The Next Artist Who’s About to Get Kicked Out of China
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everyone has a dark side.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
An artist’s self-portrait: stuffy, vain, easy on the eye. Right? Not for Lu Yang, a scrappy 31-year-old new-media artist based in China. In a computer rendering of herself, Lu is naked and genderless, with electrodes jabbing at her brain like a lab rat. Then comes her callous death, her convulsing body slowly sliding into the charred furnace of a gaping MRI machine.
Lu is no stranger to stirring up strife with her provocative videos and unsettling animations. “Revived Zombie Frogs Underwater Ballet” is exactly what it sounds like — Lu sends electric shocks to dissected frogs to make them dance as they hover in water. Her latest pieces include both a massive floating kite of her head and an animation of her charred corpse flailing about in flames. And for good measure, “Uterus Man” rides a zooming pelvis chariot and flies like Iron Man by shooting blood out of his vagina — not just weird, but explicitly taboo. Clearly, Lu doesn’t do hoity-toity. Instead, she dabbles and dives into thorny themes from biology, neurology and religion, some stuff that, she says, is “too hard-core” for China. As an artist, Lu isn’t just messing around with medium and form; she’s engaging in a struggle against a kind of cultural straightjacket in China that discourages people from openly and honestly broaching these topics.
Death and doom aside, Lu is alive and well as she escorts me up to the tenth floor of her dingy apartment building in Beijing. Her art studio is filled to the brim with the canvas of her choice — four massive computer monitors — and she greets me in plaid pajamas and pink slippers, carrying none of the frill from her formal training at the China Academy of Art. But don’t let the nonchalance fool you: She just woke up after an all-night binge of editing on Adobe Illustrator, BodyPaint 3D and Maya. Lu has gained acclaim through several solo exhibitions worldwide and earned the respect of celebrity Chinese artists like Yao Dajuin and Wang Changcun. Back in school, she honed her artistic chops under the tutelage of Zhang Peili, the “father of video art” in China, and just last year, Lu attended the famed Venice Art Biennale. “She’s without a doubt one of the bright lights,” says Martin Kemble, founder of Art Labor, a contemporary arts gallery in Shanghai.
If Lu’s work had to be classified, it would go under WTF. The art scene has come a long way in China. During the Cultural Revolution, talented artists were suppressed and banished to the countryside throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Some continued painting or drawing, but only at the government’s behest to disseminate propaganda or mobilize political opinion, much like artists and musicians in Nazi Germany. Fast forward to the present, the communist country still imprisons a handful of dissident artists or shuts down their art exhibitions — Ai Weiwei, China’s most renowned visual artist, languished in prison for nearly three months and under house arrest for four more years. So, how did such an out-there artist like Lu manage to dodge the ire of China’s iron fist? Well, her answer is simple: “I’m totally uninterested in politics,” she says matter-of-factly. By staying away from politics, she avoids the treacherous path of imprisonment and condemnation that China has imposed on renegade artists like Ai Weiwei.
Lu deeply “explores the meaning of life as well as questions its very existence,” says Wang Wan, with the Beijing Commune, the gallery that represents Lu. But Lu never broaches the legitimacy of the ruling communist party, unlike other contemporary artists. She pays little heed to her own Chinese identity and often borrows from Japanese anime, western horror films and science fiction as her main muses, rather than drawing from her local experiences of growing up in Shanghai. “I’m not a Chinese artist, just an artist who happens to be from China,” she says. Moreover, with a national five-year plan to erect more museums and nurture a burgeoning arts scene underway, her unconventional flair is probably not what China’s stuffy art elite had in mind. She doesn’t even like museums, “because I don’t understand a lot of the works,” she says, without pretense.
But I’m afraid of her. Every artist has their critics, but Lu doesn’t shy away from the controversy — she thrives on it, and it consumes her. When I leave her studio, she disappears behind her four huge monitors, embracing the darkness. While her art is an arresting sight, some still question the depth of her work. She’s grappling with meaty topics — the ethics of torture, gender fluidity, life and death — in which she is self-taught with scant formal education. Intellectually, it all needs to be explored on a deeper level, says Kemble, from Art Labor: “She’s just surfing the net grabbing things” and repackaging them for mass consumption. But Lu says she put in the time — going in and out of hospital emergency rooms for asthma attacks as a child and becoming hooked on the philosophy of medicine ever since. Like a surgeon, she approaches her work with the same precision and cold objectivity. “No one is willing to talk about these topics in China, but I am not afraid of them,” she says.