TOWARDS A DIGITAL SELF-PORTRAITURE: LU YANG AND THE AESTHETICS OF POST-NARCISSISM
A speculation by L. Anastasiou
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PROLOGUE: THE DEATH OF THE SPECTATOR
We are strangely strange to ourselves!
Limited by concepts and images /
we judge everything by appearance /
based on such concepts as color - size - age - fatness or thinness - beauty or ugliness - gender ...
These bones display human characteristics /
but can we call each individual piece a human being?

One moment, you’re firmly grounded in your phenomenological body, and the next, you somehow find yourself hovering in a vertiginously rouged laboratory with a man called Uterus. Arpeggios punctuate jarring electronic chords in a minor key. Scrolling signs straight from Wan Chai blast Buddhist sutras repenting the 36 bodily sins in glaringly red neon. Canopic jars line the hall, showcasing human skeletons in a variety of contorted figurations; test tubes infused with nebulous fluids reveal themselves as embryonic display cases in this technotopic factory of post-human proportions. 

The first time I watched Lu Yang play through the Great Adventure of the Material World, I felt as if I was impacted from our reality into another, struck by some kind of sleep paralysis demon who had decided that our realm of experience was no longer sufficiently stimulating. Lu Yang’s cybertopic digital interface for the human psyche is a minimalist’s nightmare and a manic pixie dream girl’s fantasy. Describing the alternate digital reality of her Sinofuturistic and senti-medical construction resists description for it encourages experience -- as does the artist herself. Her work is a sforzando of the visual: an accented swelling, a maximalist vitality within the overly saturated monotony of culture. There is always a threatening to burst from the comfortable confines of the screen.

This rebellion against classification and a disconcerting sense of hyper-stimulation are signatures of Lu Yang’s oeuvre, linking an ambitiously rhizomatic cross-section of influences from 80s Japanese subcultures, technological prosthetics, Mahayana Buddhist philosophies, medical interventions and virtual simulations of identity. The Material World metaverse, which premiered as an installation at the 2018 Shanghai Biennial, operates as an extended universe of the artist’s creation, with recurring characters, plot lines and settings. This structure - commonly used to describe comic book franchises and online gaming experiences - permits a unique sense of authorial individuality with its visual branding continuing irrespective of medium or the exhibition of her pieces. Lu Yang’s work will never truly be complete, so long as there is further territory to chart in her self-generated cosmology. 

The 10-chapter digital epic presented in The Great Adventure of Material World is the most extensive and fully integrated portal into the artist’s complex psychogeography to date. Accessible via video game, as well as through full play-through video and a series of limited edition prints, Lu Yang does not hesitate to thrust her audience into the liminality of a uniquely interdisciplinary experience, regardless of their chosen access point. It is as if to say: The Material World is neither here nor there. There is no need for identity, for self, for closure. This liminal topography is both a question and a possibility. It’s neither utopic, nor dystopic. 

In this configuration, the future is now and the virtual is the real. 

Lu Yang's work is nauseating, an incredible ode to the plethora of stimuli that constitute our contemporary lived experience. Her video style extends beyond complexity, spanning a techno-Buddhist multiverse of Joycean interconnectivity and compounded symbology straight out of Wagnerian spectacle. So to ground the spectator in the vast complexity of this space, she begins by introducing two characters into the chaos: UterusMan (b. 2013) and his ward/protégé, the eponymous Material World Knight (b. 2018).

UterusMan is a non-binary superhero with a subversive sensibility, most often found skating on a sanitary pad or in their two-wheeled, pelvic bone chariot. Lu Yang introduced UterusMan via single-channel video in 2013 -- a profile which impeccably bastardised my GCSE biology textbooks and the weapon specs on my boyfriend’s latest first-person shooter game. Clad in a pheasant feather-crested helmet typical of Han dynasty armour and equipped with a zygote-embellished mace, they have a host of biotechnological tools and uterine-derived superpowers at their disposal to ensure victory over their (unspecified yet seemingly ubiquitous) enemies. Inspired by Mao Sugiyama, the Japanese performance artist who self-castrated and served his genitals to dinner guests kaiseki-style, UterusMan is a functionally unheimlich superhero who could not be further removed from the libidinal momentum of Ballard’s Crash or Lang’s Metropolis. It is in the absurd clinicality of UterusMan’s domain that the Great Adventure of the Material World begins. 

The Dante to UterusMan’s Virgil in this quest is less visually arresting than his guide, but the Material World Knight as both titular character and our audience proxy is not to be ignored. This wide-eyed, AstroBoy-adjacent hero presents a sense of naïveté and youthfulness, complete with incessant questioning and tangential monologue. His three-channel birth video describes his conception through combining an animegao kigurumi boy (a form of masked cosplay popular for its approximation of character appearances), an idol from nyoRobotics (an Osaka-based robotic idol group known for its members’ anonymity), and a robot suit (or “exoskeleton-enhanced cyborg”, to be precise). After a period of coevolution, followed by a figurative menage à trois, molecular compounding is lubricated with no need for mortal desire. This psychic, physical and phenomenological blessing results in a neurologically-optimised being able to transcend all worldly demands -- our Material World Knight.

It is only through the eyes of this complex character that the Lu Yang metaverse is accessible, with his superhuman gaze allowing us to view the infinite multi-dimensional permutations of existence imbued in our every atom. (The particularities of quantum physics are firmly outside the scope of this essay, yet the matter remains relevant.) Clad in a Transformer-esque space suit, his chest is emblazoned with the character for 'qi' -- meaning both life force and machine in Chinese. This single symbol is the crux of the Material World Knight’s importance to Lu Yang’s work -- he is both essence and lens, vehicle and persona in one.

