As one of the most renowned new media artists of her generation, widely exhibited in China and internationally, LU Yang’s practice traverses a wide range of fields including biology, neuroscience, religious studies, and pop culture. Yet she always strategically keeps a critical distance from these subjects of interest to sustain the intellectual acuity of her investigations. It is precisely this detached and unsentimental approach in her playful weaving of cross-disciplinary concepts that hallmarks her art. This summer, upon invitation from NYU Shanghai Art Gallery, Lu Yang had a discussion on art and science with a group of world-class neuroscientists at the Computational and Cognitive Neuroscience (CCN) Summer School hosted by NYU Shanghai. She later visited the labs of a few local neuroscientists. This cross-disciplinary exchange gave her much inspiration, resulting in her new video work, LuYang Delusional Crime and Punishment (2016).
In her previous work, LuYang Delusional Mandala (2015), she draws inspiration from findings in the fields of neuroscience and medical science concerning the curious links between brain nerves, sensory perceptions, and consciousness, as well as stereotaxic neurosurgery’s power to alter a person’s sensorial perceptions, and creates a digital nonsexual human simulator in her own images to conjecture its own physical death. Furthermore, she substitutes neuroscience into religious perspective for a fantastical translation, operating on two parallel planes in the narrative to explore the phenomenology of consciousness vs. God-consciousness.
The new work, LuYang Delusional Crime and Punishment (2016), continues these neuroscience-inflected investigations with two primordial questions concerning existence as points of departure: the origin of human life and the moral dialectics of crime and punishment. Part of her undertaking resembles a classic teleological composition: who—or what—created life? Why this particular physiological design that inflects our sometimes evil desires? To answer this perplexing dilemma, she creates a machine labeled “human creator” that manufactures a torso, a brain, and a fleshly body—all potential human candidates—and soundtracks it with a whimsical, bassy club Dark Trap music composed and produced by the internationally famed musician Gameface especially for LuYang Delusional Crime and Punishment. A dozen anthropomorphic dolls packed in boxes that read “GOD PRODUCTION” hang on the wall like commodities ready for consumption. The uncanniness and detachment of Lu’s chosen imagery simulate the cold randomness offered by biological science to questions concerning the meaning of existence. Meanwhile, the juxtaposition of metaphors for theological determinism with consumerist symbols smears the former’s seriousness. And yet, without taking a personal stance on an answer, this nonsensical evocation of determinism strategically serves to address the absurdity of humanist belief in free will.
If any rational dissection of the meaning of existence exposes a hollow interior up for wild conjecture, then the moral dialectic of crime and punishment almost universal to all religions and folklores also deserves a treatment, which Lu Yang takes up for an experiment. According to the artist’s observation, depictions of hell across almost all cultural contexts share the common characteristic of being based on human physical experience of pain. If hell is by definition a spatial entity in an afterlife beyond our metaphysical dimension, then how can corporeal experience be its rule of governance? This realization exposes hell as essentially a punitive institution invented by rulers of power systems for the sole purpose of physical and moral enslavement. But tracing the genealogy of ethics and morals to wreck their authenticity with a hammer is too humanist for Lu Yang’s concern. Instead, she transports the digital nonsexual human simulator from LuYang Delusional Mandala onto a tour through imaginary hells and tortures the body in astounding measures until the skull cracks, exposing the brain. Referencing video game and horror film aesthetics, these visceral scenarios belie the cool contemplation of a neuroscientist: if it is the brain where experiences of pain are ultimately produced, then might there be—or can we build—a hell without the body as its tiles? Perhaps these representations on screen are all projections of the brain’s neurotic flickers? And what if consciousness really occupies a separate, non-physical plane? Could consciousness and hell meet in that other realm that our delusional conjecturing can never really enter?
This exhibition was presented by the NYU Shanghai Art Gallery antecedent (2015-17) to the ICA at NYU Shanghai.