The Many Lives
Blending ancient and futuristic notions of transcendence with visual signatures from hip-hop, manga, and PC gaming, the videos of Deutsche Bank’s 2022 Artist of the Year, LuYang, play out their quest to find a way out of illusion.
In LuYang’s “DOKU Experience Center” at Palais Populaire and Jon Rafman’s recently closed “Egregores and Grimoires” at Schinkel Pavillon, neighboring Berlin exhibitions presented two digital natives who, despite their obvious similarities, seem to operate as antipodes – like East and West, hero and antihero. Deeply rooted in the culture and visual language of computer gaming, both create immersive, surreal, dystopian scenarios navigated by their own demons in ways sardonic and melancholic, violent and humorous. But while the Montreal-based Rafman (*1981) delves into the darkest basements of the internet’s unconscious and embraces its outdated visual surfaces, the Shanghai-born LuYang (*1984), named Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” for 2022, allows their new hyperreal, gender-neutral avatar, DOKU, to ascend into infinite cosmoses by combining ancient and futuristic concepts of transcendence, from Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, trans- and posthumanism, neuroscience, and virtual reality.
DOKU – whose name is short for dokusho dokushi, a Buddhist sutra that LuYang translates as “You are born alone and you die alone” – appears in six reincarnations: DOKU Animal, DOKU Asura, DOKU Heaven, DOKU Hell, DOKU Human, and DOKU Hungry Ghost. They are introduced like anime-inspired action figurines in the light boxes of “DOKU Six Realms of Reincarnation” (2022) and the psychedelic mandalas of “Bardo #1” (2022), with all their spiritual and technoid attributes on display. In LuYang’s first narrative film, the 3D-animated DOKU the Self (2022), these characters undertake a meditational exercise on what it means to be mortal, a question that previously occupied the artist in works like Delusional Mandala (2015) and Delusional Crime and Punishment (2016). In the new video, which debuted at the 2022 Venice Biennale, a humanoid avatar runs over corpses lying amid rubble, before the avatar themself dies and wakes up on a plane rising into a dark, stormy sky. Watching a series of catastrophes on their in-seat screen – koalas burning in bushfires, a falling atomic bomb, floods – they ponder life and death, reality and virtuality, empathy with the suffering, and the place of the self among humankind, the Earth, and the Universe.
Existing “in infinite entities,” DOKU transforms from one digital reincarnation to the next: shamanic and revenge-seeking, DOKU Hungry Ghost dances over a shattered earth to a thundering techno soundtrack, while DOKU Human runs to escape catastrophe. Like characters reaching the next level of a video game, they embody the realms of heaven, animal, warrior, and hell in extended dance scenes. Towards the end of the video, in order to “break free from the mind trap formed by binary concepts,” DOKU exits the spinning wheel of reincarnation, rises like a rocket into the stratosphere, and splinters into crystalline bits that swirl through the vastness of the Universe. The brain is then dismantled lobe by lobe to cut off all thought and feeling, so that even the nervous system must let go and “stop creating illusion.” But the film loops, and DOKU sits again among scared co-passengers in a plane flying into thunder and disaster – and we alongside them.
LuYang’s cosmos incorporates a vast repertoire of references, from subcultures like hip-hop, Goth street style, and otaku, the Japanese term for fan obsessions with anime and manga, to Buddhist concepts of the six realms of samsara and the karmic wheel of life. In her recent dance videos, LuYang seems to be moving from the spiritual realm to a more worldly, commercial sphere, collaborating with music, fashion, and entertainment figures to develop new product lines for virtual avatars increasingly advertised as “real” people. At Paris Fashion Week, for instance, DOKU appeared in a performance for the Chinese sportswear label Li-Ning and starred in a music video by the British band The 1975. In DOKU Mind Matrix (2022), also on view at the Palais Populaire, the six DOKU avatars have left the wheel of samsara to perform K-Pop in environments inspired by The Matrix (1999), their mythological attributes still visible, but disguised by carefully designed stage outfits. The music is composed by the Chinese musician liiii, who likewise created the soundtrack for DOKU the Self.
At the back of the exhibition, several monitors reveal the highly elaborate processes that transfer human motion from the physical to the virtual world. Modeled after the artist’s face, DOKU is brought to life via high-precision 3D scanners that render the movements of hip-hop acrobats and Balinese dancers. Perhaps it is the optimism toward human and technological capabilities that most distinguishes LuYang’s practice from Rafman’s more archaeological approach to digital evolution and illusion. As fascinating as LuYang’s cosmos is, in its philosophical complexity, technical finesse, and virtual opulence, it appears at times just a bit too slick, too affirmative in its embrace of digital possibilities to transcend the self – whereas Rafman’s rather skeptical take on human-machine relations seems much more closely wired into our hard reality.
EVA SCHARRER is an art historian, curator, writer, and translator based in Berlin.
“DOKU Experience Center”
Palais Populaire, Berlin
10 Sep 2022 – 13 Feb 2023