His multi-faceted functionality consolidates a key concern examined throughout the artist’s oeuvre: the need for a post-binary existence without the insistent strawman of duologue, whether in regards to queer identity (as the word binary is used most frequently in common parlance) or in general. Throughout this piece and others - not to mention her/his/their externally nonchalant approach to personhood - Lu Yang calls upon her audience to discard the pre-supposed limitations of assumed knowledge, no matter the questions being asked. 

As for the realm of art history, the sole conceptual precedent I have for video games is video - a fake equivalence, perhaps, but contemporaneity must be permitted a certain tendency towards imprecision. The key difference between these falsely equivalated formats can be found by returning to the oft-cited ‘Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism’, a foundational text in the study of video and new-media art by esteemed critic Rosalind Krauss. While Lu Yang and Krauss agree on some points - ‘all layers of the “now” are equally present’ being the first which springs to mind - the role of the Material World Knight as both authorial self-insert and viewer/player avatar in the context of a video game rages against Krauss’ assertion that the filmic body is firmly located within the screen.

Writing in 1976, Krauss claims that any body that is filmed is bounded between the parentheses of the camera and the monitor, with the space between those two screens being one of an infinitely recurring, frustrated yet self-derived reflection. The liminality created by video, in Krauss’ analysis, characterises the filmic imaginary, but it cannot seep through the screen and travel over static into our conceived reality. By way of her analysis , the audience is safe from the psychological permeation of this “aesthetic of narcissism”. All we have to do as viewers, she says, is to watch the artist implode ad infinitum.

Yet the second person perspective of the video game challenges all this. Lu Yang’s multimedia extension towards her audience figures less as permission to spectate and more as an invitation towards a newborn, shared identity located within the filmic body of the Material World Knight. Der Bildschirm als membran. Hence, the gaming format requires a new vocabulary: an idiolect as yet specific to Lu Yang and her work. 

The format of the video game has moved us - this hybrid of artist’s identity, filmic avatar, and viewer/player’s active participation - into the aesthetics of post-narcissism. No longer the passive spectators of video, the video game audience becomes the facilitator of the animated avatar’s actions, guided by the artist’s programming. No longer are our eyes separate from those of the filmic body; neither are our egos in this treacherous simulation of reality. This new monstrosity does not promise self-destruction via narcissism for the artist; it promises rebirth via co-evolution and biomechanical reproduction as per the Material Knight’s own creation myth. 

In the boundless liminality of an instant, we have become gods.

Barthes told us in 1967 that the author’s intentions were no longer pertinent and Rancière directed us to critically examine our socially-derived perceptions of art in 1999.  Yet Lu Yang’s work refuses to subscribe to either of these models: she insists on the presence and enduring relevance of the author and the viewer, united in the avatar that is her work. A new language of collaboration must be used to describe an experience during which artist-artwork-viewer are no longer able to be separate archetypes or terms. Hybridity itself is the next stage of evolution following the death of the author and emancipation of the spectator. 

Lu Yang’s machination is beyond viewership and authorship, beyond even relationality or screen theory. It requires - and advocates for - a resistance against reality, a surrender of personhood, a stashing of our supercharged contemporary egos. A confluence of personhood, of intention, of action, as manifested by, in, through the shared perspective of the Material World Knight. I would say that this techno-Prophet has created a new frontier, but that statement would presuppose her limits.

“Art always has to do with cosmogony... because it is the birth of a world (and not the construction of a system). A world is always as many worlds as it takes to make a world.” Jean-Luc Nancy, in his deconstructivist glory, wrote those words in 1988, but even as a curator, few artists have truly convinced me of the necessity to abandon my bloated ego-centrism for complete absolution in a space of their own making. In writing this essay, I have frequently felt lost for words, simply due to the immensity of what I have been tasked to describe - on levels physical, emotional and spiritual. It is not enough to live this work vicariously; it demands submission. It pulses, it lingers, it remains. The screen does not divide or translate or protect. It permeates. It becomes a second skin.   

EPISODE 1 - THE MATERIAL WORLD
All kinds of substances and knowledge systems named and established by us in this world /
convince us of the existence of the world.

There’s something in me which firmly resists the cultural trend which Sianne Ngai describes as “the zany, the cute, and the interesting.” It’s not that I don’t understand the origin or appeal of the falsity we call culture -- succulent collecting vegans wearing leather / beat up children’s tees on Depop for 80 dollars / Helvetica with minimalist kerning / gentrified crochet / minimalist homewares on AliExpress / ethical candlesticks made from polypropylene / gold leaf encrusted chicken wings. With the other half of the attention economy being an ever irritating oscillation between privilege porn and politically enriched whining, there is a need to channel the remnant scraps of attention we have into things which are far removed from the negative discharge of media bombardment and lacking sociality.

I say all this as a foundation to my delight at Lu Yang’s subversion of benign consumerist objects and symbols in the formation of a highly evolved vocabulary and consequently complex syntax. Benign, simple items from both urban and cyber spaces are reconstructed and arranged to investigate the futility of mortal desire and revulsion towards institutions and beliefs which have been arbitrarily assigned value. That is not to say that her metaverse is fully comprehensible, especially on the first pass of the Material World. But the universal appeal of accessibility and engaging animation style form a hell of a gateway drug to discourse.

