Chinese artist LuYang on new work LuYang NetiNeti | Interview

Words by Sunhi Keller.

Shanghai-based artist LuYang’s work sits at the intersection of art, philosophy, science, technology, and bodily movement. Their first solo UK exhibition at the Zabludowicz Collection, LuYang NetiNeti, showcases the past 10 years of LuYang’s career, presenting how their ideas transpose from one form of art to another.

Upon entering the main hall space, visitors are met with what feels like a digital temple – screens animated with dancing avatars, a giant yin and yang cushioned seat, and LuYang’s version of the Buddhist Wheel of Life looming above. I walked through the exhibition with a sense of awe, mesmerised by the surrealistic nature of their work; it’s like walking through an alternate landscape. Their featured film work, DOKU the Self, melds videos of human dancers with anime graphics with fractured images of their own faces to create extravagant depictions of Buddhist reincarnations of life: heaven, hell, human, animal, hungry ghost, and Asura.

Past the main hall, the arcade room is filled with an accumulation of LuYang’s interactive artwork: some displayed on TVs with remote controllers, some actually created within arcade boxes like self-contained worlds. Throughout their work, LuYang contemplates existential questions of life, death, and human autonomy, inviting the audience to, literally, take control over their selected avatars. 

I had the opportunity to speak with LuYang, as well as Paul Luckraft and Antonia Blocker, senior curators of the Zabludowicz Collection, about the creation of LuYang NetiNeti and the live performance of DOKU, The Binary World which brings together two dancers in the exhibition space who, through motion capture technology, embody LuYang’s DOKU in the virtual world.

(LuYang’s answers were translated by Yingyi Pan).

Sunhi from dance art journal: I was captivated by the movement of each of your avatars, especially the different Buddhist reincarnations in your film *DOKU the Self* (2022). You worked with multiple dancers to choreograph these movements. Where did you draw inspiration from to find those movement qualities, and how did you decide how each avatar should move?

LuYang: One of the research directions for my work is the control of consciousness over the physical body. I have accumulated a lot of studies about this in my 10 years of work. For example, there are some works in the NetiNeti exhibition exploring the relationship between brain, consciousness, and body, and these explorations are more obvious in dance. In the long history of human dance, many dancers, through strict training, manifest flesh to a degree that the average person can not achieve, such as Bali’s Legong dance and Baris Dance and the like. Dancers training from the age of 5 years old dance with the eye and facial muscles, even dancers’ finger positions require year after year of physical training.

Also in India Kerala’s Kathakali Dance, their facial micro-expressions dance is even more amazing. I tried to capture this amazing data and apply it to my own digital human DOKU. With the use of data, DOKU does not have to train like gifted dancers through decades of training. So I think extremely deeply about the choice of dance, the cooperation with the dancers, and the processing of body and facial micro-expression data. And in some specific roles of dance, there are also some special features. For example, I used the Indonesian Legong Dance in the role of the Kingdom of Heaven; the Indonesian Warrior Dance on Asura because Asura is in a constant battle situation closer to the warrior; and for the dance of hell, Rangda, the Indonesian story of the Hindu Shiva and Kali’s wrathful phase, since the biggest feature of hell is anger.

Sunhi: I also understand you are producing a live motion capture performance to exhibit alongside the DOKU film in the main hall. How do you feel live, non animated bodies work alongside the avatars in the film?

LuYang: The motion capture show is a live performance system that I have been creating and updating over the years. With each new show, all the characters used in it are characters from all my past works, so my creation is more like creating my own Marvel universe, with many different IP combinations that can be used in various aspects. The whole program is based on making a game, and we focus all the interaction on a console handle. In this performance, I will use this handle to play the game, except that I have real characters to drive those virtual characters. It’s been a very interesting experience to work with outstanding dancers and musicians from around the world every time we perform.

Sunhi: The performance will also be a collaboration with music artist Liiii, who has created for many of your other films and performances. How do you begin to create a musical landscape for each digital avatar, and how will this be translated into a live performance?

LuYang: I first worked with Liii on my very important work this year <DOKU the Self>, and he and Feng Woody did all the music and effects for this movie-level animation, which took several months. They made custom music for every little chapter and every shot. I hope to invite them to perform with us in the future.

