Art-science and the work of Lu Yang

Featured image taken by Rachel Marsden

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of interviewing Chinese artist Lu Yang, as part of a collaboration with Birmingham based curator Rachel Marsden. The interview went on to form part of the publication for a Lu Yang solo-exhibition titled ANTI-HUMANISM curated by Jakob Kudsk Steensen, which took place in Copenhagen in January.

I’ve been looking for a good excuse to posthumously post the interview text and since Lu Yang is now featuring in the Venice Biennale (which seems to be all anyone can talk about on social media at the moment), I thought I’d get in a mention. I also want to share some thoughts that stayed with me after the interview, particularly around ‘art-science collaboration’ and state control.

Lu Yang’s works put a wicked spin on subjects such as cancer (watch the jokey apparition of cartoon cancer cells Cancer Baby here) making light of an illness which has become a vessel of extreme cultural and biological anxiety. In Wrathful King Kong Core the artist combines medical images and Buddhist religious imagery, in an attempt to create an anatomy of anger. The message seems to be that science and medicine can’t exempt us from the pain and emotion of illness, even in a post-human age.

Speaking as someone who is increasingly invested in artists who make relationships with science and medicine (through both my academic research and my curatorial practice), the most fascinating aspect of this interview was hearing about the constraints of artists accessing scientists in a Chinese context. All of Lu Yang’s most technically ambitious works had to be realised outside of China and in spite of her interest in ‘bio-art’, access to facilities to experiment with these forms remains elusive. This is also the case with other Asian artists who work in this territory. Dumb Type the Japanese collective whose work dialogues with the issue of aids, have described the frustration of making and showing their work in their home nation.

Obviously this problem of cultural context is not exclusive to artists interested in science, political dogma and cultural reserve tend to offer support to only the most conservative art-forms. Yet it got me questioning how we can provide space and resource for artists who want to have a dialogue with science in non-western frameworks? And asking how curators like myself might facilitate more culturally diverse approaches to art-science collaboration. AND my most important question; how can we offer artists like Lu Yang resource to experiment in dialogue with science, without undermining the criticality and playfulness that she adopts in relation to medicine and the politics of the human body?

You can download the full exhibition publication for ANTI-HUMANISM here, or read the full text of our interview below.

Interview with Lu Yang and Vanessa Bartlett

By Rachel Marsden Monday 19 January 2015

Lu Yang Uterus Man, 2013, Video still
Lu Yang, Uterus Man, 2013, Video still

Rachel Marsden: It would be interesting to hear about the curator-artist relationship between you and Jakob. How long have you known him? How long has this show been in planning? What was his curatorial idea behind, and your understanding of, ‘ANTI-HUMANISM’?

LY: The first time I met Jakob was when he was working in Art Labor gallery in Shanghai. He started to like my works and a long time ago he talked with me about doing something together. He has put me in a group show in Denmark before, this time it was a solo focus.

RM: Why the title “ANTI-HUMANISM”?

LY: Jakob gave the name “anti-humanism” for this show. I asked him why. He said “Come on! Your works are not anti-humanism?!”.

RM: Are the works “anti-humanistic” in nature? Or is it more a sub-narrative?

LY: I googled what this means. It’s something about sci-fi, future, man-machine…something that’s definitely in my works.

Vanessa Bartlett: For me, the phrase implies something about humans becoming machines?

LY: Like to be a better “human”, maybe we just think we are the spirit in our body and the body is a machine.

LY: I think in our time, all the technology is just part of our life, it’s part of nature.

VB: Yes! I was thinking there is also something about celebrating human fragility as well, like the threat of cancer is still part of our identity as human machines.

LY: Why do people isolate the technology and nature so clearly? Why not treat technology as it is now, as a day’s tool, like a painter uses a brush to paint a painting.

RM: The threat of biology as such?

LY: I’m interested in lots disease on human being, like Parkinson’s disease, cancer…

VB: Yes. I was thinking about Cancer Baby there obviously.

LY: It’s always mentioned…we all will pass through the long history, the time…we just exist for a while…

VB: These illnesses are still part of our anti-human identity, even if we have become machines.

LY: No matter how hard we try, you can’t escape death…

RM: …and it is the machines that try and save us.

LY: Machine is strong and hard, but still will be broken some day. Cancer is the most thing that most people dead because of it, it’s not a very special one, it’s just a representative.

RM: Can I ask why more recently, your works have become, less visually serious, and more playful, kitsch and game-like?

LY: Yes, recently, I made some games. I want to say people think I’m a new media artist, but the only form I want to make is game. I’m tired of those stupid moving low tech interactive “new media art”, but there’s huge products out of contemporary art. I think that’s really “new media art”. It’s super…that form is game.

VB: I want to talk about your focus on medical imagery. It has become almost like a new form of truth for depicting and understanding illness and the inner workings of the body, however, there are schools of thought that start to critique practices such as neuroscience imaging for creating one-dimensional understandings of human frailties, particularly mental health conditions such as depression. The problem with the technologies that create these portraits of the body is that they very often ignore the subjective and social aspects of illness. You seem to have a fascination with these kinds of images. Why are they so attractive to you?

LY: Those images are very objective as there’s no emotion inside them, visually. I use some cartoon images to make some very serious topics not that serious anymore

RM: Vanessa, I remember you spoke about Lu Yang’s practice relating to bioart?

LY: Yes, bioart is very interesting. I like it because this is something related to every living thing no matter whether they are human or animals.

