An MRI machine becomes a portal into the fiery pits of hell. Neon gods compete in a Dance Dance Revolution-style battle. A decorated truck drives full speed into the afterlife. This is the strange and stimulating digital universe of Shanghai-based artist Lu Yang. Inspired by the limitless realms of manga and videogames, Lu’s virtual worlds are a pixelated sugar rush of maximalist CGI and fast-paced edits, featuring imagery of gods, demons, and Buddhist iconography. Often set to pulsing, arcade-style music, the artworks interrogate themes of biology, gender and the human body, without taking themselves too seriously.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 46. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
In Digital Descending, Yang’s first-ever solo exhibition, she brings together artworks from across her career, from her 2013 breakout Uterus Man about an asexual superhero who rides a skeletal pelvis chariot, to her 2019 work Delusional Crime and Punishment Wheel, where a goddess 3D prints human beings. Throughout her work, Lu moves – or digitally descends – through several avatars, almost all of which are genderless and modelled on the artist. This includes Doku, made entirely from a high-tech face scan of Lu’s own face. Described as the artist’s digital reincarnation, Doku can be spotted across Lu’s artworks – most notably, in 2015’s Delusion Mandala, where she stimulates her own death on repeat. A dancing Doku even features in The 1975’s music video for their track Playing On My Mind – a fitting cameo considering Lu’s explorations into brain and bodily functions.

Likening the process to a ghost in a shell, Lu uses digital technology to extend her soul beyond its corporal form and into various virtual selves – which are limitless and eternal. It’s by slipping in and out of these digital skins that Lu sets her body (or bodies) free from traditional western ideas of life and death, so that her soul can glide freely across both IRL and URL worlds, experience multiple embodied lives, and rebirth.
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Full look STAFFONLY, shoes PRONOUNCE, jewellery YVMIN.
Your Digital Descending exhibition was on at ARoS Museum. The worlds you created are so vast and rich – is there an overarching idea behind the exhibition?
For Digital Descending, I wanted to show several past works as well as a work with my new avatar Doku. I wanted to explain everything through my avatars, so there’s avatars that stretch back to some of my very early works, and another avatar I created for Electromagnetic Chronology, a virtual faith I created in 2017. The newest work is my Doku series. It’s my own digital avatar, a digital reincarnation, a total copy of myself that I made by scanning my face and all the facial expressions. For Digital Descending, I created my own avatar universe, so that my consciousness can go through each different avatar. That’s why I call it Digital Descending – it’s using the body as a medium.
How do you think your avatars have developed over the years? Are they related to each other in any way?
Each avatar is very different. One of my earliest works is Uterus Man from 2013 about a man with a uterus that uses his powers to attack. The work talks about the satire of gender. For me as a creator, gender isn’t an important label. Then, in Electromagnetic Chronology, I created four gods: fire, earth, air, and water. They’re four elements, with different skills and superpowers from each element. These four elements are actually part of Buddhism, because our body is, given substance through experiencing, those four elements. And when they separate, that’s when we die. Doku is the newest avatar, but I’ve been working on them since 2015. During that time, I was working on the Delusional Mandala which has been exhibited all over the world, many times. The concept in that work is very cruel and taboo. Making the avatar myself made the most sense because there’s a lot of suffering in this work. You have to die many times. In 2020, I upgraded the artwork by scanning 30 branches and I created everything in Unreal Engine.
I’ve been noticing an increasing number of artists and musicians expressing mysticism and spirituality through a technological lens. Technology certainly takes on a role in our everyday lives that’s not too dissimilar to religious worship – the constant pilgrimage back to the feed, the daily prayer of memes, and so on. How would you describe the relationship between your work and spirituality?
The important thing is wisdom. The main idea is the philosophical thinking underpinning it. That’s the most important part of my work. I’m just trying to find the shell. So the ghost is the religion – and, for me, it’s all wisdom. I’m just using game engines and technology to make a shell. The ghost is not limited by time, nation or space. Spirituality is a way to reach the most important parts of the artwork, it’s not just the shell.
It’s interesting that you describe it as a ghost and the shell, which suggests this notion of duality.
Yes, the body and soul. That’s the relationship between everything. I have another work called The Material World Knight. Our material world is the world we live in. So, it’s a container and we are the soul.
I find this in gender, too. Binary notions of man and woman is a very western concept. What I love about your approach to gender, especially with Doku, is that it’s genderless. Do you think it’s possible to use technology to transcend these set ideas of gender?
