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March 3, 2023

When Sputniko! Met Lu Yang

One of the world’s leading digital artists interviews another about the subcultures currently shaping Web3
Credit: Lu Yang, The Great Adventure of Material World, 2020. Courtesy of the artist
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When Sputniko! Met Lu Yang

Sputniko!: Lu Yang, tell us about your upbringing. What kind of anime, manga, or indeed games inspired you when you were growing up?

Lu Yang: I was born in Shanghai, and my childhood was somewhat lonely because of the one-child system. Back then, the TV stations used to broadcast a lot of information from abroad, including Japanese anime. Much of my work involves music videos because I watched so many when I was growing up and [consumed a lot of] pop culture at that time. My grandma is Buddhist and so I love to read Buddhist writings alongside anime and manga. I’ve always really liked manga in particular and I used to draw my own characters when I was a kid. 

At that time, if you weren’t good at studying, you could use your artistic skill to boost your grades — that was actually very common in China, which is why I ended up going to art school. 
Installation view of Lu Yang, “Material Wonderland,” at Vellum LA with work, Material World Knight, 2018. Photography by Kelsey Hart. Courtesy of Vellum LA

S: I first discovered your work when I was in my 20s. I remember your video Uterus Man (2013) being so original and unique. Were you already experimenting with computer graphics and gaming from an early age? 

LY: I think we discovered each other’s work at exactly the same time. I began experimenting with new media quite early on. When I was at school, I used to hang out with my friends and play video games. At my college, the China Academy of Art, they taught us a lot about contemporary art, but I didn’t entirely understand what it was. I must have used those visual elements that I was more familiar with. Animation takes a lot of energy so I needed to work with familiar characters and visual effects.

Lu Yang, The Great Adventure of Material World, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

S: I think the art world has changed a lot recently, but 20 or so years ago there were fewer Asian influences. It was very Western-centric and not very multicultural or relatable. In your recent work, DOKU (2022), you consider digital reincarnation. I’m curious, what is it about designing alternative digital realities that interests you?

LY: 2015 was the year I started incorporating myself as a character in my work. That was when I participated in the China Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. I felt so comfortable producing the work, Delusional Mandala (2015), because there are a number of taboos built into that character. It also incorporates a number of ideas from Buddhism. In one of the meditations you imagine your body reduced to a skeleton. When I produced that work, I felt the same. After working with Unreal Engine for five years, it was finally good enough to allow me to photograph myself in a realistic manner. For my newest work, DOKU, it’s the same — when I’m working, I project my soul into the digital body. 

When I play the game, I really feel that I am this digital character, inhabiting a digital “me.”
Lu Yang, The Great Adventure of Material World, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

S: Your work, DOKU, reminds me of some scenes from Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of the classic works of Japanese anime. Does that resonate with you? 

LY: When I was growing up I watched a lot of Ghost in the Shell, so I try to adopt those kinds of familiar visuals in my work. I love using motion capture because, after developing the work, it can tour digitally even while I’m physically remote. That’s what happened during the pandemic — for nearly three years the performance toured around the world. It’s a real metaverse.

For me, technology is a method and a medium that you can use, and the metaverse is a platform into which people can project their desires and thoughts. I don’t think there’s much difference between the metaverse and the real world because, ultimately, there are always people behind the technology. 

Installation view of Lu Yang, “Material Wonderland,” at Vellum LA with work, Material World Knight, 2018. Photography by Kelsey Hart. Courtesy of Vellum LA

S: Throughout history, people have used different media to tell stories. Today, we have gaming platforms and the metaverse, which you’re using to develop narratives around self-exploration. Your work, Material World Knight (2018), is a massive gaming piece that is both highly immersive and extremely complex. Can you elaborate on that work?

LY: My new show at Vellum LA includes multiple works from my “Material World” series, including Material World Knight, as a three-channel video installation, and my game, The Great Adventure of Material World (2020). These two works represent the culmination of a 10-year project comprising multiple stages. 

The first stage is about the human world where, if you see two different skeletons, you can’t really tell who’s female and male. Humans are grouped together by flesh. 
Lu Yang, The Great Adventure of Material World, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

The second stage is bardo — a very important stage in Buddhism between life and death. My work, Lu Yang Delusional Mandala, connects with this stage. The third stage is about Heaven, trying to establish whether Heaven has an actual GPS location. My work Electromagnetic Brainology Brain Control Messenger (2018) is part of this stage. It also queries whether women are really allowed into Heaven. In Buddhism, if you run out of good karma, then you are left with bad karma. 

Hell comes next, witnessed in my work Delusional Crime and Punishment (2016). Of course, Hell is also where you encounter pain, but do you require a physical body to feel that pain? The final stage of the series is about reincarnation, heavily influenced by the Vajra Sutra. In my game, the player has to find the Vajra in order to confront their own desires. 

