Last month, through a special preview of her newest photo series, I was able to get a sneak peek at the invigorating and thought-provoking collection that is Cyber Doll. Lean Lui dives deep into the evaluation of AI, its relationship with humans, and its ever-evolving role in society. In this “new experiment”, she gives thought to these factors, comparing this situation to that of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” and the Taoist model of Yin and Yang.
Embodying the character of the cyber doll in the form of a ballet dancer, Lui explores the concealed nature of pain through a veil of pleasure, as beautiful silk pointe shoes hide deformed dancing feet. This dichotomy of pain and pleasure is a recurring theme in this series as we see it portrayed in light and darkness, with bright, elegant balcony photos to shadowed, gritty laboratory photos. Cyber Doll offers an insightful commentary on a societally relevant topic. It presents urgency and borderline panic in a graceful and tasteful manner.
Lean Lui 1.jpg
Thank you for reaching out and spending time to speak with me today about your upcoming photo series, Cyber Doll. How do you feel about this newest project of yours?
Thank you, I am honoured to be interviewed by you. I'm excited, and our team is very pleased with the outcome. Answering your questions has prompted further reflection and discussions, making this one of the most academic interviews I have participated in. It has been a truly insightful experience.
How are you finding Cyber Doll compares to other works that you’ve done in the past?
It has been a while since I worked on a series. My individual pieces often tend to express abstract emotions and atmospheres. However, in this collaboration with stylist Zoe, she believes that "humans created artificial intelligence, and perhaps some highly intelligent beings created humans." She, like a creator, used fashion styling to create a Cyber Doll, using fashion as a language to tell a short story that embodies elements of futuristic nostalgia, desire, and even a hint of eroticism.
The collection depicts the domestication relationship between humans and AI. How do you view this relationship? Where do you see it now and where do you think it will go?
I believe that the relationship between humans and AI is a natural one, which aligns with both Western Darwinian evolution theory of "survival of the fittest" and the Eastern Taoist concept of Yin and Yang. Although they may appear to be opposing forces, they can actually complement and interchange with each other, constantly flowing.
While we are currently in the era of weak AI, I think that technology has already matured, and it is only the ethical and moral concerns that prevent a sudden influx of strong AI. When I was young, I once asked my father why, and he said that if human ethics cannot keep up with technological advancements and are not controlled, the Earth would quickly face destruction, much like Atlantis.
Several of your photos display a ballerina in different positions. Where is the correlation between the themes and message you are sharing and the strong presence of classical ballet attire?
The pink silk ballet shoes of the ballerina conceal a pair of twisted and contorted feet, evoking a sense of both beauty and repulsion, like sugary bombs. This juxtaposition of beauty, pain, and elegance resonates deeply with the core of my artwork. The ballet doll costume designed by Zoe integrates body piercings and restraints, embodying the fusion of pleasure and pain. Foucault's theories on power relations, domination, and submission reveal the subtle power dynamics between humans and artificial intelligence. The cyber doll presented in ballet embodies a submissive posture, transforming the refined ballet into a provocative and subversive experience, becoming a vessel for human desires. It serves as a metaphorical exploration, delving into the complex power relations inherent in human desires and the societal structures that shape them. These visual representations challenge traditional notions and provoke contemplation on the intersection of power, desire, and the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence.
Lean Lui 2.jpg
In addition to the ballet outfit, the model Kimberley Ho also wears a lacy dress and other very revealing clothing that give the entire photo series a very erotic tone. What about domesticating AI exemplifies that of an erotic feeling?
In this artwork, the embodiment of an erotic feeling is approached from the perspective of power and desire.
The erotic feeling in this piece is not solely about traditional notions of sexual love, but rather seen as an expression of emotions and desires. It is presented through the model wearing lace dresses and other revealing clothing, creating a provocative and attention-grabbing atmosphere.
By combining the erotic feeling with the domestication of artificial intelligence, it stimulates reflection on the complexities of desire, power, and the relationship between humans and technology. The erotic feeling is used here as a symbol, representing human desires and dependencies on technology, while also implying the control and influence that technology exerts over us.