So as electro pop ice-cream cart jingles resound, you emerge from your assembly line of limbs and marrow to gaze upon your new reality.

At first, it seems a panorama of a seemingly standard human city, but for the spectral giants and shadowy planets on the horizon line. Upon your descent, however, you quickly realise that this urban context is far from normal, and that your terrestrial visit will hardly be as pleasant as Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire might have led you to believe. This town is populated by silent (or at least largely inert) individuals, all of whom are crowned with a well-rendered, photorealistic copy of Lu Yang’s own head. Between these odd human inhabitants, you will encounter double helix DNA strands constructed from ambiguous pastel nodes which look uncannily like Dippin’ Dots,  affixed baby weapons dislodged from UterusMan’s arsenal maniacally crawling in place, kawaii plushies shaped like atoms and vapourware construction materials. That’s not to mention the aggressive ATMs and vending machines which, having been endowed with mortal limbs, are irrationally causing havoc in public, and the uncharacteristically relatable street-side signs advertising milk or some other oddly mundane courtesy.  It’s absurd / it’s so absurd / it’s so surreal. 

Then again, so is the world that we actually live in. We’ve been reduced to militant worker ants against the coronavirus, subjected to the state and the private sphere. We hold more knowledge in the palm of our hands than a mind could possibly touch in a lifetime. We are able to submerge ourselves in audiovisual experiences so similar to reality that our bodies react with nausea and shock and pain. We’re editing DNA; we can shop online for body enhancements; we buy and sell inert images for billions of dollars. That’s absurd / that’s so absurd / that’s so surreal.

The Material World Knight, too, is not satisfied with simply navigating this enhanced urban palimpsest, for instead he forces us to confront his questions about the rationality of the common occurrences and values upheld in our own day-to-day lives. Our cravings for success, happiness, popularity and approval from others seem to him just as absurd - if not more so - than the happenings around him/us. These worldly concerns (as originally annotated in the Lokavipatti Sutra) could even be considered the beliefs which our physical bodies grasp in order to subconsciously counteract our spiritual progress. While this epistemological thread is Buddhist in Lu Yang’s intention,  my mind turns to the Deleuzian concept of transcendental empiricism and the logic of sense, in which our virtual conditions of creation are considered equally valid as our lived experiences. I can envision the viral article now: 'VR headsets are the new confessionals'.

I wrote earlier that false equivalences are at the heart of contemporary art history, but weaving references to translate experience into functional precedent is hardly absent from both my discipline and Lu Yang’s own oeuvre. I should note, however, that is a tendency, in writing about newness, which favours the declarative: we are not human, we are cyborgs; we are not cyborgs, we are post-human, and so forth. I favour a more subjective approach: the speculative, the personal, the fictive. And it turns out that both Lu Yang and myself are not entirely against precedent in this regard, either. We have been told by art history that in the confusion which is living, creative exploration is a way towards sense. After the emergence of the original art of the machine that was WW1, there was the subsequent confusion and the absurd resolution best found in the collages of Dadaism and the enraged happenings of Futurism. Some of my contemporaries have gone as far as to label the wasteland of memes and Internet culture, virality of cybernetic and physical varieties, subversion through post-irony and humour as a "Neo-Dada" movement.

I would not make such a statement (yet) but as a citizen of the Internet, I see a polarity in culture between the hyper-cute and kitsch on one hand and something more absurd, with starkness and a defined edge on the other. Mish-mash / discomfort / Japanoise / collapsing spaces / warped tones / the glitch effect / liminality. These are the answers to the kawaii, the pain relief of mindless scrolling, the specialty craft beer brewed with cherry blossoms. These discomforts continue to growl in the underbelly of our culture, no matter how pastel we paint the surface.

We find ourselves in a period in which cruelty has departed from the mundane and centered itself as focal to living. Shock is rarely a byproduct of art. How could it be, when 24/7 news coverage strings us along on a spectacle of societal decomposition and terror? While this environment has led to a rush of institutional critique, of questioning and rewriting the artistic canon (and history at large), of politically arresting art, Lu Yang has chosen never to be explicit about these pains. That is not to say they are not present in her work. But in her universe, comments on the cruel remain as questions. 

So in this speculative vein, it figures that the Material World Knight would combine these endorphin-elevating and violent origins, fraying the edges of cultural inputs to engage, not to shock-horror. He sets the scene for our quest with a questioning attitude, curious and ready to move on, free from lust and full of caution. He suggests: perhaps - just perhaps - the surreal is something we should examine within ourselves prior to continuing in our reality. He doesn’t provide us with any concrete answers in his wake. I’m not surprised -- after all, finality would be beside the point.

EPISODE 2 - DELUSIONAL WORLD

We view everything against a point of reference /
Does the elimination of reference points lead to the elimination of personal opinions? 

It is strange at this juncture  to tell people that my first memory is of having my body. It is almost as strange to continue that most of the memories I have are of me looking at myself, from the outside in. My inner Catholic calls vanity a sin, but my inner realist tells me it’s a condition. My disease has always been my body, with its ambivalent, unknowing, perennially post-anorexic vocabulary of symptoms. Tiqqun, that inexorable collective of my compatriots, established a parallel between the anorexic Young Girl and the ascetic two decades prior to myself, when they considered “the same hatred of the flesh and the fantasy resolution tending towards the physical in its pure state: the skeleton.”

Perhaps I’ve just always believed in the sanctity of wounds and unknowable things.