VB: One of the most fascinating elements of your work for me is the way that you exhibit such a strong interest in science, but retain quite a cynical attitude toward it (I’m thinking of Cancer Baby in particular here). In recent years, it has become very fashionable for artists to collaborate with scientists to create works that we describe as ‘interdisciplinary’ or sometimes as ‘bioart’. But you spoke in an interview that you gave with Robin Peckham about bioart in China and the difficulties that you have had in trying to collaborate and crossover with scientists in that context.

LY: We don’t need any background of our country such as our political background…it seems there is not that big a gap between different audiences.

VB: Do you think of yourself as making ‘bioart’? And are you interested in working with scientists in a more formal way?

LY: Of course, making bioart is difficult. It is relative with lots high tech lab resources needed.

VB: Or is it important to you to have a more independent commentary on your subject matter? I’m asking because I know a lot of this kind of work is being made in the UK and Australia under the banner of ‘art-science’ collaboration. I was just wondering how it is in China. Perhaps you are able to take a more radical/playful view of science because you are not making a government-funded project?

LY: If you are in China that means you can’t get some funding from government, no one support you do that and a gallery won’t want to support you to do some work that can’t be sold. All the titles are from outside, given to me, but I only think I’m just a little human, creating something to spend the rest of my time and life. I don’t even think I’m an artist.

RM: “A digital afterlife?”

LY: I really like some experiment from scientists as it’s much more interesting than art. I really want to be one of the but I’m not that smart, and haven’t such patience for it.

VB: I’ve felt that way before as well!

LY: All my more high tech work is not made in China. I either went to some residency program or museums from outside China supported me. I never found any support from government in China.

RM: I am interested in these outside relationships, and how they have influenced your practice? Do you see these collaborations as essential in moving your practice forward?”

LY: Yes. It began with my early work in diagrams and drawings about how to make some strange installations during studying at university. I had no money and no technology to do those works but didn’t want to give up just because I didn’t haven’t support so I made those diagrams at first, sending them to some residency programs. The first place to accept me was Fukuoka Asian Art Museum who found many skilled people help me realise one of those diagrams into the Underwater Frog Leg Ballet.

RM: I remember visiting your studio in Shanghai in 2011 and seeing it then and your obsession with anatomical drawings and medical books.

LY: After this, I attended some other residency that really helped, but the most cool thing is to make work under other cool people’s help.

RM: So has drawing always been important in your practice and in your exhibitions?

LY: The collaboration has really helped my whole art practice. Drawing is a way to show my ideas. It is important because when I can’t make it, I still have a way to tell people my thoughts.

RM: Can we talk about how issues of physical and mental health are very underrepresented, not as discussed or acknowledged in China. The representation of physical and mental health in the media differs in China to other areas of the world. They are “hard to talk about” subjects globally. What is your view on this? Is it harder to discuss these issues in China? Could you be censored? Are your works a way of commenting on this?

LY: I think physical and mental health is difficult to talk about in China, as people do not care about it too much, particularly mental health. People won’t talk about physical health as it is bad luck…dead and disease, those topics too. People think you are being ominous.

RM: So do people think you are doing that through your work when it is shown in china?

LY: In a very natural way I’m very interested in those “bad things”. I think that’s part of life. Some people really hate my works and I get a lot of bad comments under some of online videos of my works. Most people won’t speak face to face about them.

VB: I want to talk more of understanding and interpreting illness and taboo subjects. This question applies to China, but also probably more broadly too. In the work Wrathful King Kong Core you couple together medical imagery
 with a detailed portrait of one of the Buddhist gods of wrath. It uses computer generated images of the brain to give a detailed explanation of where anger and irritation originate, in an attempt to somehow superimpose scientific logic about the origin of emotions onto more ancient (religious) ways of making sense of the world. Medical and spiritual beliefs are at odds in many parts of the world, but I wonder if the battle between ancient and modern wisdom is particularly pronounced in some parts of China? Is this important for you? How does this tension influence your practice?

LY: Most topics in my work are showing the weak way of the human and for human that’s taboo, but in Buddhism that outlook is uncertain as you always have to think about yourself…death and weakness. There is no control.

VB: So by making serious illnesses light and playful in your work, you allude to the fact that we can’t control them? They are just a fact of life!

LY: In this work, I show both a belief in religion and science. Science gives you a lot of proof that you can see through your physical eyes, but religion affects your mind. It’s actually a stupid idea to put those two things together
- how we believe in our physical body versus something we only know in spirit. Even when you have control, it will still be gone…the spirit is gone.

RM: Is all your work in a sense religious or spiritual then?

LY: Not all of them but each of them has some connection between.

RM: Can I ask about Cancer Baby and Uterusman? It seems like you are making the statement that healthcare is a commodity that it can be bought. It is almost a game in China and/or Globally? Is this what you mean?

LY: Uterusman is a Satire of gender, as I think, the human machine is controlled by the soul. I just think I’m a human who is here to use this machine to realize something during my time living in this world. Not all my works are relative with gender. As I said, Cancer Baby is just a metaphor…that people all have disease, and many of them are already dead from it.

VB: Are there any other artists adopting this approach in China who in your opinion are making interesting and innovative work about health issues and science? Who would you say are your peers or influences in this kind of area?

LY: Other artists I don’t know. I think everyone has their own interest area. I like B.F. Skinner, he is my favourite Psychologist as he is experimental. I like Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr too. They are my favourite bio artists. Oh and my favourite game is Athena’s Wrath.

RM: Interesting that your influences are so broad and 
far away from “contemporary art” as such, more in the examination of psychological and digital realities, never human. You are changing your realities all the time…and for audiences.

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