Lu Yang: Anatomy of the Idols
“Science is a differential equation. Religion is a boundary condition.” –Alan Turing
When Walter Benjamin wrote about the aura of the work of art, he most certainly didn’t mean that it could be a physical, detachable thing, but of elusive nature, like divinity. For Beijing-based artist Lu Yang, however, deification can be a matter of prosthetic halos, portable mandorlas, and strap-on limbs that affix divine power to mortal flesh as conveniently as turning on the wifi. Recognizing that the effulgence surrounding religious figures has persevered as a universally recognized symbol of divine power—despite the obscurity of more complex religious iconography in contemporary times, Lu Yang’s Moving Gods (2015) speculates how idol-making and worship might still operate in today’s public life, visual culture, and our evolving relationship—collective and personal—with the gods, as human beings push towards new transformative thresholds.
As a special commission for the Chinese Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, Moving Gods clashes meaningfully with a city studded with its own wealth of religious icons and dramatic luminosity, rendered by the likes of Tintoretto. There’s something fundamentally iconoclastic in Lu Yang’s deconstruction of the divine whole, where the emblem of enlightenment is treated as something surgically removable—thus external to the icon and the deity—or commercially viable like armored suits for super heroes. Presenting an eclectic sampling of nimbus, aureola, flaming halo, and wheal of law from the often inter-connected visual traditions of Christianity, Hinduism, Esoteric Buddhism in Tibet and Japan (particularly Shingon), Lu Yang has essentially designed a ready-to-wear collection fabricated with camphor wood, gold foil, and richly patterned straps with buckles. Ironically, this is also an act of true devotion, because the replication of idols—however unconventionally done—is as reverent as it gets.
Playing off the sumptuous detailing of foliage scrolls and burning flames are the ripped bodies of Lu Yang’s ethnically-diverse models, locally sourced from Beijing’s expat community. In a video that oscillates between museum-display gravitas and psychedelic mandalas, the models’ distinct physiognomy and hair-style seem apropos of the tradition where representations of deities often reflect local tastes and appearances, but the real, flawed bodies undermine religious art’s claim to purification through idealized form. Whether a type-cast guardian, Jesus look-alike wearing Tantric symbols, or black DJ with wild braids incarnating Shiva, the actors perform identities as much as their malleability, weaving together an anachronistic tableaux of meta-religiosity that feels squarely planted in the contemporary world of altered and altering appearances. Before we become cyborgs, we are icono-clad sign-borgs. But what are we to make of Lu Yang’s creatures from a biological or theological perspective? How does the strife of beliefs triangulate our largely-secularized ways of living today? What wisdom do our saviors, teachers, creators, and destroyers impart regarding navigation along the time-space continuum, in life and after-life?
There is a provocative sense of ownership in Lu Yang’s practice to fundamental, even cosmic questions, paired with a post-internet approach to imagery and knowledge characteristic of her generation. In an important early work, Wrathful King Kong Core (2011), Lu Yang creates a virtual objectification of Yamantaka, wrathful manifestation of the bodhisattva Manjusri. Constructed with UV mapping, X-rays effects, and flickering drop-down menus redolent of video game archetypes, the deity spins and heaves in the unique kinetics of virtual reality. After a detailed analysis of devotional objects held in Yamantaka’s multiple hands, Lu Yang seamlessly proceeds to reveal the neurological circuit that contributes to the deity’s benevolent yet ferocious nature—a deadpan superimposition of divinity and humanity. In a 2014 spin-off of the same series, the Wrathful King Kong Core pops onto a lotus pedestal, out of thin air, in our physical world, provided that you observe through an ipad screen calibrated with an “augmented reality” camera. The technology has already saturated commercial advertising, but Lu Yang’s explicit deployment of its gadgetry provides an astonishingly accurate analogy of enlightenment, which is often measured by the ability to perceive divine presence, yet the effortlessness might also speak wryly to a post-capitalist urge for instant salvation. In a world where many still cling to the belief that science and religion point to different paths of enlightenment, Lu Yang works with a third path—as an unlikely devout to spiritualization and unapologetic evangelist for scientific imagination—by short-circuiting that very dichotomy.