I firmly want this essay to be about Lu Yang, and not about me. Self-erasure is not an unfamiliar feeling within academia, but it always hovers at just that: a feeling. The festering edge of a binary choice. And so, in the spirit of hybridity, I find it relevant to use my own voice, not as paroxysm, but in harmony with that of our Material World Knight. Such an act is not unprecedented yet not accepted; diluted yet not convoluted; egocentric yet unselfish. Perhaps it will even open discourse and provide conclusions in its gesture towards some kind of symbiosis that is created between Lu Yang, our multi-player progeny and myself.

The first time I played through the Great Adventure of the Material World, I refused to believe that this segment wasn’t some form of perverse heaven. Delusion and delirium seem to naturally follow the whole idea of primordial chaos.  I’ve always preferred ‘credo quia absurdum’ to ‘credo in unum deum’. There’s a reason why I’m solidly post-Catholic.

Let me be clear: I mean perverse specifically in the way that Bataille is perverse. Not some grimace-inducing and attention-seeking attempt at perversion, intended for nothing but a hot shot at flustering our attention economy, but a disquieting, bone-lilting perversion which echoes and echoes through your veins. The kind of perversity which encases you in the smell of both the lemon trees and the carcasses. There’s an integrity to the uncanny intention that leaks rhetorically. I rest the concept with the words of Francis Bacon, the 20th century master of this sensation: “It’s nothing to do with mortality, but it’s to do with the great beauty of the colour of meat.” 

It follows, then, that I would find my perceived salvation in Lu Yang’s answer to purgatory. Elaine Scarry would have us believe that imagination is the opposite of pain - and this fantasy of psychedelic circus rides and half-birthed night terrors is a fantastic realisation of the beyond the body. 

The Delusional World is a place of Kristeva’s abject and her severed hands, of Géricault’s severed limbs, scattered in multidimensionality across the checkered floors of inpatient wards and chess boards. The soundtrack here sounds like binaural beats played on a synth, and it hovers into the visual: there’s something soft and vaguely atonal around the contours of every visual form which appears. This is a theme park of uncertainty and Circean ambiguity with its mycelium-shaped trees and floating ventricles, its skeletal fragments and imaging machines, the errant Ferris wheel rotating around the z-axis. A multi-headed hydra - maybe Fuxi or Nüwa or some Freudian-derived terror - leers towards hundreds of migratory floating heads, all clustered like monarchs escaping the onset of monsoon season. I wonder what they must be fleeing in this place.

Among these objets-corps-humains (a poorly appropriated but highly appropriate term from Le Corbusier), this purgatory is well-furnished with an eye for discomfort but not inhospitality. It’s here that you’re greeted again by reincarnations of Lu Yang’s head -- although this time, each of the figures are naked, asexual, combined planes and clean lines. The genderless, genital-less body is a paradox: unfuckable, but the biggest “fuck you” of all. It is a rejection of the lesbian utopias of 1980s feminism, and a rage against the heteronormalcy that we live amongst today. It is Lu Yang saying that no one else is required, that the self is enough, that reference and comparison are limitations. In our crazed world of relationships woven by cables, choreographed by swipes, paralyzed by a need for connectivity, an uncompromising individual is perhaps the most radical statement of all.

I don’t know what it’s like to live as Lu Yang, but that’s the privilege of my position -- for neither do you. Both of us are equally new to our combinatorial monstrosity hosted in the body of the Material World Knight. All of us remain firmly individual in soul, if not in body.

As for Lu Yang and myself -- it is an understatement to say that we share a discomfort with physicality. I speak for myself when I say that I have lived a majority of my life when I have been afraid to own a body, to have a physical expression of myself. And I would not venture to speak for her or for you, but regardless of where your dysmorphia begins on the pain scale, it remains most unforgivingly and painstakingly real. But at some point, I must relinquish myself from the tenacity of these thoughts, knowing that the body and its image, as difficult as they are to hold, have no place in our collective psyche beyond delusion. To progress in the Delusional World, you must relinquish the pain that is handed to you by being and leave liminality for experiences in the beyond.

Perhaps our own world of reality is not so different after all.

EPISODE 3 - HEAVEN

If everyone imagines heaven differently / 
how many heavens are there? 
Can heaven change according to one’s desires? 
Whatever is experienced subjectively,  including heaven, is rather limited, isn’t it?

It often strikes me that we live now in a past vision of heaven. I find myself going down into these deep dives of futurist prophecies, particularly due to their inevitable relationships to propaganda. There’s a certain oddity to feeling imposter syndrome while responding to hypotheses about our millennium published in the 1967 edition Vogue, but I cannot help the vagaries of disappointment and shame when I realise that the speculations of the past remain only as contemporary science fiction. Yet even in acknowledging this, I cannot help but marvel at the immense progress which our world has enacted, even over my minute lifespan. My God, what a time to be alive. 

The Material World Knight’s heaven, however, is beyond even the most ambitious Futurist’s fever dream. Following release from the medical confessional of an MRI chamber, you’ll find yourself situated firmly in a Heaven that was definitely created by a resident of the Internet. Complete with semi-obscure yet adorable, jumping animated animals like alpacas and lime green teddy bears, this proto-Animal Crossing setting is a strong dosage of stereotypical stress-reducing cartoons. With palm trees, polychromatic streams, miniature sandcastles and an overarching rainbow, you are warmly welcomed to paradise by a procession of charming critters and the companionship of a Sailor Moon-esque waifu persona. 

