CONVERSATIONS Mousse 62
Neurocore: Lu Yang
Lu Yang and Alvin Li in conversation
Can human beings mutate into we are historically used to call “gods” with the help of advanced technology? The Shanghai based artist discusses her interest in the physiology of the human brain, religious narratives, and the aesthetics of gaming and anime in relation to her hyper-stimulating, arcade-like installations.
ALVIN LI: Hi Lu Yang! The last time I saw you was at the opening cosplay Halloween party of Encephalon Heaven, your first institutional solo exhibition held at M WOODS Museum in Beijing. That was quite a show!
LU YANG: Thanks! It was really fun.
AL: The exhibition, as aptly described in the press release, is a total Gesamtkunstwerk. It feels like a half-arcade, half-temple. It presents an overview of your work of the past seven years, and also introduces three new works: Electromagnetic Brainology, TMS Exorcism, and God of the Brain. Let’s begin with this show.
LY: The central piece is Electromagnetic Brainology, and it’s very much related to my previous Lu Yang Delusion series in the way that they all take cues from my findings in Buddhism and neuroscience, although each work has its own emphases. In Lu Yang Delusional Mandala (2015), the first work of the Lu Yang Delusion series, I introduced the brain stereotactic machine to perform deep brain stimulation and transcranial magnetic stimulation on a digital human simulator in my own shape, in order to explore a wide range of subject matter, such as the physiology of the human brain and the origin of consciousness and god-consciousness. In the following work, Lu Yang Delusional Crime and Punishment (2016), I transported the same human stimulator onto a tour through many imaginary hells to explore the different accounts of pain as explained by religion and science, the metaphysics of hell, and the origin of existence. In Electromagnetic Brainology, I reintroduce the brain stereotactic machine and create four creatures who have become gods through deep brain stimulation.
AL: I’m curious about the principle of deep brain stimulation, its medical applications, and how you have shifted this neurosurgical procedure into a religious perspective.
LY: Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is performed with an advanced device that sends electrical impulses to specific subcortical targets. Such stimulation forces the brain to release different organic chemicals, depending on the targeted area, which in turn produce various physical and psychiatric effects. It is now a neurosurgical procedure legally used for the treatment of many neuropsychiatric disorders, from Parkinson’s disease to chronic pain to major depression. This medical technology has led me to think of the capacity of medical technology to transcend the physical limits of human beings. The headpiece that you see each of the four gods wearing in Electromagnetic Brainology is the brain stereotactic machine. So, “electromagnetic brainology” is an imaginative religion I’m proposing, a thought experiment about how humans, aided by neuroscientific technologies, can possibly become what was historically imagined by different religions as gods.
AL: What about transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)? How did you draw the link between it and exorcism in your other new work, Transcranial Magnetic Exorcism?
LY: TMS is a magnetic induction method used to stimulate different sections of the cerebral cortex. It’s used diagnostically to measure the connection between the brain and the muscle of every patient, which allows us to create profiles of different types of motor neuron diseases. Stimulating different sections of the cerebral cortex will produce different physiological effects. Throughout history, Tourette syndrome was believed to be related to possession by the devil, for people thought that only the devil would be so hostile and so filthy of mind; it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that neurologists finally came to acknowledge the organic origin of certain movement disorders. This is what made me draw the analogy between TMS and exorcism. If a medieval person saw this work, they would definitely think it’s an act of exorcism; today, it’s just an advanced neuroscientific technology.
AL: It’s fascinating how you superimpose religious narratives onto scientific theories of human experience in order to probe their affinities. How did you first become interested in religion—Buddhism in particular?
LY: Religion came first because my grandmother was a Buddhist. I think religion is something that can easily plant a seed in someone’s heart if the person is young. Once you learn too much and become suspicious, it’ll be difficult to get into any belief systems. So, my family provided me with this background, which left an impact on me from very early on, but during those early years I always thought of it as mere superstition. I did read a lot of books about Buddhism, but only the extremely accessible ones. Then in high school I started reading more intermediate-level scriptures, and that’s when I became genuinely interested in Buddhist ideas.
