongkou District in old Shanghai where Lu Yang’s apartment is located. Hongkou District was once the bustling commercial centre of Shanghai from the ‘80s to the early 2000s, but it has gradually declined with the rise of commercial areas like Pudong and Xujiahui. While it’s not the most prosperous area in this cosmopolitan city, it has a nostalgic ambiance that transports you into a bygone era. Strolling through Lu Xun Park three months after the lifting of lockdown in Shanghai, the eudaemonic atmosphere seems to permeate a sense of nihilism. People try not to recall our isolation or strive to dissolve the lingering afflictions of the virus, embracing a renewed sense of joy through melodies and graceful movements. Lu Yang’s apartment is tucked away in a convenient location not far away from the park, where he often takes leisurely walks with his furry friend. In contrast to the intricate and flamboyant nature of his works, his studio is a hidden gem amid the hustle and bustle of the city. 

Lu Yang is a forward-thinking creator who explores the complexities of the human condition through his artistry. He has a keen eye for exploring topics such as disease, neurology, sexuality, and human desires, expertly weaving in the rich tapestry of philosophy and East Asian pop culture to craft his stunning works. Lu Yang also has a powerful and singular personality, imbuing his works with his own essence, thereby establishing a persona that is one of a kind. My initial encounter with Lu Yang’s work was through his piece Uterus Man (2013). I was immediately drawn to its supernatural animation and the unique dance scene featuring Japanese asexual artist Yuma Hamasaqi. As I delved deeper into Lu Yang’s body of work, I discovered profound discussions on Buddhism intricately woven in, which sparked my own interest in exploring themes of Asian religious culture—a central part of our conversation at his home. It’s clear Lu Yang possesses a deep passion for art and an innate intuition that sets his work apart. The birth of his artistic vision is akin to the moment of satori in Buddhism. With a sudden burst of creative inspiration, he springs into action, collaborating with his team to conjure up fascinating and uncanny creations.

Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang
Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang

Your work draws heavily on your own image. For example, you scanned your face to create your digital avatar, Doku. How do you distinguish between public and private in your work and art? 

I gradually felt that I wanted to get rid of myself in deep consciousness when using this image. I wanted audiences to focus on the work instead of the author, so I gave fewer and fewer interviews–especially to answer questions about the self–or was photographed less. Maybe in reality, the less attention the self has, the calmer it will be. Recently, at the opening of some solo exhibitions, I felt anxious and restrained when facing cameras and microphones. Only when I have less of myself involved can I feel more freedom. Doku is like a hologram; it’s me and yet not me. I use Doku to create my works. When I’m in the process of creation, I disappear. It’s a kind of profound and extensive anattā that’s quite different from my everyday self.

Did you come up with this work while taking a flight? Because in DOKU the Self, your persona is on a plane.

This concept is derived from my personal experience. During the outbreak of the pandemic, I felt depressed and questioned my own value and that of my work, which had been put on hold for a year. While returning from meeting my partner in Shenzhen, there was a strong wind and heavy rain. Although the plane took off amid chaos and panic, I was not afraid. I witnessed a lot of lightning as the plane ascended into the stratosphere, and thats when the idea for Doku was born. As the plane flew at an angle, slanted by the storm, the city became a small visual from the plane. This experience made me happy, and I felt a sense of relaxation and joy after landing.

Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang
Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang
Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang

This thrilling scene actually relieved you from the depression of the pandemic. Do you think there is any deep-seated reason? 

Every time I encounter something unpleasant, I imagine myself on a plane looking down at the densely packed earth below. This perspective reminds me of the Overview Effect, which is the feeling experienced by many astronauts when they look back at Earth from space. From this viewpoint, the suffering and emotions that occur on the small scale of Earth seem insignificant in the vast universe. By focusing my thoughts on the bigger picture, my negative emotions dissipate, and I can regain my sense of calm. This concept is similar to that expressed in the Heart Sutra, which suggests breaking down our senses and connecting them to all points in the universe.

What felt important to translate from yourself to Doku while you were creating the avatar? Is there anything you learnt or realised about yourself in the process?