The mundane complacency of happiness has no place in this Heaven, however. The Material World Knight remains skeptical, questioning the finality of heaven and its customizability depending on personal preferences in regards to partner and environment. Why must heaven be satisfactory only for straight men, he asks, when there are so many other people and preferences to consider?

Yet the anime girl, previously featured in Lu Yang’s Electromagnetic Brainology and modelled after J-pop idol Chanmomo, does not seem phased by this line of questioning. Instead, she suggests that better alternatives can be conceived than a determinate destination of moral absolutism and preconceived aesthetic principles. As she converses with the Material World Knight, it becomes evident that a fundamental tenet of Lu Yang’s metaverse is resistance to dogma and a constant multiplicity. At first, I found it ironic that her body of work juxtaposes medical concepts and their esteemed prescriptive finality with a tonal hesitation at being diagnostic, authoritarian, definitive. My second opinion is that to be draconian in this place would be cruel, not to mention disruptive to that finely constituted balance of impermanent hybridity and possibility so integral to the work.

There’s an unnerving self-awareness to this animated answer to St Peter in her dialogue with our eponymous proxy as she follows this post-narcisstic line of thinking, encouraging us to consider what could possibly lie beyond our respective orders of heaven à la carte. At the basis of the concerns she airs with the Material World Knight is the quivering borderline between pain and pleasure. 

It occurs to me that I’ve never much thought of sensation as a part of heaven. In Catholicism, at least, heaven is a place of absolute futurity. It is most definitely locatable on some godly GPS with our inner saints and sinners producing the latitude and longitude, respectively. Heaven is considered a consequence, rather than a state of being. It’s an incredibly mortal location if you think about it, with levels of punishment and reward depending on just how Epicurean your indulgences in the seven deadly sins while living. Most certainly when we speak of heaven made mortal - as in those heavenly delights at afternoon tea or the Proustian delicacies of pastel chiffon in Le Bon Marché - it’s always in the description of angelic attributes or little accents of divinity which are so sensationally stimulating that we can hardly believe that they’re real. 

A Buddhist approach - and consequently, the theology of Lu Yang’s metaverse, which combines Technologism with religious philosophy - defines heaven rather differently. She preaches that heaven is a post-human place where lust for physicality has been transcended and the body no longer sharpens my soul into the discomfort of existence. Given that its anime guardian is wearing a transcranial memory stimulator as a halo, it is evident that bodily sensation firmly plays a role in the formation of this place. But rather than passing judgment, it creates a psycho-geographic landscape, forging identities via cybernetic figuration. In this world, there is a body beyond the body; there is pure subjectivity and customisation, as opposed to the ugly objectivity that our flesh suits urge from us.

Aided by the video game second person persona, the inhabitants of the Lu Yang extended universe have an uncanny ability to dissolve the physical envelope we use to house our souls, directing comments to the viewer and directly addressing the relationship between fictionality and falsity. Baudrillard’s purity of simulacra is not welcome here, where happiness is most definitely relative and the possibility of heterotopic existence is firmly located in the future. In this Heaven, we have emerged beyond robo sapiens and speculative biology into a limitless existence of pure concept beyond the body. 

I’m astounded at the optimism of such a place, having been raised by a family who firmly believes in brutality as the basis for human interaction and social contract theory, having considered my body a burden to which my soul must always be beast. To be free of organicism, living abundantly in a place of innocence and bliss, with compatriots befitting the most Rousseau-derived opinion of human innocence as our base state -- my God, that really does sound like Heaven.

EPISODE 4 - HELL < DIYU >

If we were to experience hell /
first there had be hell /
as well as the human-like bodies that could tolerate any pain.
If there was no hell, we wouldn’t be able to experience it.

And now you re-awaken into a lichen-coated subterranean cavern lit only by the reflections of non-existent fires, and you must know that this is hell. From the balustrade embellishments of the doorway gods’ animated death masks to monstrosities straight from Pan’s Labyrinth cast in acid green holographs, threats are abundant and dissonantly punctuated with devil’s triads and chord progressions. Stiffened corpses with early on-set rigor mortis (jiangshi) present a horrific spectacle somewhere between zombie and vampire. The remnants of Hell’s couriers - Taoist and Chinese folk religion’s answers to Thanatos and the Holy Ghost in one - are scattered around the entrance. 

Approaching the honorific altar to the deceased and the courts of judgment, a dolly zoom focuses on the molten limbs emerging from the bedrock like stalactites, watched over by the deified generals and court officials paused in stone. Wavering body bags jerk in syncopation as if chrysali from which something hellish is to emerge. Among disemboweled figures - again with Lu Yang’s face - I find cross-cultural references to the performances and rituals of death. Japanese hannya masks are typically used in noh theatre to symbolise the presence of a hungry female ghost, postured for the devouring of souls. A perfectly composed young Peking Opera hua dan, a type of lively yet transgressive female character often left to languish upon extramarital sins, floats far from body, parted from soul. Hunger and lust are at play here. Both sins of the flesh. Both afflictions of excess desire.

As for me, I know that my body is no stranger to desire. Impulses have formed me for as long as I can remember. I want to feel completed but I can’t. No thing in this world is able to fill my hollows. To this day, I wake up every morning and I run through my list of desires like a prayer: I want to be thin / I want the gash between my thighs to stop hurting / I want to be intelligent / I want to be perfect / I want to know that I am loved / I want to know that I am enough / I want to stop being a walking wound.

Pope said that to err is to be human. I say that to want is to be alive.

