Lu Yang’s digital reincarnations explore a world beyond gender and reality

Mixing the sci-fi aesthetic of anime and video games with Buddhist philosophy, the Shanghai-based artist's multidisciplinary work irreverently abandons social labels.


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When I was growing up, one of my favourite hobbies was using the character creation tools in games like The Sims. I often spent more time creating characters than I did in the games themselves – there was something intoxicating about being able to abandon your own ungainly self and create whole new ones from scratch, unburdened by the baggage of the material world.

I felt that same thrill viewing Shanghai-based artist Lu Yang’s irreverent, maximalist digital art for the first time. Lu, whose multidisciplinary work spans motion-capture animation to arcade game installations, has toyed throughout their career with the idea of creating other selves, each one yielding new, often contradictory possibilities. With their character Doku, for example, they reincarnated a digital version of themselves in a parallel universe; with the 2015 video work LuYang Delusion Mandala, they simulated their own death.


Lu Yang: Delusional World (Copyright © Lu Yang, 2021)

This uncanny instability is at once bracing and unsettling. “You can do everything in the virtual space, but you may also do nothing,” they tell me. To Lu, the appeal of the virtual is its capacity not only for endless self-reinvention, but for transcending normative ideas of the self entirely. To “do nothing” is not a sign of failure. In fact, nothingness is the goal. As Lu puts it, “in the world behind the screen, I feel a sense of abandoning gender, identity, age, nationality and all social labels, hoping to create a state in which human beings just think about life and other people don’t care what you are.”

The seeds of Lu’s current artistic practice were planted early. Their grandmother, a Buddhist, sparked a longstanding interest in the religion, whose iconography litters their work. A childhood fascination with anime and video games informs their dense, colourful aesthetic, which references everything from Dance Dance Revolution to Neon Genesis Evangelion.

GalleryLu Yang: The Great Adventure of Material World (Copyright © Lu Yang, 2021)

Lu did receive a traditional arts education, studying under video art pioneer Zhang Peili at Hangzhou’s China Academy of Art. But they credit Zhang for giving them free rein to push past well-defined forms or aesthetics. “He wouldn’t judge what we were doing or what we liked,” Lu says. “We did what we wanted and enjoyed a very large degree of freedom. I think these are things you really need as an artist.”

Since graduating in 2010, Lu has gone on to have solo exhibitions in Berlin, Tokyo and Beijing, and all the while their practice has continued to shift and adapt. Their recent works have included a giant AR projection, an animated music video for the 1975, and an ongoing video game project called The Great Adventure of the Material World, which traverses the six realms of existence in Buddhism. “When I create a work, I never start by thinking about the medium I will use,” Lu says. “Instead, I use the medium as a tool.” 

GalleryLu Yang: Human Machine Reverse Motion Capture Project (Copyright © Lu Yang, 2019)

GalleryLu Yang: Human Machine Reverse Motion Capture Project (Copyright © Lu Yang, 2019)

Lu Yang: The Great Adventure (Copyright © Lu Yang, 2019)

With The Great Adventure, which was developed using the cross-platform game engine Unity 3D, Lu was drawn to the medium’s “freedom compared with showing a fixed image". “From the viewer’s perspective, it’s like ascending to another dimension to explore the world of the creator,” they explain. But Lu remains non-prescriptive: “In recent years, I have been making pieces using game engines, and I may also use other tools in the future. I don’t even think my work is art. I prefer to say I’m just a human being who likes to create works freely.”

Lu’s blasé attitude to art feels disarming, even blasphemous. “I actually don’t like contemporary art; I’m not really interested in it,” they tell me. But as someone who grew up on the same diet of anime and video games as Lu, it’s exciting to see them playing the art establishment by their own rules, full otaku self still intact. If artists like Peggy Ahwesh and Phil Solomon applied the logic of contemporary art to video games with works like She Puppet and Rehearsals for Retirement, Lu returns the favour, pushing the cacophonous, over-the-top stylings of contemporary video games into the art world.


Lu Yang: Delusional Mandala (Copyright © Lu Yang, 2016)

An early foundational example is their 2013 creation Uterus Man, an asexual super hero who travels in a skeletal Pelvis Chariot and can turn a male kaiju to female using his XY chromosome attack. The concept sounds outlandish - Lu self-mockingly called it “a stupid work” - but its playful absurdism stems from a sincere desire to question conventional understandings of biology, gender, and the human body.

Indeed, though press reports often refer to Lu as a female artist, they have repeatedly underlined their desire for a genderless existence. “I wish that I myself could just be a human being, and even think it would be better if I wasn’t conscious of my body,” they told me, later referencing the mecha anime Knights of Sidonia in which the character Izana “can change gender depending on their mood”. Of the many avatars Lu has created of themselves in their work, almost all of them are gender-neutral, and in LuYang Delusional Mandala, they don’t even possess sex characteristics like genitals. Within the mercurial, malleable space of the video game engine, Lu can create a language of embodiment - or lack thereof - that matches their understanding of themselves.

Lu Yang: Delusional World x Delusional Hell, online stream recording (Copyright © Lu Yang, 2020)

Just as Lu’s work defies the logic of the contemporary art world, it exists outside of social regimes of gender, or of nationality. They are frequently asked in interviews if they view themselves as a “Chinese artist”, and each time they bat the question away in frustration. When I bring up Dawn Chan’s influential essay on Asia-Futurism, which referenced Lu as part of a tradition of Asian artists critically imagining the future, they told me it was the first they’d heard of it. “China, the future, technology, AI — we already have too many labels,” they say. “I hope what I do and what I find interesting can go beyond labels like these.”

GalleryLu Yang: Doku, The 1975, Playing on my mind (Copyright © Lu Yang, 2020)

GalleryLu Yang: Doku, The 1975, Playing on my mind (Copyright © Lu Yang, 2020)

If there is any unifying philosophy within Lu’s art, it is their persistent preoccupation with Buddhist concepts surrounding impermanence and death. When we discuss the idea of the self, for example, Lu references the Buddhist tradition of visualising one’s own decay and death, which they often externalise in their work. “Maybe I use this method to try and reach a kind of goal of abandoning the self, even though it is quite hard to do so,” they tell me. “Many of my works touch on concepts of 成住坏空,” Lu explains, using a Chinese term expressing the Buddhist idea that all things will “arise, abide, change and disappear.” In other words, “all things are in flux.”

When Lu is reborn as Doku, then, this comes with a recognition that “even rebirth is just a temporary state” (they even flatly say that “I don’t want to be reborn”.) When they constantly move from medium to medium, interest to interest, this isn’t borne out of a conscious striving for innovation, but of a simple desire to yield to that feeling of flux. In a year of new challenges and new projects, including a place in the Asia Society’s inaugural Triennial, we can’t wait to see where this flux takes them.


Lu Yang (Copyright © Lu Yang, 2019)

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About the Author

Ian Wang

Ian is a writer based in London and Manchester, particularly interested in film, animation, internet culture and issues affecting the East Asian diaspora. His work has been published in Dazed, the Quietus, Little White Lies, BFI Network and Bright Wall/Dark Room. He was previously an intern at the Guardian.

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