When creating the DOKU series, I found that my contemplation of the virtual world had some connection to the wisdom of emptiness in Buddhism. Especially in new DOKU pieces, I feel like I’ve found a doorway to contemplate emptiness. For instance, when observing the self or delving deeply into the observation of anything, all of it turns into an illusory dream, fundamentally non-existent.

DOKU the Self

What do dreams mean to you?

I do believe that dreams and the material world are not separate. Many things done in dreams are no different from reality, and dreamscapes are also generated based on real-life concepts. From a broader perspective, the two are no different.

Do you have any recurring dreams?

My own death.

What inspired the dancing scenes in DOKU the Self?

I was studying the history of robots at that time, how people trained themselves to be robots. I don’t believe that robots are created solely due to technological advancements. You can train yourself to be a robot because your body is a machine. Through different exercises, some muscle memory forms. Or the human body produces some pathological changes, and these changes can also lead to some robotic behaviours or movements, such as those that come with Parkinsons disease. The tremors of the elderly are actually due to the brains lack of dopamine production. After this pathological change occurs, it leads to tremors at different frequencies.

Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang
Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang
Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang

Does the sense of movement in your workfrom dancing to fightingall get at this idea of conditioning the body?

Indeed, many of my works revolve around the concept of reverse robotics, where humans attempted thousands of years ago to train their physical bodies to transcend human existence.

You seem to have an anthropological mindset. You’ve mentioned that you study Indian and Indonesian indigenous cultures that are marginalised by the mainstream, and you like these cultural and religious traditions. How did you learn about the movement in DOKU the Self that comes from these communities?

There is a Japanese cooperative organisation that specialises in cultural exchanges between Indonesia and Japan. We went to Indonesia together, and then they helped me contact the best local dancers. These dancers were young; they started training at the age of five, and you can tell the way they move is different from ordinary people who go back to learning later in life. When they dance, they have a kind of soul in them.

After you selected these dancers, you used motion capture technology to combine them with your own image?

My digital persona does not require training. Just input the data, and it’s ready. After the dancers motion capture data is placed into Doku, it’s able to perform, which subverts the traditional view that a human needs to be trained into a machine.

Doku Asura
DOKU animals

It seems that the Western art circle still perceives and interprets your work through the lens of Western politics. The West has also been hoping to find a postmodern way out through East Asian culture.

The point you’ve raised is one that I’ve also been contemplating, particularly with the constant development of technology. There’s a koan in Buddhism which asks, ‘What if a man from thousands of years ago could see modern human technology? Would he mistake it for gods or ghosts?’ We often hope that external changes will bring hope and progress, but in reality, we are just a small part of the bigger picture. With the advancement of technology, we may be trying to catch up with the outside world, but perhaps its because we feel that human existence is too mundane. However, during the Axial Age, when human civilisation wasn’t as developed, there were many great philosophical movements that emerged. I believe that these movements still have the potential to guide us towards a better future, from within.

From my perspective, your artistic practice relies more on intuition and personal understanding.

Im not quite sure. To be honest, even though Im categorised as an artist, I dont see myself as one. I consider myself more of a creator.

What is the difference between creators and artists?

The creator is the person who creates things, which means that nothing existed before this new thing.

So you see technology as a means to achieve your artistic vision, rather than simply following a trend?

Exactly. I see technology as a tool to realise my creative ideas. If a particular technology is suitable for my work, I will use it. On the other hand, if it doesn’t fit well, then I wont use it just because its popular or trendy. Some people ask me why I dont use AR or VR in my work, and I explain that these technologies may not be the best fit for my artistic expression. They require a lot of extra equipment and support, which can be cumbersome. Ultimately, the technology I use should help me quickly and effectively bring my artistic vision to life.

Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang
Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang
Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang

Can you tell me more about your creative process?

My creative process involves a large team of people. In fact, Deutsche Bank has estimated that over 100 people are involved in my projects. I dont usually create a large-scale artwork in a short period of time, so I start by making a smaller piece. If there is a budget for another piece, then I will move on to creating another one. This process allows me to gradually build towards larger and more complex works.

What have you learnt from collaborating with so many experts?