It took me a long time to learn that despite my melancholic ritualism and accompanying shame, being built from desire is not so unique a symptom. Aristotle would have us believe that an impetus towards representation of our experiences is another critical mortal characteristic; that mimesis is the human (read: post-animal) response to stimuli, whether the subject matter has a painful or pleasurable charge. It follows, then, that on a cosmological level, the body is an a priori representation for the knowledge we call soul. Even if we do not invoke Aristotle to establish such a forthright parallel, the Techno-prophet Lu Yang establishes here that the body is primordial in this chaos we call the Material World.   

In Chinese cosmology, there are not just 9 circles of Hell, but 18 layers of increasing pain over a million years of constant suffering. Rather than opting for instant judgement for visitors at the pearly gates, enduring Diyu is a sentence mandatory for all but the most enlightened in accordance with Buddhist theology. Regardless of your beliefs, this version of Hell is constructed to make you face your worldliness and its presence in the post-human monsters surrounding you. There is no short circuit to abate the extraordinary pain of sensation. 

It is this corporeal basis and our tendency towards wounding which forms the preoccupations of the Material World Knight in this episode. As he/you/I move through Diyu, you will be asked to renounce what little human you have left. Entry into this universe insists on the necessity of liberation from the material reality of perception. As such, abandonment of the body is the greatest contemporary measure of progress. Undergoing such a process in a cavern of monsters - all so incredibly Gothic in their extrapolation of our worst human features and traits - is not an easy feat. But there must be a release of desire to end the worship of suffering. The artist/artwork/audience hybrid finds its calling as martyr.

As you wonder at these questions, you are then called to cross the multi-levelled bridge towards Bhavacakra, a Tibetan Buddhist diagram of dharmic wheel. As you emerge past the roundabout (that is an old-style copper Beijing hotpot), you notice that this wheel is held by one final demon. The red-faced demon holding the spinning sphere you need to access in order to progress seems preoccupied compared to the infinite threats posed throughout Diyu, but he is perhaps the most pertinent of all. For you see, he represents impermanence itself. 

Even after all of this relinquishing, the wheel of rebirth and its promise of progress is held by King Yan / Shinje, the nebulous ruler of Hell. He’s responsible for turning our wheel of rebirth, and he is who we tell now that ‘this is inhuman, yet it is mine’ (Tsvetaeva, my translation). He decides for us whether we can leave behind our flesh suits as we move on into the televisual reality of synthetic perfection. In this world, at least this once, we seem to be in luck.

We pay our dues as mortals so we can proceed as gods.

EPISODE 5 - VAJRA

The game world in the player’s eyes is an illusion created conjointly /
by a proper frame rate of the computer monitor, your eyes and brain /

I suppose when you’ve lived as nothing but body for so long, it’s easy to forget that there’s anything else. At times, in our secular attention economy and societal structures, it makes no sense to believe that there is a self without the body as a tether - to our blood, to our family, to our selves. Science and sociology alike tell us that life, and all the beliefs we entrance ourselves into sustaining through it, all begin at the level of the flesh. “Mindingness gulps us. Her on the bed as bent twigs. Me, as ever, gone.” (Anne Carson)

Without the body, what other defences against the terrors of living could we possibly have? Lu Yang’s answer here is in engaging the temporary, elemental aspects of reality via direct confrontation. Deconstruction of the self / dissection of our anatomy / weighing of the soul / illusion of self-synthesis. The gods remind us that “Everything in the game and in this material world is the result of temporary conjunctions”. And they continue our quest by arming us, preparing us to puncture our fictionality and scorn the lies we tell ourselves just keep on loving.

This chapter is the most densely referent to Lu Yang’s meta-verse, situated in the mythic, open world counterpart to a Mahayana temple. The final boss of this level - to borrow from video game parlance - is the anti-hero of Wrathful King Kong, Yamataka (b. 2011 into the artist’s oeuvre, but predating death in the Hindu mythos as the ‘Indestructible Destroyer of Life Force’). This most wrathful Tibetan Buddhist deity is elevated on a mandala-embellished dais -- a formidable opponent with his 34 arms and corresponding weapons, 9 heads and 16 legs. In this scene, you find him performing a bachata-like sashay to a loop of acid house accented with pentatonic whistle tones. He invites you to be his squire, becoming a Material World Knight to fulfil the ends of the game, investing in you the power to become custodian of the titular weapon: the Vajra. 

The Vajra is a spiritual weapon of mass destruction, forged from pre-industrial diamond and the irresistible force of a thunderbolt. Originally attributed to the Vedic rain and thunder deity, Indra, through a history of epistemological and cultural confluence, the Vajra is now used to symbolise Vajrayana, a dharmic Buddhist tradition and method of achieving Enlightenment.

Passing through the underbelly of this beast, flanked by the elements you must relinquish to physicality, you enter a palatial hall. The aesthetic of an urban ruin - a factory perhaps, due to the degrading mechanistic pieces and vine-covered streetscape - is flanked with striking cobras and vermilion phrases from the Vajrasutra, the cosmic user manual and training course to this epic weapon. To acquire the Vajra, you must proceed through a skills/weapons upgrade montage with extreme visual acuity to an action game sequence. Only then are you ready to try your hand at the illusion of our physicality.