Paul Luckraft, Senior Curator of Exhibitions, and Antonia Blocker, Senior Curator of Performance and Engagement, worked closely with LuYang to curate this exhibition. They shared their experiences in adapting LuYang’s work to the space of the Zabludowicz Collection.

Sunhi: Zabludowicz Collection is a gallery space refurbished from what used to be a church. Most of LuYang’s work is heavily inspired by Buddhist philosophy and Hindu deities. How does the history of the space relate to the work? Do you feel the meaning behind any of the work was changed and/or amplified due to the space?

PL: “The religious architecture of the gallery space certainly impacted on how we designed the show with LuYang. The building was originally a Methodist Chapel, and our Main Hall space has an altar as a focal point and mezzanine where a congregation would have sat. As it’s a Grade II listed building the original features and textures of the building remain evident throughout, as the feel for the space can’t help but inform installations.  The form of LuYang’s work is digital computer-generated media, and there is a production friction between the age and history of the building. LuYang wanted the Main Hall to evoke a temple via several different styles of installation, which include hanging banners, a Taoist yin yang symbol seating zone, and a large wall-hung image of the traditional Buddhist allegorical Wheel of Life, which carried a projection.

LuYang describes their work as a spiritual quest and a search for wisdom, and although Buddhism is the key thread of this journey they draw on ideas and visual forms from many religions. In fact, their work is fundamentally about how we might comprehend the nature of human existence, which is of course a universal questions across cultures, and also encompass science and medicine as well as spiritual notions. I would say the space at Zabludowicz Collection amplified rather than altered aspects of LuYang’s pieces.  For example, the contemplative and emotionally resonant aspects of the film DOKU the Self are arguably brought more to fore in such a setting as a former church.”

Sunhi: An underlying theme in LuYang’s work seems to be the juxtaposition between tradition and technology. How did you create an environment to cater to these ideas?

PL: “We really wanted to transform the interior spaces of the building, to create a narrative build-up as you walk through the show to a kind of crescendo in the Back Gallery which houses the arcade installation. Using a mixture of LED video walls, 4K monitors and large projections ensured the work really ‘popped’ against the textures in the building. Plus we used more physical and traditional methods to cover and dress the rooms, including timber and MDF construction, and large wall prints. It was important for LuYang to have a sense of immersion for visitors in the installations. And in terms of creating an environment we aimed to provide information to visitors on the ideas, processes and technologies in the LuYang’s practice through printed information, but no to overwhelm with this.  Some mystery and wonder is important!”

Sunhi: I’m interested to know how the space will be curated once the live motion capture performance is added. Can you tell me about how the curational process for live movement will work in the main hall?

AB: “The live motion capture performance is a one-off event that will happen in the main gallery, which is a former Methodist chapel. It’s part of the exhibition and is called ‘DOKU, The Binary World’. There will therefore be a momentary interruption to the show as we will use the space to set-up the technology and rehearse. The performance will co-opt the very large LED screen which is currently used for the film DOKU – The Self on the altar, and two dancers will perform on the floor space just in front of this wearing motion capture suits, enabling them to control the reincarnations of DOKU onscreen.

The audience will surround them, either watching from the mezzanine above, or from the installed ‘yin yang’ seating. The exhibition therefore becomes both the platform and the context for the performance, adding in another experiential layer. As the performance visuals draw on and expand those used in the video works in the main space, it can be understood as an evolution of these same works, exploring the dynamic between virtual and physical space in real time. However, in order to focus attention and due to the unstable nature of the motion capture technology itself, most likely the other screens in the space will have to remain off during the performance itself. Each iteration of LuYang’s performance works expands and develops from the last, so while ‘DOKU, The Binary World’ has been performed before, this is the first time with two dancers performing together in the same space, producing all new choreography for this version, developed during the rehearsal period.”

To book your tickets for LuYang’s DOKU – The Binary World, visit here. This event runs this Saturday 28th Jan in London and is part of the ongoing exhibition LuYang NetiNeti which started in September 2022 and runs until 12 March 2023.

Photo documentation of LuYang DOKU – The Binary World performance at Freespace, Hong Kong, 2022 Photo: Eric @ Moon 9 image Courtesy of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.