AL: And when did you begin to explore what lies at the intersection of neuroscience and Buddhism?
LY: Later when I went to China Academy of Art I started exploring comprehensively all the subjects I work with today. The first attempt to bring biology, neuroscience, and religion together in a single work was Wrathful Kingkong Core (2011). I was super into neuroscience at that point, and was researching the emotional brain pathways—particularly the transmission of anger in the human brain. There’s this cute little almond-shaped group of nuclei located within the temporal lobes whose primary role is to process emotional reactions, including many negative ones such as anger and fear. I was interested to discover that some emotions can easily subdue others. For instance, when you’re outraged, you are not afraid of anything, because your overwhelming anger has suppressed your fear. According to Tibetan Buddhism, in Dharma-ending times, a group of wrathful deities are responsible for destroying all evil beings. However terrifying these deities are, they are representations of the Buddha’s infinite mercy. I was interested in these two narratives of anger, so I superimposed the transmission of anger in the human brain onto Vajrasattva, the most frightful of all wrathful deities, in a 3D animation work.
AL: To me, Wrathful Kingkong Core seemed to mark a turning point in your practice. After that, you started incorporating more and more subcultural elements, like the aesthetics of gaming and anime.
LY: To be honest, I think it was because before, I was trying hard to package myself to look more like an artist.
AL: You had a bit of baggage?
LY: Right, and later on I let go of that baggage. When I was still a student, I was trying hard to be more like an artist so I could survive in the Chinese art circles, and I would omit influences of the subcultures I’m interested in. But sooner or later I realized I was just so into these subcultures, I needed to pursue them.
AL: You must have let go of all the baggage when making Uterus Man (2013). Otherwise, you wouldn’t have come up with this sexless anime-style superhero who rides a pelvis chariot to save the world. Of course, it is also based on an actual Japanese person who removed his genitals and even served them in a meal to other people.
LY: It was around then. Well, it probably started with Wrathful Kingkong Core, because no one was really using 3D animation to make works, except for this older artist named Miao Xiaochun. After that, I thought the best way for me to make work was to stick with 3D software. When I first heard of that guy, Mao Sugiyama, I thought he was kind of weird. But then I became interested in collaborating with him after reading an interview where he talked about having no interest in being a man or a woman, but just wanting to be a human. So I reached out to him on Twitter and asked why he wanted to be sexless. He shared with me his findings in biology, that many different types of asexual reproduction occur naturally in plant and animal species. This person has an extremely non-anthropocentric view of existence and the universe.
AL: I notice you work with a lot of music producers: as early as in the 2008 piece Dictator-E, you collaborated with Wang Changcun, one of the most renowned Chinese noise producers today. Then in Wrathful Kingkong Core in 2011 you worked with Dajun Yao, who was your professor at China Academy of Art at the time and one of the founding figures of Chinese sound art. In fact, you seem to work with a different artist for every new video. Can you tell us about your early influences in music and your recent collaborations?
LY: As a kid, I pretty much listened to anything but pop music from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. There was a lot of Western pop music in my elementary school years, which I thought was the coolest stuff I could find in cassette stores at the time. I was into all kinds of boy bands from Europe and the States, and I also got into Japanese visual kei, especially L’Arc~en~Ciel, Dir En Grey, and Glay. Then in junior high school, I also started listening to a bit of trip-pop. I was really a total otaku during those years; perhaps I was hoping that my special taste in music could make it up a little. By college, I was only listening to Japanese music. The world of ACG-otaku really has no place for obscenity and lewdness, which is all over the lyrics in European and American pop music today. Have you seen the first episode of the new season of Black Mirror? It talks about this criminal who’s also a total otaku, and in the game world he creates, no one has sexual organs. When I watched it I thought that was so on point! (For those who are not familiar with this particular strand of subculture, ACG is an abbreviation of “anime, comics, and games,” a common internet slang term in China, and otaku is a Japanese term for homebodies with obsessive interests, commonly anime.)