If you purchase a 3D model from a platform, they don’t have gender organs – they’re just a shell. The only identifying factor is that if it’s a female, it has boobs, and nothing else. If it’s a male, it’s just f lat. In the digital world, it’s just a projection from our desire, our consciousness, and our ideas. But if we were to upload our consciousness into the digital world, it’s not necessary to have those organs. It’s just a visual habit.
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UterusMan , 2013, 3D animation.
I always felt frustrated on online metaverses like IMVU when the default woman comes with these massive breasts – and I can’t relate to that.
It was a funny feeling when I created Doku. It was like a near-death experience. The relationship between me and Doku is a soul standing in front of a physical body – a physical dead body. Or sometimes, I can digitally descend into Doku and develop the world through his eyes. Because Doku has memories inside. I’m transferring the production of my brain into the digital world.
You sometimes refer to Doku as a digital reincarnation. How does that feed into the body-soul dynamic?
My thinking behind Digital Descending is that I could put my God states, my soul, into the different shells that I've created. I think it’s like reincarnating, but you don’t need to die. When I create a work, I can play different avatars, I can try to be like that avatar. Now, the metaverse is a very popular thing, but I think that kind of thing has existed in human history for a very long time. In Asia, you find people who are really happy to create new human beings, avatars. Nowadays, they look more like DC or Marvel, but they previously resembled fairy tales. If you unpack the history, it already exists and hasn’t changed that much.
How would you describe your own relationship to the online?
It’s a difficult one. The Internet has too many layers to say. When I started out as an artist, it was very hard to be social in the art world. I didn’t know how to seek opportunities and I wasn’t very good at communicating with art people. But, early on, I realised that you could apply for residencies online and upload work onto Vimeo. Opportunities came to me that way and it helped me a lot to just focus on creating my work. Obviously, there’s lots of new platforms that have since come out, but, for me, it’s a very simple relationship. It’s just a platform for me to receive information and to show my works.
Have you seen Mamoru Hosoda’s latest film, Belle? It’s about a teenage girl who’s really shy off line, but reaches their true potential inside the film’s metaverse, U.
I’ve seen it, yes! Like in that metaverse, I’m really happy when people come to me and they don’t care where I’m from. They don’t really care, a girl or a boy. I hate those labels in the real world. In society, there are so many labels, or they’ll invite you to a female artist show because you are female, your body is female. I understand if your work is related to feminism or the female, but my work really isn’t. For the internet, I think it’s purer.
What attracted you to videogames and anime – is it the freedom? Nostalgia? What are some of your earliest memories of them?
I came to it naturally. Anime is a very important inspiration in my work. I read manga and watched animations. As a child, I saved up my money and spent it on manga and tried to draw my own stories, too. I think it relates to my work now, because I need avatars, and in manga you have to create those avatars to tell the story.
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Electromagnetic Brainology, 2017. 5 Channel video, 13:34.
Music plays a huge role in your artwork too, especially electronic music such as your ongoing collaboration with Gameface. Obviously, the role of music and OSTs is integral to the videogame experience. How do you feel it contributes to your artwork in particular? What do you like about Gameface’s work and what do you feel it brings to your installations?
Yes, the music is so important because I love to make music videos. Also, a big part of it comes from my childhood. We had these music channels where I’d watch so many videos from Japan. Each musician I connect with in a different way. Gameface just found me and asked if I was up for a collaboration. During that time, I was working on Delusional Crime and Punishment Wheel. That work is very dark. It’s about how we talk about hell, so it fit together well.
I’m interested to know, what motivates you to create these rich worlds?
What I want to do is to present my inner world as much as possible, or to heal it in the process of making my works, to grow and think about it. My unique practice comes from my humanity. As for the outside audience, maybe only those who resonate with my inner world will be attracted to it. This is like a kind of karma.
The lines between art and videogames are becoming increasingly blurred as technology becomes more readily available. Like, in the exhibition, your digital character can gain superpowers, play a range of different roles, and zap across time and space. Where do you see this going in the future? What sort of ways can videogame technology be used in art?
The technology isn’t as strong as we thought. For example, in VR, you can only play low quality games because your computer isn’t fast enough, the resolution isn’t high enough. The headsets are very heavy too, which disrupts the game. Also, people think digital art is easy to do on your own, but you actually need a big team. You need lots of people to help with all aspects of CGI. There's still a very big distance between what we are and what people think we are. We’re not advanced enough.
I feel like we’re seeing an increasing number of artists explore interplay between spirituality and technology in their work. Like, technology becomes a mirror for spirituality. How do you see the relationship between the two?
