In the last week, I've been sitting on my couch at night, seeding my nightmares by compulsively rewatching art that could pass for a mad scientist's promotional video in some far cultish reach of the internet. Delusional Mandala is by the Shanghai artist Lu Yang, whose first Seattle show is up at the Interstitial gallery in Georgetown.
Interstitial is accessible only by a narrow set of creaky stairs. This tiny, independent gallery could hardly be farther from the 2015 Venice Biennale, where Lu was the youngest of three artists to represent China. But Interstitial's DIY attic quality only adds to the effect of Delusional Mandala.
It's also perfect for the purposes of a DIY curator surveying a DIY art scene.
Julia Greenway is not credentialed by an institution. But the Seattle curator is able to organize an international survey by focusing on digital art that's instantaneously transferable across vast distances, and because she won a research travel grant from the New Foundation Seattle.
Last year, after closely following Chinese new media art from a distance, "I just went to China"—Hong Kong and Shanghai, specifically—"and networked my little heart out," Greenway told me. Lu is the first of several Chinese artists Greenway hopes to show at Interstitial in an unfolding series.
Greenway is the second independent curator to bring brilliant international new-media artists to Seattle recently: Julia Fryett, creator of the annual festival Black Box, is the other.
Delusional Mandala may have traveled smoothly and instantly across the wires to Seattle, but I picture even the wires being a little freaked out by it. It's cracked and cunning, fun to watch, and destined to reappear in bad dreams. (Literally, for me, last Wednesday.)
In past sculptures and videos, Lu has created a superhero called Uterus Man. Using actual neuroscientific discoveries, she has assumed the role of a scientist probing the brain of an angry god.
Delusional Mandala is Lu's proposal that a more perfectly tuned brain might be able to achieve a state beyond culture and nationality, beyond gender and physicality. But Lu operates right on the frontier between earnest and tongue-in-cheek. There's an intentional madness in her work, a poetic frenzy of idealistic internet-era politics all mixed up with religion, science, technology, and consumerism.
The video begins with a scene of the 32-year-old artist appearing on her computer screen, ready to 3-D-scan herself. A grid of red lights rolls over her skull, penetrating and capturing it for reproduction. A vertical scan rides up through her legs and torso, worming into the tendriled black holes of her lungs, then her meaty heart.
Her 3-D avatar is born, ready to be enlightened/tortured/killed/reborn in a flying hearse.
The avatar has no breasts and no genitalia, is usually bald, and is often cloned. The multiples dance to cheap house music, forming a jerky, goofy trinity. Later, they appear as a triple-headed Hindu deity spinning in space. Lu makes more and more of them, forming mesmerizing mandalas.
A robot voice, translated into English text, describes the neuroscience behind two devices that are used on the avatar. The first is a halo of gold needles stabbed directly into the brain at exactly mapped points. Once the needles hit all the points, the avatar lights up, levels up, and becomes a god.
But the avatar's overstimulated brain hallucinates. We see icons from pre-Renaissance Christian art, from Hinduism (the studded golden halo is like Kali the Destroyer's headdress), from Shingon and Tibetan Buddhism, and also from science fiction, medieval torture, pop culture, Iroquois legend, and medical labs—cutting-edge technology that's minimally invasive but aspires to see all, map all, and manipulate consciousness, not just crude body mechanics.
In interviews, Lu says she doesn't live as a young Chinese woman in China but as someone beyond categories on the internet. What is the role of a physical body for a virtual being? What is the relationship between anatomy and ephemeral thoughts and emotions? Can poking a brain heal feelings? These are actual questions asked by scientists; Lu faces them in digital reinventions.
The avatar's body produces spiritual spin-offs. They achieve a god state but can't rest there, experiencing franticness, pain, and dying. The robot voice clinically describes the difference between body death and brain death as the avatar repeatedly falls through space as if off a tall building, smacking fatally to the ground.
In the scenes that follow the relentless deaths, the avatar's lobotomized smile is unforgettable. It flies by on Lu's multimedia carnival of a hearse.
Lu has transformed herself into something not mortal, not a deity. Her 3-D self is a daemon, maybe, or—more malignant—a demon. She's both creepy/scary and funny, the hearse flapping in the wind while the nightclub beats keep thumping.
For a final, live-action video, Lu made an enormous kite of her head and flew it over an empty field. The video plays in a shrine-like enclosure in the center of Interstitial.
Greenway's planned succession of Chinese new media artists reminds me of Thinking Currents, the terrific Pacific Rim video survey that Afghan-born curator Leeza Ahmady created for last summer's Seattle Art Fair. Gestures like these broaden and diversify art in Seattle; it's great that the New Foundation supported Greenway, though it doesn't look like those fellowships will continue now that the foundation is downsizing.
I asked Greenway to send me a few of the names of other artists she met in China. Get online and watch one of Wong Ping's animations—maybe the story of the impotent man who waits in the bedroom closet while his wife does sex work. Or see Ying Miao's GIFs that are love poems to the websites China censors, products of what she calls her Stockholm syndrome as a prisoner of the Great Firewall.
Whether they will appear at Interstitial is an open question. Greenway is still in talks with artists associated with the School of Creative Media at City University of Hong Kong and the institution Videotage.
But I'm excited.