Lu Yang, The Great Adventure of Material World, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

S: In what ways do games and gaming aesthetics help you to communicate your ideas?

LY: I’ve never understood why contemporary artists work with interactive installations, which always seem really low tech to me. If you want to be immersed, why not play a game? Just recently, I went to Berlin for a solo show I was putting on. I met a girl who had grown up in Korea, who told me that she could see the richness of Asian culture through my work. 

Maybe games are one way of spreading Eastern wisdom to the West. 

On the other hand, I find it hard to predict how an audience will react to my work. You can’t control the world outside you. But if you have the same frequency as other people, they can come round to your way of thinking. 

Installation view of Lu Yang, “Material Wonderland,” at Vellum LA with Material World Knight NFTs, 2023. Photography by Kelsey Hart. Courtesy of Vellum LA and Feral File

S: To me, your work feels like diving into your dreams. Of course, the metaverse is also closely related to developments in Web3 and your new show in fact includes your genesis NFT collection. What are your thoughts on NFT culture?

LY: While under lockdown in China, I was missing out on Web3. I wasn’t in those kinds of environments and I didn’t know how it all worked. I’m learning that it requires a lot of energy to engage on social media. I’m grateful to Vellum LA for taking care of that. For this show, I’m releasing eight NFTs taken from my work, Material World Knight. But I also have work for sale without NFTs because I already have a community of collectors.

Lu Yang, The Great Adventure of Material World, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

S: Many artists have different motivations for making work. I’ve always been concerned with issues surrounding gender and technology, which is partly why I set up a women’s health company in Japan, called Cradle. What do you consider to be the role of the creator today? Do you think artists have a role in society?

LY: I’m happy to accept people calling me an artist. But I don’t really think about what I am. What’s more important is what I do. I think of “artist” as a tag. Of course, “artist” is also a helpful title because, as an artist, you can do everything. 

I regard my physical and digital bodies as mere shells. That’s why I see Buddhist meditation as important — to move beyond the physical body. 

As human beings, we try to project our experience of the physical world into the digital. But in that digital world we can fly or we can float, even without a familiar shape. In games, we always seem to control characters in the form of human beings. But in the digital world, we can be anything. 

Sputniko!, Red Silk of Fate, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and EPOCH, Los Angeles

S: One of the benefits of social media is that it gave the world plural perspectives. But when I started out, maybe 15 years ago, as an Asian artist I felt like I had to express myself in a Western way to be successful in contemporary art because people wouldn’t take Asian aesthetics seriously. At the time, the viewpoint of curators was very Eurocentric or Americentric. Japan has a very rich anime, manga, and gaming culture, but “contemporary art” is an import from the West after the war. Even today, subcultures tend to be grouped together and generalized. So when I discovered Lu Yang, I thought to myself: “there’s a friend in China, maybe we can talk one day…”

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Lu Yang is a multimedia artist who creates fantastical and often painful and shocking images which blend religion, philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, and modern technology. His practice spans game engines, 3D-animated films, video game installations, holograms, motion-capture performances, virtual reality, and software manipulation. He also collaborates with acclaimed scientists, psychologists, performers, dancers, experimental composers, music producers, robotics companies, and pop stars. Lu Yang graduated with a BA and MA from the School of Intermedia Art at China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. He has exhibited globally, including at the 2022 Venice Biennale. Recent solo exhibitions include Kunsthalle Basel; Zabludowicz Collection, London; PalaisPopulaire, Berlin; ARoS Aarhus Art Museum; Spiral, Tokyo; M WOODS, Beijing; Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland; UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing; and Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. In 2022, Lu Yang was announced as Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year and, in 2019, won the BMW Art Journey.

Sputniko! (Hiromi Ozaki) is an artist and filmmaker who explores the themes of gender, futures, and feminism. She is also the founder and CEO of women’s health startup Cradle. She has held the role of Assistant Professor at MIT Media Lab, serving as director of the Design Fiction Group from 2013 to 2017, and is currently an Associate Professor at Tokyo University of the Arts. In 2013, Sputniko! was awarded Vogue Japan Woman of the Year, and has since been selected as one of the Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum, moderating sessions at Davos 2020. She is also a TED Fellow. Her work has been exhibited globally, including at MoMA and Cooper Hewitt, New York; V&A and Bright Moments, London; Centre Pompidou, Metz; and Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Her work is in the permanent collections of the V&A, London; and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. 

Lu Yang’s solo exhibition, “Material Wonderland,” curated by Alice Scope and Barry Threw, runs until March 5, 2023 at Vellum LA. NFTs can be purchased on Feral File.

Sputniko! will be participating in “LIFELIKE,” curated by Katie Peyton Hofstadter, at Vellum LA in collaboration with EPOCH, Los Angeles from March 16 to April 2, 2023.