I always think of technology a tool, and the more technology we develop, the more possibilities we have to choose tools to express spirituality or philosophy. These metaphysical issues have existed throughout human history. I think it’s human nature to explore these issues, and we are in an era where there are more modern tools to use to think about them. In essence, it is still a ghost in a shell. Metaphysical thinking is the ghost, technology is just the shell, but nowadays there are many people who will not see the essence and mistakenly treat the shell as the ghost. The essence of the problem is people and tools. In Buddhism, death and life are on the same side and the other side in Nirvana. In a similar way, the virtual world, the things we create and the physical world are actually not that different.
Where do you see the future going in terms of the metaverse? How do you think we’ll see this manifest in the coming years and the far-future?
The metaverse is nothing new. You played Second Life, right? It was so immersive and now it’s nothing but an economic idea. A lot of people are talking about the metaverse, but have they ever experienced it online? They’re not even gamers.The real metaverse is Sword Art Online, where you wear cat ears and have a neuron-charged computer. It’s a brain computer interface. But for now, VR headsets are too heavy, and laptops aren’t good enough to power games at the quality we need.
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DOKU - LuYang’s digital Reincarnation, 2020-now. Ongoing project a digital avatar on different platform and media.
There’s part of me that thinks the metaverse, at least in the way that Zuckerberg positions it, is Web 2’s final attempt at staying relevant. But I don’t think people are craving that in quite a literal sense. I.e., I don’t think people want to strap an Oculus Quest 2 to their faces and live their lives in a digital reality, rather than IRL. On the flipside, I do think the need to express ourselves digitally via avatars is definitely relevant and increasingly necessary. How do you see this manifesting in the future, both in the art world and more generally?
I think we have the same feelings. In China, the metaverse is already an economic idea. It’s a way for them to make money. But a lot of people are not gamers, they don’t know the technology. They just say, this is something new. But Sword Art Online, that’s the metaverse.
What effect do you feel the pandemic has had on people’s relationship to the virtual? How do you see our relationship with our virtual selves changing?
Covid seems to have let more people into the virtual world. But the concept of metaverse is infinitely exaggerated. In fact, the so-called metaverse in the eyes of us Otaku is an extremely common everyday concept. Before the Covid metaverse, I had imagined that the virtual world would be a freer world, like the anime Sword Art Online. However, now virtual worlds are experienced as a level of reflection on Reality. I think the progress of virtual worlds is down to human subject's minds. Only if our mind is pure, can we morally rise, so the virtual world and the real world will be better. Otherwise, no matter how many parallel virtual worlds are created, the soul projected in these worlds are exactly the same as now, the virtual world and the real world will not be better, they will just create a multi-layered structure of hell. So, I think the virtual and reality are not so binary.
The surrealist imagery in your work feels like it’s been plucked from dreams, or at least, your subconscious. The Doku archetypes really remind of Carl Jung’s archetypes, in relation to the anima and the animus, and the collective consciousness, as a whole.
A lot of people tell me that they think I’m a person who’s very involved in my own self worth. When I crave work, I totally go into my own world. Sometimes I think dreaming and being awake are the same thing. Death and life are the same, too.
How did you begin practising Buddhism?
I started to reach out to Buddhism very early, when I was 3 to 4 years old. My grandmother was Buddhist, and she chanted a lot every day. But my first time really taking it seriously was when I was 10 years old. I read her Buddhist book and found it interesting how Buddhism described heaven and hell. They have a lot of different ways we can reincarnate. For example, you can be an animal, or your past life is a hungry ghost. There's a lot of suffering in these reincarnations, it goes round and round, and every time you can learn something new, but you don't remember anything. It’s a lot of suffering, if you don’t have enough wisdom you are stuck in this loop.
You’ve previously said that art is for pleasure, not politics. Can you explain this?
I just think it’s useless. First of all, I’m Chinese, and in the early years, if an artist does something political, they can be successful abroad. You can see those successful Chinese artists, and they did do those things, and now they’re successful. But I don’t want to limit myself as a Chinese artist. I think I’m just a human or a creator. I want to think of things without boundaries. I’m interested in all living things and human things. I have no interest in political things, but political Chinese artists are just a part ofhistory.
Where do you see humanity 100 years from now?
I think that around 2,500 years ago, we had lots of wise philosophers and spiritualists, but we don’t have that anymore. Maybe it’s the environment in China, but people are more into physical things. They think the most important things are material. If we’re to survive the metaverse, or if new technology comes out, it’s important how we use those tools. Technology is a human, but we must remember that people are the ones using technology.
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The Great Adventure of Material World , 2019. Game programme.
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Electromagnetic Brainology, 2017. 5 Channel video, 13:34.
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Material World Knight, 2018. 3 Channel video, 22:15.
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Material World Knight, 2018. 3 Channel video, 22:15.
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