AL: Yes, I’ve seen that episode, and, believe it or not, when I saw it I immediately thought of your Delusion series.
LY: Haha! Back to my recent collaborations with musicians. I work with all sorts of musicians. Some of them I find on Soundcloud, the others reach out to me themselves. For instance, in my new work Electromagnetic Brainology, I worked with Invisible Manners, a famous Japanese producer. For different works, I always have different genres of music in mind, and I’m always lucky enough to find someone to collaborate with.
AL: You just played your first-ever DVJ set with your close friend and artist Wang NewOne as well as eight other up-and-coming local DJs at Club ALL in Shanghai. I’m so bummed to have missed it!
LY: Everyone seemed to be having a lot of fun because what I played wasn’t the usual thing. Although many told me my set made it feel like a concert, not a club.
AL: What did you play?
LY: Mostly Japanese stuff. I listen to Japanese music almost exclusively these days; it gives me this really youthful vibe, ahah! For the visual, I used this freeware called MikuMiku Dance (MMD), which is really popular in Japan, to have the four gods I created in Electromagnetic Brainology perform a dance called LikuLiku, and turned it into an hour-long VJ set.
AL: I mostly stopped listening to Japanese music when I gave up on anime and turned to films and shows played by real humans.
LY: What you just said is really important. I have this theory that being interested in anime and being interested in humans are completely different experiences.
AL: What do you mean?
LY: Those who are into anime need an internalized, exclusive world, because they cannot find much in the real world. They are often discriminated against in the “real” world, so they create their own world and become obsessed with it. I was like that when I was little. A total introvert.
AL: You must still watch a lot of anime these days.
LY: Totally. I’m watching Inuyashiki right now. It’s about this old man who suddenly turns into a superhero. When it comes to anime, I’m into the ones with action scenes and narratives involving a social outcast turning into a superhero. I’m into worldviews that are slightly off. For instance, in Death Note, I’m really obsessed with the protagonist Light Yagami. He discovers this “death note” that kills anyone whose name is written in it, and so he starts writing down the names of all the criminals who deserve punishment.
AL: Speaking of Death Note, the guy who plays the subject in TMS Exorcism looks like he walked straight out of anime.
AL: Do you think you’ll play in clubs more often?
LY: If you guys organize more parties like that, I’m totally down.
AL: Maybe for the art week in November!
Lu Yang is a graduate of the New Media Art department of China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, China, and currently lives and works in Shanghai. Lu’s work takes the varied forms of 3D animation, video, game, and installation and traverses a wide range of fields including biology, neuroscience, psychology, and religious studies. Lu’s recent solo exhibition include: Electromagnetic Brainology (Spiral, Tokyo, 2018); Encephalon Heaven (M WOODS Museum, Beijing, 2017); Delusional Mandala – Lu Yang solo exhibition (MOCA Cleveland, Cleveland, 2017); LuYang Delusional Crime and Punishment (NYU-Shanghai Art Gallery, Shanghai, 2016); Lu Yang Arcade (Wallplay, New York, 2014); and Curated by Zhang Peili – The Anatomy of Rage (Wrathful King Kong Core) – Lu Yang Solo Exhibition (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2011), among others. Lu’s work has also appeared at Centre Pomipidou, the 56th Venice Biennale, the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennale, Liverpool Biennale 2016, 2016 Shanghai Biennale, 2012 Guanzhou Triennial, 2016 International Digital Arts Biennial, the 5th Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale, the 6th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, and more.
Alvin Li is a writer, translator, and queer activist based between Beijing and Shanghai. Li is currently English editor for the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). Li is the co-founder of an unrefined queer underground collective in Shanghai named CINEMQ, known for its club-hopping screening program. In addition to their curated short film screenings, CINEMQ would throw badass parties and publish weekly articles on Chinese and East Asian queer screen culture. Li is the co-curator of The New Normal: China, Art, and 2017, a large-scale group exhibition held at UCCA from March to July 2017. Li’s writing has appeared in Frieze, Artreview Asia, Randian, LEAP, artforum.com.cn, among others.
Originally published on Mousse 62