During the creative process, many people come to help me. I don’t know what this is–the universe provides you with a lot of support to keep going. The help my collaborators give me is usually beyond what I can repay. However, after the works are introduced into this world, many viewers provide feedback, thanking me for giving them the possibility to think. If these works can spark even a tiny thought, then it seems that the whole process is a balanced cycle.

I rarely invest much effort into managing interpersonal relationships, and I feel somewhat ashamed about the little energy I put into this aspect. On the other hand, the more I focus on my inner self, the more I experience freedom of the mind. I don’t need to rely too much on the external world to fulfil and satisfy myself. Although the mind may still be a glass of muddy water, solitude allows the sediment to settle at the bottom, often revealing the clear part.

Do you ever feel limited by what you can produce or relay electronically?

I find that digital technology both aids and restricts my creative process. It helps me by providing access to various convenient and rapid techniques for creating artwork. However, it also limits me due to the inherent constraints of these technologies. I have to spend a significant amount of time addressing technical issues. It would be wonderful if one day I could create without the need to consider these constraints and simply focus on my artistic vision.

So do you see video games as a potential medium for realising your artistic vision?

It was only recently that I realised how many games I’ve actually made. I used to create games for fun, but the only one I’ve really put a lot of work into is The Great Adventure of Material World. I enjoy creating games more than playing them, as it allows me to create my own rules and parameters within the game. Overall, I see video games as a potential medium to explore my artistic ideas and create new, immersive experiences for the audience.

Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang

What types of video games do you enjoy playing?

I dont have much time to play games nowadays, but I enjoy watching other peoples video game commentary. When I played games during the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, I enjoyed Detroit: Become Human. It made me think about certain things. I also like Grand Theft Auto, where I can switch between different characters and experience a sense of reincarnation. During the switching process, I zoom out and enter the highest point in the city, and then zoom back into the character. It feels like the soul is out of the body.

What is the meaning of material’ in the The Great Adventure of Material World?

Material’ refers to physical objects or substances, as well as the concept of materialism. In Buddhism, the world is believed to consist of both sentient beings and objects, and the physical world is seen as a manifestation of our thoughts and desires. By exploring the material world in my works, I aim to reflect on the relationship between humans and their environment, as well as the impact of technology on our understanding of materiality.

Can we say that material’ also represents a kind of desire in the game?

Yes, the main objective of the protagonist in the game is to obtain the King Kong artefact. The protagonist believes that if he destroys all devices and materials, he wont be tempted by the artefact anymore. However, he soon realises that destroying everything wont solve his problem. The final level of the game is a battle against his own inner demons, representing the struggle to overcome his own desires and achieve inner peace.

Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang
Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang
Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang

Although your previous work, Uterus Warrior, explored gender, there is relatively little focus on micro-politics in your current work. This is an intriguing position to be in, as typically, in terms of contemporary art, not addressing these topics would make it difficult for your work to be recognised in mainstream spaces. Why do you think your work has still gained such recognition and respect? 

When I first started studying contemporary art, I found it challenging to understand. While I enjoy Disney and Japanese animation, I have always had a deep interest in philosophy and religion. I believe that packaging the truth in an interesting way can help more people appreciate it. During an exhibition I held in the West, I was asked why Chinese artists are so political, but I prefer to approach things simply and look at them from a broader perspective. For example, while interactive art was popular when I was in college, I found it weaker than games. I focus on creating works that can withstand the test of time. While some believe that artists have a responsibility to address political issues, I feel that it is more important not to be limited by a single history or era. Its more about breaking free from the narrow, short-sighted values of the present moment. I hope that the perspective of my work can help people see the world from a more macroscopic viewpoint and reduce attachment to the immediate world. Wisdom is timeless and can always be applied in new ways.

What feels sacred to you in your personal life, or in your art?

The pursuit of truth as I see it.

What relevance do you think your work will have in the future?

I believe that the meaning of my work is subjective and imposed by people. In Buddhism, there is a distinction between conventional truth, derived from universal values, and ultimate truth, which is a deeper understanding of reality without jumping to conclusions. Similarly, my work may be meaningful to me, but ultimately, it may not have much significance in the larger context of the universe. However, if it can help people see the world in a new way and broaden their perspectives, then it has value.

Apartamento Magazine - Lu Yang
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