Mortality in the digital age: the many deaths of Lu Yang

Penny Rafferty

Serial-killer manga cartoons, online AI gossip, and neo-spiritual ephemera collide in the Chinese artist’s heady world

Lu Yang videos burn themselves onto our retinas. Glaring and heady, they construct narratives of self-mutilation, which are used by the artist as a process of enlightenment. Both Yang’s best-known video installations, Delusional Mandala (2015) and Delusional Crime and Punishment (2016), tell the story of a bizarrely manufactured human figure (a 3D genderless simulation of Yang herself) stuck in limbo between a life of synthetic potential and its inevitable condemnation. With the bathos of an early animation movie, the figure is tortured and killed furthering the artist’s reflection on the brutal reality of IRL death. ‘I see my videos as forms of meditation,’ Yang says. ‘New answers appear to me during my working process, which in turn leads me to new pieces and proposals.’

The first time I came into contact with Yang’s work was at Société gallery in Berlin in 2017. The room was glowing like a 1980s arcade: Avatars, mandalas, and a futuristic aesthetic filled the space, which had the feel of a computer-generated cosmos. Later on, I sat and watched her films on Vimeo. They pull us in with their roaming fictions and simple fluorescent frames set to bouncing hardcore electro music. Yang’s style is informed by clichéd cuteness, serial-killer manga cartoons, and neo-spiritual ephemera. As I witnessed the scenes laid out in front of me, ideas about what culture is and how it dies – but also about how we live and die – kept entering my mind. Yang borrows stories from video games, religious myths, online AI gossip. Her characters are manipulated, mutating, empowered, and killed, all under the guise of biological experimentation. But why does one perform a cultural autopsy on a non-human, pixelated body? 

Yang is very often the main protagonist of her trippy videos. In her new works, to be presented by Société gallery in Art Basel Hong Kong’s Discoveries sector, her head is both in and out of the screen, as if decapitated. She has produced a blown-up cranium with tendrils of inflated hair that will droop over the floor and twist up, gravity-less, into a bespoke maximalist wallpaper. Yang says that her work aims to take the viewer on a ‘digital-autobiographical musing’, never giving answers, only adding more layers to the questions. For Hong Kong, she has also designed a computer-rendered urban skyline, complete with ready-to-play avatars, as well as three new video pieces, which will all be presented in the booth in a maximalist way, sure to overwhelm the viewer. ‘I see my work as a video game, building my own world and story,’ she says. ‘I’m basically playing my work until it’s finished.’

Mythology, religion, and art have long been used to help humanity come to terms with death by providing powerful visual depictions of the unknown. Memento mori of skulls, hourglasses, and spent candles abound through Western art history. Yang’s work, however, does not call on these worn-out symbols. Linear narratives have no place: Life, death, rebirth, restart are only frames added in post-production. Her view is more informed by the Buddhist tradition. ‘In Buddhism, they say that when a person dies, the four elements – earth, wind, fire, and water – start to divide,’ she explains. ‘So the moments before you die are actually quite painful. When the water leaves your body, you feel it in your throat. You’re thirsty, your blood dries up in your veins, and when earth leaves, you feel your muscles cramp and heave. Fire is temperature and, lastly, the air leaves your body and you stop breathing.’ When asked if this is also the same for pixelated beings, or if this means that digital avatars are immortal, she coyly answers: ‘It depends on what story you want to tell.’

At some points in Delusional Mandala, she describes the scan of herself as an accurate double of the original subject. But we know it is not a fixed representation, that it was created to be manipulated. In the video, Yang’s ‘body’ collapses in furls of black smoke and the narrator declares, ‘Death means losing life or life ends,’ but this is clearly not the case. The film goes on, and so does the avatar. Yang’s CGI death has no consequences. Her practice contributes to a spiritually centered discourse on technological immortality – and offers a reflection on our (in)ability to deal with our own mortality. This doesn’t mean that Yang’s computer-generated images are mystifying, however. They feel homely and cozy, rather than alien and otherworldly – the artist even adds behind-the-scenes shots of her image being generated, as if to show us the ropes. We have been told by computer-game manufacturers to disassociate ourselves from the pixel body. Yang’s use of herself in her work challenges these preconceptions. When we remember that it’s her own body that is being dismembered or repeatedly taking its last breath, it becomes impossible to dehumanize the tortured figure before our eyes.

Yang’s video works are all similar in tone and tempo; the films act like sections in a series. ‘Each piece is the continuation of a previous one,’ she says. ‘For example, in Delusional Mandala, many deaths occur. This has allowed me to work over this idea, slowly but productively. I found myself learning new patterns every time I died.’ Yang’s process explores pain as a perceptual scenario rather than a physical one. Her images echo the work of early-1960s Body Artists, such as the Viennese Actionists Otto Mühl and Hermann Nitsch, as well as Karin Mack and Ana Mendieta, or more contemporary artists such as Ron Athey. In Yang’s case, though, it is her digital avatar that bleeds and suffers, rather than herself. ‘I use an avatar of myself because I cannot do harm to another,’ she says. ‘I think artists throughout history have used their own image so they can mutilate it without guilt. One aspect of Buddhism is to understand that you’re eventually going to die, so you need to process that death. Once you have done that, you can give up the “me” or the “I” idea and move forward.’ 

Discover more artists and galleries participating in the Discoveries sector at Art Basel Hong Kong 2019 here.

Top image: Lu Yang, photographed by Ren Anyi for Art Basel.