It’s time to level up -- with both the infinitely crescendoing J-pop beats blasting in overdrive and a labyrinthine futurity comprised of monsters and sprites from each corner of the Material World. With a plague of Lu Yang-headed hornets, snakes and Demo-Dogs, you’re also ready to finally take on the jousting ATMs, centaurs and griffins. While navigating this xeno-biological wasteland, you come to encounter the four elemental guardians of this realm, who also appeared as chaperones / copulation officiants in the creation myth of the Material World Knight, as well as starring in the 2014 single-channel video Electromagnetic Brainology. These elements are the basis of physicality in many religions, but in Buddhism, wind/water/fire/earth are thought to disintegrate upon the approach of physical death. Our sensations of bodily pain are derived from this structuralist separation. We experience the wounds of this quartering as our body turns to corpse.

As you proceed through the temple grounds into the terror-stricken urban palimpsest of the Material World, a new form of on-screen text appears within your view. I find it amusing that at this time, upon the seizure of the Vajra and consequent railroading into demonic massacre, Lu Yang decides to prompt us with a safety disclaimer: “Nothing is real in this game. The scenes in this game are comprised of numerous models, which then constitute one world after another.” 

I have never claimed to have all the answers, with my contributions constituting a piece of speculative fiction at best. But at this juncture, I can confidently venture that this authorial claim is not a referent to solely The Great Adventure of the Material World Knight, but instead a nauseating reminder of the permeability between our lived reality, our shard surreality in Lu Yang’s metaverse, and our virtual reality of technologically integrated existence. This implosion of layered experiences is - after all - where the artist’s work, and this essay began. It all started with an invitation to possibility, an aperture to questioning. And just as the Material World Knight reminds us: “There is no end to the cycle of transmigration.”

Increased awareness is simply an elevation of your conscience. This piece is a vehicle for us to find an awareness of something which we’ve been living all along.


EPISODE 6 - SUPER MOBILE SUITE

We are nothing more than enemy images your mind has conceived 
Your conception has limited your ability to fight! 

It’s nighttime now in the city, with planets blazoned with murmuring striations lighting the skyline amongst a veritable aurora borealis of supernatural and superhuman creation. In streetscapes straight from Blade Runner x Cyberpunk 2077, cool-toned pink highlights are blown out into a full neon sensibility. Up-beat EDM club music, somehow softer and more resonant than that in other levels, echoes through the headset as if trailing down the street from a karaoke bar. There is no longer hysteria in the air tonight; there’s also far less wonder. The purpose of the mission has been defined; you’re approaching some kind of self-assured trance in the search for the Super Mobile Suite. 

This final part of the Material World Knight figure is a garment embellished like that of the robotic idol, but constructed as an armed exo-skeleton. Surrounded by increasingly obscure, unprecedented monstrosities in an even greater concentration than Diyu, you jog through the streets flanked by white streaks of displaced air, vanquishing monsters left and right with your Vajra. Cyclopean anglerfish, a tribute to Sorayama’s gynoids and a blood moon loom as you trace alleyways and run alongside sky-train tracks on the way to the completion of self-fortification. You search for your body beyond your body, accompanied by Lu Yang’s most recently polished avatar: a complete 3-D projection of the artist, named Doku. Lapping under arches with neon headlines like those at Formula 1 or some futuristic marathon, you prepare for extension beyond materiality, trying out your weapon for the cosmic battle to come and finally arriving at your mobile suit: a Transformer vehicle that is the size of a small apartment building.

I wondered, at first, what further armour could possibly add to our already invincible Knight. While I have come to understand that the Suite functions more as a transport vehicle and insulation against the Material World than as added protection, it is critical that the greatest insight to take from this episode is actually articulated by its various monstrosities throughout. He tells us that it is our perception that creates our enemies and our opinions which ‘force’ us into confrontation. Hatred - evil, even - is always a choice at the very root of things. As Sartre reminded us: “The rest is fog.”

It is a search for emptiness but with purpose that the Knight must go through in order to depart the Material World. There is a fine line between nonchalance and suppression when it comes to perspective. Most certainly, there is a clarity to the distillation of fear and hysteria. But too many steps removed and you enter into that dangerous place of depressed isolation and passive recoil of machismo and solitary anger. I do not claim to be a role model in terms of Enlightenment or some elevated individual floating above the conceptual reaches of the work. I agreed to write this essay as a bildungsroman, mapping a singular route for the conjoined topography  of an entire audience. 

As tribal-tattooed manga sirens with pastel ponytails blow you air kisses, we can now take off beyond the Material World -- and hope to leave the worst of ourselves behind.


EPISODE 7 - SPACE FIGHT 

Different materials evoke different desires /
and we hop from one desire to another...
Who determines the value and necessity of these materials?
Is it our heart?

Nothing, not even a megatronic prosthetic suit with a greater presence than Elon Musk’s Tesla in space, could protect you against the greatness of this metaphysical cosmos. Bokeh explosions between a world’s worth of space trash and ego remnants appear to us as an asteroid belt of MacBook Pros and Louis Vuitton Almas and Gucci Boston bags, fictional planets, constellated between excerpts from Buddhist scriptures about impermanence. Lu Yang has constellated nouns and substances to create an interstellar map of the mark humanity has made on our psyches, our planet, our universe from the limits of our own perceptions.

Ah, materialism -- that last phenomenological tie to our Earthly condemnation. The Material World Knight’s mission has been defined at this point: to rid us of possessions, to transcend physicality to live within the interface. A fast kind of slow living, if you think about it. I’m fully aware that my love for objects is a problem. I’ve got objects cached on four continents between my family homes, my friends and my current apartment, and I’m torn by these distances. I suffer from a need for object permanence. I rely on tactility to remember I exist. 