The presence of this erotic feeling serves as a reminder to remain vigilant during the process of domesticating artificial intelligence. We should not only acknowledge the convenience and allure of technology, but also be aware of the potential risks and ethical issues it may entail. The presentation of this erotic feeling aims to provoke contemplation among viewers about the delicate relationship between technology, desire, and power, prompting us to reflect on the moral and societal implications of technological advancements.
In summary, this artwork, through the embodiment of an erotic feeling, serves as a reminder for viewers to maintain awareness during the domestication of artificial intelligence. It is reminiscent of an old Chinese saying that translates to "The word desire is like a sharp knife over one's head," highlighting the complexity of human desires and how they can escalate when directed towards seemingly non-conscious AI entities. The inclusion of lace dresses and revealing clothing in certain images aims to evoke a sense of vulnerability and sensuality. It accentuates the intricacies of human desires, including our fascination with artificial intelligence and the blurred boundaries between the physical and the digital. As we navigate the realms of intimacy and desire in an increasingly interconnected world, the underlying eroticism reflects the allure and seductiveness of the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. It is hoped that humans can contemplate the relationship between technology, desire, and power, and consider how to uphold personal and societal values in the development of technology.
Your photos have very different ambiences about them. There are some brighter photos that give a sort of Pride and Prejudice kind of feeling, while there are others that give a grungier, punk feel to its viewers. What do you think about this dichotomy? And does one represent the domestication of humans by AI and vice versa?
The diversity of atmospheres in my artwork is a deliberate artistic choice aimed at exploring different emotions and concepts. The brighter photos carry a Pride and Prejudice kind of atmosphere, conveying elegance, refinement, and a sense of order, but even so, viewers can sense an underlying instability. On the other hand, the darker, punk-style photos present a raw, rebellious, and avant-garde feeling.
This binary opposition serves multiple purposes in my work. Firstly, it allows me to capture and reflect the complexity of human emotions and experiences. By presenting contrasting atmospheres, I can explore different aspects of human existence and the various emotions that reside within us.
Regarding the connection between these atmospheres and the domestication of humans by artificial intelligence, indeed, there is a link. The brighter, more refined atmospheres can symbolise the allure and temptation of a technologically advanced and artificial world. They may represent an idealised vision of harmonious coexistence between humans and AI, where AI provides comfort, convenience, and a sense of order to our lives.
On the other hand, the darker, punk-style atmospheres can represent resistance, rebellion, and unpredictability that arise in an increasingly AI-dependent context. They may symbolise the efforts to maintain individuality, autonomy, and freedom within a world shaped by artificial intelligence.
Ultimately, this binary opposition represents the complex dynamic relationship between humans and artificial intelligence, raising questions about dependency and independence, control and freedom, and the impact of AI on our human experience.
The photos in this collection overall carry a very futuristic tone - it’s almost like a cross between Cyberpunk and Alice in Wonderland. Where did you find inspiration for Cyber Doll? And in general, where do you tend to find inspiration for your work?
The core of my work remains centred around a sense of girlhood. You will often find elements of girls and children in my artwork, such as bows, dolls, princess dresses, and lace. The content of my work tends to lean towards either philosophical or emo themes, and it is the contrast between these themes that adds tension to the pieces.
The inspiration for Cyber Doll came from a conversation among the three of us: myself, Zoe, and Kim. That day, we discussed various ideas about AI and coincidentally envisioned the character of a cyber doll. From that moment, we decided to bring this project to life.
As for the sources of my creative inspiration, it can be divided into two aspects: internal and external. Internally, it comes from my own fantasies, meditation, and contemplation. Externally, it is derived from life experiences, discussions with others, and exposure to other exceptional artworks.
What is your relationship with AI? Do you use it in your daily life?
My current relationship with AI is quite positive, as it has been a great help to me in various tasks, such as handling tedious paperwork and generating reports. I consider AI to be a valuable productivity tool.
I am particularly looking forward to the emergence of robot companions because I have a preference for emotional cleanliness.
Lean Lui 9.jpg
Cyber Doll features 3 main locations - a glass dining table, the floor in front of a dresser, and a balcony. How does the environment influence the composition and meaning of the photos? And how did you choose these places to shoot; what are their significance?
The glass dining table, the AI in the laboratory incubator, and the hand wearing leather gloves representing the human form a BDSM-like relationship between humans and AI, full of both pain and pleasure. In such a relationship, when it becomes uncontrollable, is there a safe word?
The floor in front of the dressing table is a private space, where desires are easily released, representing the most intimate and yet the darkest place.
The balcony carries a bourgeoisie atmosphere, pointing to the concept of class within AI.
You enjoy creating universes through your photography. Does Cyber Doll fit into a larger utopia that you’ve been forming or are starting to form? How does it compare to other works you’ve done?
Yes, I haven't previously delved into works that discuss the future and technology. This is considered a new experiment for me, as it expands the boundaries of the utopia in my mind and places it closer to the realm of having a robot boyfriend.
You’ve done a lot of work with Vogue, Dior, and other big brand magazines. Not only that, you’ve done many exhibitions, you’ve published a photo book, and you’ve done commercial work. Part of your forte is finding a bridge and mix between Eastern and Western cultures. How have you been able to do this through a multitude of different platforms? And how does it differ when you are working with a big brand as opposed to working on your own work?
Thank you for acknowledging my diverse work across different platforms.
It is influenced by my upbringing and experiences. My father was a teacher of Taoism and the I Ching, but I entered the artistic world through Western philosophy. I have also lived and studied in both Eastern and Western contexts, and Hong Kong, where I have resided for a long time, is a place where Eastern and Western cultures converge. All these factors have allowed me to incorporate elements from both cultures into my work, creating a harmonious fusion.
When collaborating with major brands, there is typically a process of cooperation involved. I align my artistic vision with the brand's image and message. This entails finding a balance between the brand's creative guidelines and my artistic voice, ensuring that the final presentation embodies the essence of both parties. This collaborative nature adds complexity and challenges, requiring effective communication and negotiation to achieve a shared vision.
On the other hand, when working on personal projects, I have more freedom to explore my artistic ideas and concepts. This allows me to delve deeper into my cultural heritage and personal perspective, breaking boundaries and experimenting with different artistic approaches. This autonomy provides me with the opportunity to fully express my artistic voice and engage in more introspective and profound explorations.
We have interviewed several alumni of Central Saint Martins, an elite art school in London. You yourself graduated with a Masters in Contemporary Photography from CSM, and you, like the other alumni we’ve been in contact with, have done amazing work with large brands as well as creating a name for themselves through their own exhibitions. What is it about CSM that helps guide and form exemplary artists? And what was your experience like there?
Thank you once again for your recognition. Prior to entering CSM, I had already gained experience collaborating with major brands and holding numerous personal exhibitions. I started pursuing fine art photography at the age of sixteen, and my first photography book <19.29>, was selected for the prestigious Three Shadows Photography Award in fine art photography. Subsequently, I was fortunate to be appreciated by some brands and curators, and all of this happened during my university years in Hong Kong.
In comparison to the achievements in commercial or professional endeavours, CSM provided me with a platform to connect with different young artists and engage in pure academic discussions. I believe that personal initiative plays a significant role in progress. I pursued my MA degree at CSM, and on average, I would only see my teachers twice a week. The rest of the time, I had the opportunity to explore workshops and libraries. I practically lived there. I vividly remember a staff member named Daniel Keys in the photography studio. He had a punk appearance but was incredibly gentle in character. He had a great affinity for Japanese photographers and was always willing to lend a helping hand. We often found ourselves engrossed in conversations that lasted for hours.
Lean Lui 4.jpg
Lean Lui 5.jpg
Lean Lui 6.jpg
Lean Lui 7.jpg
Lean Lui 8.jpg