I have always rationalised my materialism as constituting my memory, my person. Curated aesthetic imprints which are all flocked into a blur, until I piece them apart into lists. There are so many stories, so many words, so many images — and so much pain and so much joy and so much! So much! The past is a tricky thing with its infinite sides and indefinite places, especially when your experience renders you selective about what you want to remember. 

Apparently, a ‘compulsion to visualise the self’ is a common response to never feeling like you are enough.

This idea of infusing physical objects with our identities is hardly new; it even approaches the universal. It’s the basis of ekphrastic poetry, of that blurred separation between artwork and artisanal object, of the habit of collecting. And as we move further into living beyond the body into the post-human age, there is a tension within the Anthropocene. The Janusian seduction of the object has two faces. The first facet attempts to fill our empty lives with endless clutter, to stake out our territory within the private realm, as a rejection of the increasingly virtual nature of all other connections. The alternative - the clean-shaven underbelly of our consumerist desires - is a push to rid ourselves of objects in totality, following the Modernist push towards a clean and standardised urban strata, a fully satiated but limited existence. These faces speak to our human anxieties: to the anxiety of physical mortality and to the fast pace of our technocratic need for expedience, respectively. 

Lu Yang’s Material World Knight does not accept my excuses. In this world, there is no need to state your case through accumulation. We have passed that; we have even passed the need for self. And for once, I see the sense in this:

If I have no need to be a person, why would I need anything else?

So you find your hybrid self in emptiness, voided in contrast to the hyper-density of urban landscapes. There is a smattering of ego you must eradicate, following the teachings of the Vajrasutra -- just a few physical remnants between you and your goal: emptiness, fulfillment, enlightenment. This is the promise of the post-human condition. Of course, there is no such thing as a blank canvas, primed and stretched, on the Internet; there will always be a basis of physical and conceptual trash which must proverbially be taken out in order to start again. 

Commentary on ownership and our slavery to the market is never far from the art world. Art - as seemingly glamorous as it is packaged within our global culture - is, and always has been, traded and commissioned as a commercial good. Money and spending habits has come to figure in discussions of content and thematic concepts, from Warhol through to Lu Yang’s contemporary Cheng Ran, whose video piece Joss burns the very same Louis Vuitton Speedy as ancestral offerings. But the difference between most economically engaged art and Lu Yang’s approach is that here, we aren’t worshipping money, praying to capitalism, or using objects as steps towards self-elevation.

The only thing being worshipped here is the end: of self, of objects and subjects, of the differences in between.

This meta-verse has contained a full grief cycle for objecthood, from denial through to acceptance, and this episode has provided us with a grim prophecy regarding the future of our very own universe. I’ll never forget listening to a podcast featuring space archaeologist Alice Gorman, who stated that in 30 years time, we won’t be able to look at the horizon line or to enjoy a sunset without the abrupt blinking of a Starlink satellite. It was just 150 years ago that Turner painted the first landscape with pollution in it, changing the representation of the skies forever.

How far we have come. How far we have gone.

EPISODE 8 - DESTROY YOURSELF

If my body is the container of my consciousness /
then the ‘I’ is merely a label attached to that container comprised of various bodily organs and limbs /

In an icy tower from the 23rd century’s answer to Art Brut, you - the Material World Knight - are left to fight the only barrier to your transcendence: a mirrored reflection of your physical body. This is the moment where Narcissus is fully abandoned by the sides of a pool, where liminality is brought forward firmly into the absurd. In this unfamiliar architecture - similar only to Superman’s family home on Krypton in the original film - you must disavow attachment and renounce the five skandhas (tenets) of clinging.

I remember now the character signifying endurance in Chinese is composed of two radicals (groups of strokes which are often characters in their own right, but which are structurally composed to form words of greater complexity).

忍 Ren: to endure is composed of the radical for knife blade, placed over the radical for heart. 

At this juncture, it is critical to remember that a sonic meme in Chinese can mean two (or three, or four) different things at once. These meanings do not have to be adjacent. Often, they are diametrically opposed. A slip in pronunciation is a deviation from the linguistically correct and socially accepted, rendering you not simply unintelligible by way of accent or an untrained ear, but simply, fundamentally, wrong. Yet this premise of accidental articulation is a focal point of Chinese culture. It’s the source of the coy precision of Tang court poetry, superstitions about numbers and colours that impact historiographic records and the buttons in Shanghai’s elevators alike. Perhaps this attention can be understood as a prayer to nuance, with ears and eyes attuned to fluctuations in tone. Every word becomes a matter of interpretation.

The poetry of homophony is unfamiliar to those of us who have poured over sonnets and alexandrins, resonant with their dependence on half rhymes and final syllables. In Mandarin, there is no need to be approximate. While English artistry relies on the simile, on found similarities, on inside gestures towards objective parallels, Chinese is constructed on the metaphor, on the externally defined commonality of an exact equivalence. Yet “the defining feature of a metaphor is that it's real.” (Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis)

All this is to say that ren has an additional meaning. When lifted by an upwards tone, there, ren means person, individual, human. It is the base node upon which any and all adjectives can be rhizomatically expanded in Chinese. 

This realisation brings closure -- a finality in the end that Lu Yang has been preparing for us all along. That our in-built multiplicity does not depend on embodying conflict and contradiction, but that life contains an infinity of options without a parenthetical “or”. That to endure is to create new realities, rather than to stutter in the dependent clause. That to be human is to live poised, blade over heart, never knowing what will cleave us next.